Bad time to be an antique furniture dealer, great time to be a buyer. The NYT reports that dealers can’t give the shit away. In particular, it appears that the market for antiques, i.e. furniture over 100 years old, is mightily depressed. Now to anyone who’s been doing business in this sector in the last few years, such news is like, No Duh!
We hear from Robert Couturier, an interior designer and architect in New York that:
“It’s very sad.” Bargains are particularly plentiful, he said, in 18th-century pieces.
This, kids, is a perfect example of how tastes change and market values fluctuate, not always in an upward trajectory. There was a time, say like the 1980s, when 18C was the PINNACLE of cabinet-making, and that went for both kinds of furniture (there were only two back then, English and French). At that time, if you were a serious collector, then only period Georgian or Louis Quinze would do. And 19C…my God… that was all a bunch of machine-made Victorian stuff that was so eclectic it couldn’t decide what style it was.
Well don’t worry. Victorian ain’t making a comeback either, and that goes for the various Central European incarnations like neo-Baroque, Old German, Vienesse Baroque, or any type of Rococo or Renaissance revival styles. In fact, Shawn Henderson, eBay’s design director reports:
there has been a significant dip in sales of antiques on the Web site [ed. like anyone would be so foolish as to buy serious antiques off eBay anyway] and although he could not quantify the change, he said there is so little interest that search terms like “Federal” and “Queen Anne” are not even on the radar. People want Midcentury Modern, Art Deco or Craftsman style pieces from the 20th century.
And I can definitely confirm that about 80% of the fancy furniture currently being shipped of Central Europe is of the Art Deco variety. It’s the only major style to conform to the new clean look everyone wants. What the article misses is the vast market in rustic antiques, the type that ABC Caperts sells by the containerload. And that market is 5 times as large as the fancy furniture one. Of course those kind of pieces can be bought wholesale for less than $200, and so are cheaper than the market price for new pine boards. And that look, especially the highly fashionable distressed white look, is what folks want for their more casual second homes.
cheaper than the market price for wood
But one point that the article makes which is still valid, is that at the very high end, demand remains strong for truly authentic important pieces. From our contacts in NY, this appears especially true for the market in Biedermeier, the only 19C style to buck the current downturn. And the reason has everything to do with its precocious design that predicted so much of 20C Deco and Bauhaus. In fact, interest in Biedermeier was revived in the early 20C by Josef Hoffmann precisely because he saw it as the historical antecedent to his own highly geometric style that would define the Wiener Werkstatte. So we should not find it surprising at all that the markets for both Biedermeier (at least the very fine stuff) and early 20C modernism still holding strong.
Biedermeier Commode c1825. Still sells because it’s so darn modern.