Terminology III: How Old Is It?

Stradivarius violin
gold pocket watch

In the world of collecting, like in anything else, there’s a language used by insiders. From video gamers to traders in the stock market, talking the talk is half the battle. Whether collecting is your hobby or your profession, knowing how to navigate “collector speak” is a useful tool of the trade.

Lately, I’ve been blogging about terminology like “antique” and “rare.” Here, I’d like to de-mystify the use of “century” and time lines.

Referring to what century something is from, can be a bit confusing. Wikipedia defines century as follows:

According to the Gregorian calendar, the 1st century AD started on January 1, 1 and ended on December 31, 100. The 2nd century started at year 101, the third at 201, etc. The n-th century will start on the year 100×n – 99. A century will only include one year, the centennial year, that starts with the century’s number (e.g. 1900 is in the 19th century).

The collector’s rule of thumb goes like this. When referring to the century an item is from, you round up to the next hundred-year mark. If an item is from 1840, it is an item of the 19th century. A Stradivarius violin can only be 17th or 18th century, since they were only produced from 1690 to 1720. If an artwork is from the Renaissance period, dated 1550, it is a 16th century collectible. Though it was made in the 1500’s, technically, the item is from the 16th century. Why?

Well, if a coin was dated 50 AD, it would be from the 1st century AD, since it was in fact produced during the first one hundred years AD. If it was produced in the year 170 AD, it would be from the 2nd century AD. There’s no such thing as the zero-th century.

We count centuries in this way. The date of an item is expressed as the exact year, but the way of referring to its century is done in a “rounded up” fashion. We’re currently living in the 21st century, you likely live in a building built in the 20th century, and may drive a car from the 20th or 21st centuries. Your favorite records and movies probably date from the 20th century, but your favorite websites are likely 21st century creations.