If the Bay Area had a full-blown Mardi Gras and a King of Antiques, Steven W. Yvaska would probably win because of his 50-year involvement with the local antique world. He has taught classes on the subject, become a collector, lectures to groups and has written articles for the San Jose Mercury News as the resident writer on the subject. There is no dividing line between his world and the world of antiques.
His classes illustrate how the relationship between him and his students actually works. The class starts with a “chat” about what is going on in their lives until Steve checks to see if everyone is present. Each class has a theme (china, crystal, etc.) and so he starts with a history of an antique he’s holding. Then his assistant shows a video of an antique which each student brings to class as an example of the theme. Steve gives a history of its genre and details about collecting it. This offers a rich and colorful approach to period pieces.
Does this sound stuffy? It is more like participating in a fun, and sometimes touching party. Students share the how and why of their acquired items. Steve gives particulars from his lifelong study of antiques, and then there is a free-for-all among all the students.
The party spirit continues. Students share food, stories about their lives and why they love their antiques. There is a poignant atmosphere to this class, too. Steve has announced that this may be his last class. He says sadly about his degenerative disease, “My body is gone. Only my mind stays the same.”
How did this man fill that with a love of antiques?
“My mother started it because every week she made me polish the family silver from an early age,” Steve laughs. “At first I didn’t like it and then gradually I started to admire the lines and beauty of all that old silver. She and my grandmother had some lovely antiques that nobody wanted when they died. The rest of the family told me to take them, so I did and that was the beginning of my own collections.”
Until the age of 9 Steve lived in Brookline, Mass. Then the family moved to New York.
He graduated from San Jose State University. For graduate work he earned a master’s degree in Decorative Arts from the University of Syracuse. Locally he has taken courses at Santa Clara University and the University of the Pacific.
“Of course, my real education in antiques began after my formal education ended,” he laughs.
Steve has given presentations on antiques to club members all around the Bay Area. He is a well-received lecturer because of his warmth, humor and practicality.
I went to one lecture and this is how he started: “Ladies, do you remember carefully picking out your silver, china and crystal patterns when you got married?” Almost all the hands went up. Then he asked, “Did you plan to leave it all in your will to your children?
Again, almost all the hands went up. “Don’t be disappointed if they tell you they don’t want it because they won’t be able to put it in the dishwasher.”
Then he followed up with other parts of his basic philosophy of antiques: “Lots of people store away their antiques to save them. I think you should put them in accessible places so that you can look at them and use them. Enjoy them while you can. That’s half the fun.”
Steve also advises gifting antiques to family and friends. If a person admires an object in your house, why not give it to them right then instead of leaving it in your will? If they do want to wait, be sure to leave written instructions so that they will get the item.
What about viewing your collection as an investment? For example, we asked, “Are there many fakes?” Everyone in the class laughed so I guess this is a common hazard. Another problem is that there are always different trends in what is really collectible. Currently, Steve says, the following are in high demand: jewel colors, pink glass and war items.
Steve wrote a column about antiques for the San Jose Mercury News for more than 20 years. It contained facts and pictures of antiques from a wide variety of ages and places. We asked Steve what he thought the main value of his columns was and he said, “I think the main value of my columns lay in the announcements of antique sales, fairs and lectures and their times and venues. It brought people together to learn about antiques. It helped people to learn about antiques and to share this interest with others.
Steve also advises people not to pay exorbitant prices for their antiques.
“I think the most people should spend is in the $50 to $75 range,” he says. “The important thing is to love what you collect. You need to be proud of it.”
Does he have a collection? Yes. He has been collecting Halloween postcards since he was 9 years old.
“The first one showed Felix the Cat and I fell in love with it,” Steve says. “Then one summer when I was away at college, my mother decided to clean out my room and threw out my collection. I was devastated.”
He went back to rebuilding the spirit of the true collection, and today has 2,300 Halloween postcards.
This love of antiques and its attendant activities have resulted in a fabulous and widespread network of friends. During this long illness his friends bring him food and keep him company while he continues to advise them on their antique purchases.
Then I asked the inevitable question. What do you think of “Antiques Roadshow?”
“I recommend it to my students so that it will increase their knowledge,” Steve says, “but I don’t appreciate its upscale format. It’s designed for wealthy collectors making very expensive purchases. These sales are out of the question for the average and typical antique enthusiast.”
After a small silence, a friend of Steve’s looked at me with a smile and confided, “Of course he watches it faithfully every week.”