Why the bottom has dropped out of the antiques market
Shops selling furniture that has passed the century mark—the generally accepted definition of an antique—are closing on both sides of the Atlantic. Fulham Road in London used to have so many stores selling old wood furniture that it was known as the “brown mile”. Today all but three have closed. Bermondsey Market and Portobello Road, two other well-known stomping grounds for antique-hunters, are suffering, too. Last year Kentshire Galleries, a long-established antiques firm in New York City, sold its eight-storey gallery downtown and put its furniture up for auction at Sotheby’s. The owners, the third generation to run the business, have decided to move out of antique furniture and focus on fine jewellery instead. Bonham’s, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, three big auction houses, have all cut back on antique furniture to focus on what they see now as bigger moneymakers: contemporary art, jewellery and wine.
High rent is one problem for antique-sellers. But the other, much bigger issue is falling demand. Buyers are much less interested in antiques than they were even a decade ago. As a result prices for many different types, especially mid-range “brown furniture”, have slumped by as much as half. Nineteenth-century chairs can be cheaper than equivalents from stores such as Restoration Hardware or bespoke reproductions, says Daniel Stein, a former lawyer who sells antiques in San Francisco. But even lower prices have not drawn buyers back in. “Do I think antiques are going to come back?” asks Mr Stein. “Not in my lifetime.”
The desire to live in the presence of history has ebbed and flowed. In ancient Rome the elite sought out Greek bronzes, sculptures and vases; some cunning merchants tried to make new ones look older and boost their price. Collecting antiquities was also popular with the aristocracy during the Renaissance, and became even more so when young upper-class European men started to do the Grand Tour in the late 17th century. As they travelled across the continent many built up collections of antiques. “I am far gone in medals, lamps, idols, prints, etc.,” wrote Horace Walpole, the son of Robert Walpole, at the time Britain’s prime minister, in a letter home from Rome in 1740; “I would buy the Coliseum if I could.”
Antique furniture went mainstream in Europe in the second half of the 19th century, as the bourgeoisie found themselves with more disposable income and developed a desire to invest in their homes. The antique trade boomed in Paris and London. By 1890 Paris had 300 antique shops, up from 25 around 1850, says Manuel Charpy, a historian. But antiques, like clothes, go in and out of style. They boomed again in the 1950s and 1980s, when “period rooms” in a single nostalgic style were all the rage.
For a long time antique-buyers believed that scarcity meant that the value of old furniture would rise, or at least hold steady. They perhaps underestimated the capriciousness of taste. Today fashionable homes look like hotels: pale sofas, soft rugs, stark lines. Their owners prize comfort more than age. Home magazines and interior decorators drive trends in architecture and art. Many successful decorators sell furniture lines, and therefore have a financial incentive to suggest new items. Appreciating antiques, and knowing what to buy and at what price, takes study and training that few people have.
Dealers complain that time-pressed young buyers show little interest in past eras. Television programmes such as “Antiques Roadshow”, where octogenarians find out how much the contents of their attics are worth, reinforce the perception that antiques are for oldies. Modern living means some items of furniture have lost their usefulness. Armoires, which used to be pressed into service as a place to hide televisions, are little use now that flat-screens can be hung on walls. Large items do not appeal to owners of small homes, especially apartments. Simon Myers, an English dealer based in Yorkshire who is the fourth generation to run his firm, says he used to stock lots of dining tables and chairs but no longer does, because young people do not entertain as they used to, and many do not have dining rooms. People do not want period rooms, no matter how much money they have, says Bunny Williams, an American interior designer. “Everyone lives a more casual life.”
Me old China
The antiques that still sell well are original, one-off items that convey a sense of character. The top tier has held up best. Nicolas Kugel, a Parisian dealer, has a gallery on the Left Bank facing the Seine, on the same side of the street as the Musée d’Orsay. Tourists are unlikely to chance upon its unmarked entrance, but elite buyers know where it is. Inside it looks like a palace transformed into a museum, with everything for sale. No prices are displayed. Mr Kugel says that his clients, who come from all over the world, are still buying. They see antiques “as an undervalued piece of art”.
High-end antiques may be crafted as carefully as fine artworks, and priced as steeply, but buyers may not enjoy the same social pay-off. According to Benjamin Steinitz, a Parisian dealer in fine antiques: “If you have a Picasso or Jeff Koons everyone knows what it is and that you’re a success. If you have a lovely André-Charles Boulle desk, people may think you have the taste of your grandmother.” Mr Steinitz in fact has a desk attributed to Boulle, who crafted furniture for Louis XIV at Versailles, for sale for €6m ($6.4m). Few people, if they saw it in a home, would recognise its rarity and value.
Mid-range antiques have been squeezed especially hard because there is so much supply and diminished demand. Companies used to buy antiques for their offices, but today favour a modern look. Mr Stein, the San Francisco dealer, says that when he started out he had doctors and lawyers as customers. “The business I do now is almost exclusively with the one-tenth of one percent of people. It’s not because my stuff is so expensive. It is because the middle market is gone.”
“Mad Men” has helped push the slick, minimalist aesthetic of mid-century modern furniture into the mainstream
Baby-boomers are downsizing, while their own parents are dying and leaving them their old furniture. But their own children have no interest in it. Many of those who go to antique shows are not looking to buy, but to gauge how much their own antiques are worth. Some have shifted to mid-century modern furniture. “Mad Men”, a television show, has helped push that era’s slick, minimalist aesthetic into the mainstream, says David Rosenblatt, the boss of 1stdibs, an online marketplace for antique and vintage furniture. Prices for mid-century designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Paul Evans and Jean-Michel Frank have soared. A pair of small Frank tables were recently spotted in New York with an asking price of around $400,000. Ken Bolan, who used to sell antiques in London but has switched to mid-century furniture, says prices have quadrupled in the past decade. Antique dealers scoff that mid-century is bound to go out of fashion. Prices do feel bubbly, given that much of it was mass-produced.
Chinese antiques are a rare bright spot. After decades in which celebration of their nation’s cultural heritage was suppressed, well-heeled Chinese customers are now snapping up pieces that connect them with their past, almost always buying them back from Westerners. Prices for the best pieces of Chinese furniture are at least ten times higher than a decade ago, says Nick Wilson, a China specialist at Christie’s, and furniture has risen more than any category of Chinese art in the past five years. Demand for tables and chairs made ofzitan and huanghuali, two rare woods, is especially strong.
Online, no one knows you’re a Boulle
Many of the companies that are struggling are family businesses, where each generation did an apprenticeship before taking over. Most of those who survive own their own premises, insulating them from rising rent. The antiques trade requires a lot of space for storage and retail: an item may have to be held for a decade before the right buyer comes along.
Dealers used to bring a good eye and even better connections. They would drive to estates their customers did not know about to inspect pieces and drive hard bargains. But, as in so many sectors, the internet has lessened the role of intermediaries. The average distance between buyers and sellers using 1stdibs is around 2,100 miles. Some dealers are trying to survive by closing their shops, offering viewings by appointment only and selling exclusively online. But hundreds of auctions take place every month on sites such as Bidsquare, Invaluable and LiveAuctioneers, and you do not need to be a professional to take part.
It can be harder for customers to spot true quality online—and fraudsters find it easier to flourish. But buyers who take care should be able to find tremendous bargains. Items in good condition from a given era will only become rarer as time progresses—and may come back in style. Colin Stair, who runs an auction house in Hudson, New York, hopes that today’s youngsters, who are much more socially conscious, will wake up to the appeal of buying something that exists already and is handcrafted from high-quality wood, rather than something that requires a new tree to be cut down and may have been manufactured in poor working conditions.
Social justice has not traditionally been one of antiques’ selling points, but trends and thinking change from generation to generation—as dealers know well. It would be a shame if people did not find their way back to objects that embody past tastes and times. Antiques remind us of who we are and where we have been.