Story: Paulette Pearson | Styling: Mandy Keener |
Sporting a cane may no longer be mainstream, but a select few still have enough panache to get away with it. Davis Tillman, owner of Tillman’s Antiques in Hot Springs, is one of the select few. The antiquarian began his cane collection more than 30 years ago, and has been known to don one on special occasions. “Every now and again, yes I do carry one,” he says, smiling. “I like to be a little over the top.”
For centuries, canes have served as accessories for men, often denoting power. In Rome, they were marked with eagles, while Egyptian styles featured lotus blossoms. In Asia, they also represented good fortune, and African chiefs and kings carried staffs carved from wood. “In almost every continent and culture, canes have been symbols of power and position,” Tillman says.
By the 1700s, in England, carrying a cane even required a special license, as well as adherence to certain rules that forbade leaning on or swinging a cane, carrying it on your arm or hanging it on a button, table or chair. “There were rules,” Tillman explains, “and if you broke them your license would be revoked.” Cane use was considered a privilege reserved only for a certain class of people, he adds, and the infirm merely carried “walking sticks.”
As they became more ornate, cane tops showcased intricate carvings and materials like bone, ivory, porcelain, gold, jade or even precious stones, while the staff featured ebony, bamboo and hardwood. The ability to distinguish between bone and ivory is important, notes Tillman: “Ivory grows in two different directions, creating a fish scale effect, while bone always grows sinuously in one direction.” Likewise, hallmarks on sterling silver pieces can help determine their age and place of origin.
Canes were made with function in mind as well. During the 1800s, some were designed to hold swords and pistols, many contained vials of liquor during prohibition, others housed compasses, and still others folded into small seats for horse racing and outdoor activities. Tillman advises collectors to be wary of staffs with unoriginal cane tops, which includes mounting a pocket watch to a staff with hopes of increasing its value. “It’s a marriage of convenience,” Tillman laughs. “Either move on or buy it strictly for its aesthetics.”
Tillman’s collection is a cross-section of styles from around the world—South America, China, Indonesia, England, the United States and more. One was a gift from his father and belonged to a Supreme Court justice, another is an elk horn fist and baton from China, another is a carved bulldog’s head that holds coins and his most beloved is a Faberge design from his wife. Next on the list are designs by Tiffany & Co. and Cartier. However, anything unusual is likely to have a place in Tillman’s collection, which he keeps by the front door to grab on a whim.
“Some people are minimalists all of their lives, and some are collectors,” Tillman notes. “I started very young and decided early on that I wouldn’t buy anything unless I could live with it my whole life.”
Tillman’s Beginner’s Guide for Collecting Canes
1. Set a budget—canes can become intoxicating. Depending on the materials and the level of detail, you can expect to pay about $250-300 for an authentic antique cane with unique features.
2. Decide what look you want for your collection, such as a theme or similar materials used.
3. Inspect the cane before purchase to assure that it’s not a marriage of two pieces. Tillman says common ploys are to add an additional antique, like a pocket watch or even a pair of opera glasses.
4. In addition to materials used, also consider the artistic quality. For example, intricate carvings can add value.
5. Make sure you consult with a reputable dealer who will stand behind the product.
6. While canes can be found at garage sales and flea markets, Tillman says, “if you want to create a good collection, look a little bit further.” He has had success in finding canes while traveling abroad, working with dealers and searching online.