The Pursuit of Imperfection: Why Some People Collect Broken Antiques

"Make-do" repairs tell you about an item's owner, use, and times. 

Here's yet another subculture that's found a space for itself online: people who obsessively collect antiques with inventive repairs, also known as “make-do” repairs. “Until I blew the lid off their cover, they hovered below the radar,” says Andrew Baseman, a set designer for TV and film whose blog Past Imperfect: The Art of Inventive Repair reports on chipped and cracked household items that were put back together with intricate, jerry-rigged apparatus, long before the invention of Krazy Glue. “Make dos” are anathama to traditional antiques collectors, who want only pristine items—not the well-used stuff relegated to the bargain shelves with the lewd swizzle sticks, novelty ashtrays, and other déclassé knick-knacks.

Past Imperfect, which launched in 2010, is the platform for Baseman’s mission to save these orphaned, misshapen objects and give them the respect they deserve. He dissects and analyzes artifacts following an interest that began during childhood. His parents collected, and eventually dealt in, antiques, and “as far as I knew, everyone grew up with antiques,” he says. But even at an early age, his taste was more Addams Family than Brady Bunch. Now, he believes “it is my duty to rescue these plucky survivors, some lingering in limbo for hundreds of years of neglect. I make it sound like I run an adoption agency on the Island of Misfit Toys, which is fine with me.”

He's on the prowl for anything with unconventional, even absurd, repairs. “But I am most passionate about items with multiple repairs, showing a true lust for survival,” he says. “I also like pieces with the most incongruous repairs, such as an elegant porcelain teapot bound in tin support straps and held together with a dozen iron staples. Throw in a replacement silver spout and rattan wrapped handle and I’m in make-do heaven. I just love the mix of materials and appreciate the determination the original owner must have had in restoring the teapot, even if the end result was less than 'perfect.'"

Until a few weeks ago, Baseman was an expert pundit but not an actual fixer-upper. Then he attended a workshop outside of Albany, where he was taught how tinkers fabricated replacement handles, spouts, and lids. “My maternal great grandfather was a tinker in Philadelphia in the early 1900s,” Baseman says. “I inherited what I believe is his only surviving object: a brass shoe horn fashioned in the shape of a lady’s leg wearing a dainty shoe. So maybe along with the shoe horn, I also inherited his interest in tinkering.” At the workshop he successfully fixed a mochaware jug with a missing a handle, replacing it with a tin one using 19th century tools.

What inspires this affection for “imperfect repair” is complicated: “I own a Chinese porcelain cream jug with a replaced silver handle,” he says. “The use of a precious material such as silver suggests the owner was wealthy, but rather than use a new piece of silver, which would have been a ‘perfect repair’, the silversmith repurposed a broken silver spoon. I find this type of creative repair much more interesting than a more standard one. And if I saw an intact cream jug in a shop in ‘perfect’ condition with no repairs at all, I would walk right by and not give it a second glance.”

The less practical the repair, for Baseman, the better. “I have two small porcelain teapots, purchased separately, that were repaired in the Middle East. Each one has numerous metal staples, metal bands and supports, string and wire tethering the lids to the pots, a large metal patch made from a commercial tin with bold graphics, and ceramic replaced chips made from other pieces. One might think ‘why did they bother? There’s more repair pieces than the actual teapot’. But I am thrilled that whoever owned the pots had the foresight to have them repaired, even if the final product is a shadow of what the originals once were.”

Some repairs are pure surrealism, as is the case with this vintage porcelain doll all trussed up with ace bandage. I wondered to Baseman if it is deliberately weird. “Aesthetics were not that important,” he says, noting the porcelain doll taped to a clothespin represents a brilliant and effective way to quickly make a toy out of a broken household item, in this case a damaged broom handle. “If a similar object broke today, most people would throw it out and go to buy a new one.”

Whether or not “make-dos” are an art, craft, or some hybrid depends on who you ask. Basemen says that repairing broken objects is a craft but some of the more fanciful repairs, like the surreal doll, are unintentionally artful. The one thing, however, a “make-do” is not is anything repaired with Krazy Glue. That’s for Philistines and art dealers.