Pictured: two views of a Massachusetts chest (joined oak with maple and cedar) from c. 1690. A buyer at Sotheby's paid $50,000 for the chest in January 2010, but in coming years, our author forecasts, only "the most determined collectors" will seek out Pilgrim Century pieces. [Photos courtesy of Sotheby's]
Where is the antiques market headed, and why? A longtime Antiques Roadshow appraiser gazes into his crystal ball --- and shares the view.
- By J. Michael Flanigan
After going through your fourth or fifth economic recession, the thought no doubt has crept into your head: you'd sure like a little less experience with these things.
I can state that during the depths of multiple recessions, I was buoyed by those older than myself who offered sage advice: This too shall pass --- and the market will come back even stronger, with new record prices in every collecting field.
While that may have been true recently, anyone who said those words in 1931 had to wait more than 25 years to enjoy the "comeback."
Examining old auction catalogs and ads reminds me that the collecting world that survived the Great Depression, emerged after World War II, and flourished spectacularly over the past 40 years was actually much different than the one that preceded it. Will the current recession have the same effect? And if so, what will emerge out of it?
Not everything moves forward; some things get left behind.
The earliest collectors of antiques were in many ways rebelling against the Industrial Revolution, so everything pre-Industrial was in one basket and everything else in the other. Collectors and sellers tended to draw the line around the 1830s, which meant that all those mid-19th-century Belter and Meeks sofas were on the wrong side while the pillar and scroll style was okay.
In rebelling against the Industrial Revolution, early collectors of antiques favored pre-1830s pieces, so they were drawn to the pillar and scroll look. Pictured: a New England classical diminutive mahogany sofa that typifies the pillar and scroll style. Northeast Auctions sold this c. 1840 piece for $2,340 in October 2008. [Photo courtesy of Northeast Auctions]
The late Harold Sack, a preeminent dealer of American period furniture right up until his death in 2000, used to illustrate how relative values have changed by showing an auction catalog from the 1920s. He'd point out that a good Empire worktable sold for the same few hundred dollars as a good Philadelphia Chippendale card table with cabriole legs and ball and claw feet. Today, all things being equal, the card table would sell for at least 10 times more than the worktable.
After WWII, Queen Anne and Chippendale reigned supreme, and not only did Empire pieces fall back in value, but so too did the Pilgrim Century pieces of 1620-1720. It wasn't until after the great exhibition "New England Begins" in 1982 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that collectors bid up the best pieces to heights not seen since Wallace Nutting [1861-1941] was alive.
By now, with few truly great pieces left in the marketplace, it's hard to see this period keeping a grip on any but the most determined collectors, much less someone wanting to furnish a house in the Pilgrim style.
This triple-back Belter sofa sold for $18,700 at Stevens Auctions in Aberdeen, Miss., in January 2008. [Photo courtesy of Stevens Auctions]
PAST TIMES BEHIND
After the Depression, Empire furniture didn't become fashionable again till Jackie Kennedy decided to redecorate the White House with it. But today, average Empire pieces are lagging far behind the market and, as the recession lingers, are falling even further behind. At this point, I don't know what it would take to rekindle interest in these antiques, even as inexpensive home furniture pieces.
Photos of American homes from 100 years ago show that even among wealthy collectors, not every bedroom had its own bath. Those washstand-and-basin sets aren't there just for decoration, and chamber pots were quite practical where there were more servants than toilets. Prices on these pieces have been fading for years; the recession just might finish them off.
Silver flatware, too, has been taking a beating for years. We just don't want to polish it, and we're afraid to put it in the dishwasher, so we put it away for most of its life, taking it out only on special occasions. Like gold, silver once was viewed as a hedge against inflation. Now it seems like too much work.
My grandmother started buying silver flatware for her granddaughters almost as soon as they were born. When my aunt, her daughter, died about a year ago, her granddaughter delivered a eulogy in which she remembered receiving silver flatware as Christmas presents when she really wanted dolls. She loved her grandmother, but an interest in silver wasn't in her future, then or now.
Silver doesn't wear out, so even if they never make another set of King's pattern flatware I don't foresee a shortage or price spike beyond the melt value in my lifetime.
Are collectors washing their hands of classic pieces like this one? Our correspondent laments such a trend. Pictured: a Hepplewhite washstand, without basin, dating to the 19th century. Made of mahogany and oak, the 41.5-inch-high piece has been refinished and shows veneer splits and damage. It fetched $382 at Garth's in 2008. [Photo courtesy of Garth's]
FOR ART'S SAKE
How many people remember a print of Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy or Thomas Lawrence's Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie in their grandparent's home? In the 1920s, people were mad for portraits of men in knee britches and powdered wigs and ladies in diaphanous gowns. Go figure.
Today if it's not a portrait of a founding father or a young woman with a child, the market turns up its nose. There's a reverse sort of snobbery at work; people don't want to appear pretentious by seeming to claim kinship with dead white men and their spouses.
On the other hand, people feel perfectly content to hang folk portraits on their walls with no hint at pretension --- even though the subject of the painting had all the same aspirations and pretense as the people who sat for Gainsborough, John Singleton Copley, or John Singer Sargent for that matter.
I suspect people will come to view most portraits from the past 200 years of both the academic and folk variety as pretentious, and the prices --- which have fallen for all but the best of these --- will continue downward.
Today "the 400" is named by Forbes magazine, not by Mrs. Astor, that social arbiter of New York in the late 19th century. Hence we're more likely to try and impress our neighbors by a photo of ourselves lounging with a rock star on the beach at St. Kitts than with a portrait of a long dead noble ancestor who probably forced your neighbor's ancestors off their land and into steerage to America.
THE DECORATING DEALER
Prior to the Great Depression, many antiques dealers did double duty as interior decorators and had full shops for fabricating drapes, upholstery, and new furniture. The new money of the 1920s took the idea that "every man's home is his castle" literally and had dealers supply antiques where available and, when they couldn't, fabricate new pieces with the same look.
In 1977, I went to work for a shop that had been started in 1900. Originally it sold antiques, made new furniture and repaired old, did upholstery work and draperies, and offered seasonal changeovers of houses, switching out rugs, slipcovers, and drapes from summer to winter and back. (Yes, people actually had two sets of these things --- at least the rich did.)
The shop's new furniture construction stopped during the Depression; the drapes and upholstery work stopped in the 1960s; and the antiques offered for sale became mainly furniture by the 1970s.
Gainsborough's The Blue Boy and Lawrence's Pinkie reflect an earlier era's preference in art.
By then, antiques dealers were getting away from the idea of serving as "design department stores" and instead were becoming specialists in an area or two. As dealer's inventories got smaller and expertise more focused, consumers could no longer do one-stop shopping for their antiques needs.
Auction houses have done a great job of filling that gap with an ever-changing and expanding inventory to take care of our antique and decorating needs. And certainly the rise of the auction house as the "modern antique department store" will survive this recession, and the decorator will certainly thrive as the style gatekeeper.
Meanwhile, the role of the dealer will, I believe, continue to shrink in much the same way that the stockbroker has given way to the mutual fund. The ability to buy and hold large amounts of inventory has become a thing of the past. Instead, an increasing number of antiques dealers do more brokering and advising than buying and selling of inventory.
In the areas of folk art and Mid-Century Modern, I still hear of a dealer doing a house for a client and maybe that will continue, but I expect dealers in these areas will find the pressures of the recession and the cost of inventory are forcing them to become advisors and or decorators.
Like any other type of retailer, antiques dealers found themselves with inventory that cost them more than what they can earn by selling it for in the current market.
THE ROAD AHEAD
So... what will this brave new world look like?
Is antique silver flatware simply too much work to merit collector attention? This near-complete set of Dominick and Haff flatware in the King's pattern did sell for $2,310 at iGavel.com in 2009, but generally, the silver flatware department doesn't have quite the same collecting buzz as in earlier decades. [Photos courtesy of iGavel.com]
What frightens me about all of this is not the changing tastes, and it's not the changing ways we buy and sell pieces. What frightens me is that we are reducing what used to involve all five of the senses to one: sight. Like buying new clothes out of a catalog, all you see is an image of a piece, not the piece itself.
Buying an old chest of drawers once meant that you would touch it and you'd hear the sound a drawer makes as it slides in and out. You would take an old pot and smell it to see if you can tell how it was used. You would hold an old silver can and feel the nicks left by generations of use. You would taste what a cup of tea is like from something you do not throw away when you've finished.
Now try and leaf through a Golden Age comic book after it has been graded; you can do so only if you extract it from its protective slab.
When we buy something, however beautiful, based on an image alone, I fear we come to treasure what the image shows and not the piece itself. An image is to an object what a personality profile is to a person. You may meet your soul mate through an online dating service, but I hope you won't attempt to win her hand by praising her interpersonal skills, as revealed through standardized testing. Antiques are the same way. And besides, no one will ever write an ode to a Rookwood vase based on a photo with attached condition report.