Why the bottom has dropped out of the antiques market
Dec 19th 2015 | PARIS |
A MINUTE’S walk from the Louvre museum, just a hop across the Rue de Rivoli, is an antiques centre called the Louvre des Antiquaires. Until recently hundreds of dealers had galleries here, selling Louis XVI chairs, Renaissance jewels and other delightful old objects to customers keen to own a piece of history. Today only about half a dozen shops remain open. The building’s owner plans to turn the space into a high-end fashion store.
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.”
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 of zitan and huanghuali, two rare woods, is especially strong.
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.
I came across this Washington Post piece that makes the same point as my book, STUFF AFTER DEATH. Sadly for the Baby Boomers, the next generation doesn’t want their stuff. What to do? Get rid of it now in a downsizing frenzy and let the youngsters off the hook!
I don’t sell advertising on this blog, but I occasionally mention businesses that help clients dispose of their inherited stuff. Mike Gadd wrote in to tell me about his business, named Everything But the House, that does just that–sells everything except their clients’ houses. And they mean everything! Last year they sold a horse. https://www.ebth.com/items/1447139-appendix-horse-gelding-named-blackie
The company, known as EBTH for short, has a presence in Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Lexington and Louisville KY, and Nashville. Their website indicates new offices opening soon in Atlanta and southwest Florida. This is not a recommendation, since I have not dealt with them myself, but it may be worth taking a look.
Here’s some advice–good advice!–from Tischa, who has been working for months to deal with the items she inherited from her parents. Thanks for sharing.
A lot has to do with the tremendous respect & love I had for my parents. I’ve had a wonderful life full of fabulous experiences all because of them. [And had I tossed things in the trash, I would have imagined my mother over my shoulder yelling, “Oh, no!” lol]
I know most people don’t have as many collectibles/vintage items, but if they do, here’s what I’ve learned:
Children should sit down with their folks and make sure all photographs are labeled. (Parents love to share the memories that go along with the photos.)
If there are a lot of items in the estate, a complete inventory needs to be made while a parent is living and receipts kept together with the inventory list.
Wills need to be very, very specific — no assumptions.
In-laws need to stay home when children are working things out.
When a parent dies, the 1st & easiest place to start is to throw away the underwear and send all the clothes to Salvation Army.
Somewhere, someone might want something that has no value to the heirs. DONATE.
(and saving the most important for last…) Don’t leave this same project behind for your children to go through when you die. [I have 2 sons who won’t want most of my things; so, I’m going to sell things I no longer use — silver, china, jewelry, etc — and give my boys whatever money I get from it.]
Good news for those of us clearing out a loved one’s home and finding lots of bottles of prescription medicines. NEVER flush them down the sink or toilet. Now there is (or soon will be) a new option–return to your local pharmacy.
I read this in the NY Times:
Concerned by rising rates of prescription drug abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced Monday that it would permit consumers to return unused prescription medications like opioid painkillers to pharmacies. The move is intended to help reduce stockpiles of unneeded medicines in homes, which are often pilfered by teenagers. Under the new regulation, patients and their relatives will also be allowed to mail unused prescription drugs to an authorized collector using packages to be made available at pharmacies and other locations, like libraries and senior centers. The new regulation, which will go into effect in a month, covers drugs designated as controlled substances. Those include opioid painkillers like OxyContin, stimulants like Adderall and depressants like Ativan. Until now, the Controlled Substances Act allowed patients only to dispose of the drugs themselves or to surrender them to law enforcement. “This is big news and long overdue,” said Dr. G. Caleb Alexander at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s baffling that it’s so easy to get a prescription for opioids and yet so difficult to dispose of these drugs safely.”
Did you inherit a collection? Chances are, you don’t know much about it. Chances are, you don’t know what to do with it. But take care–it could be worthless or it could be worth a small fortune. Read this article in a recent NY Times for details.
A relevant article from the Dallas Morning News by Pamela Yip:
Most of us hate moving. The hassles of organizing, packing and finally schlepping the entire haul to a new place is a pain.
For seniors, the experience can be not only a major life disruption but an emotionally painful one as they leave a home where they’ve raised children and created cherished memories, many of which are tied up in their belongings.
Seniors and their families can get help by hiring a senior move manager who specializes in helping older adults and their families downsize and move to a new residence.
Traditional “movers move things and senior move managers move people,” said Jennifer Pickett, associate executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers.
“A mover that comes in, they do one thing: They estimate, they pack, they load, they unpack. A senior move manager helps them downsize, helps them go through the process of parting with their possessions without parting with their memories,” she said.
The relatively new industry has grown “pretty significantly” in recent years, Pickett said.
“We have 850 members in the U.S., Canada and abroad,” she said. “Two years ago, it was probably 600 and three years before that, it was probably 400.”
Betty Clo Jarrell of Dallas turned to Senior Focused Relocations Inc. to help her move to a senior community from the home she shared with her now-deceased husband for 13 years.
Jarrell said she was impressed with the attention the senior move manager gave her.
“Someone comes in and talks to you about what you want to do,” she said. “They’re totally involved in what the client wants.”
Jarrell’s most treasured possessions are photos of family and friends.
“The most emotional things to me are my pictures of family,” said Jarrell, sitting on a couch in her living room while the movers packed her belongings. “What I’m not taking are pictures of me. I know what I look like.”
Michele Parchman, co-founder of Dallas-based Senior Focused Relocations, said that after hearing how important the photos were to Jarrell, one of her movers allocated a place for them to hang in her new apartment.
“Every client has a most treasured item or collection,” Parchman said. “We absolutely take the time to listen to their history and stories. We are focused on making our clients’ transition a manageable task by pacing the process to allow time for reminiscing.”
As with any service, you come out better if you do your homework before selecting a senior move manager. Here are questions to ask:
How long have they been in business?
“Ask what kind of training they’ve had,” Pickett said. “A designation is not necessarily a training.”
Also ask whether the senior move manager who will be working with you is an employee of the company or a contractor.
“Who will be doing the packing of your items? Who will be loading and unloading the moving truck? Who will be working in your home? Hire a company that trains their employees to understand the transition you are about to go through,” Parchman said.
Ask for references.
Does the company carry insurance?
“I would make sure they are fully insured and their employees have workers’ compensation coverage,” Pickett said.
Ask who’s responsible if one company packs your items, another company moves the packed boxes and furniture, and then damage is discovered during the unpacking, Parchman said. “Hire a senior move manager that is also a licensed moving company,” she said. “That way, you are protected from start to finish. Otherwise there are gaps and the only person who loses is the senior.”
How much does the company charge?
“Most senior move managers charge by the hour,” Pickett said. “If they charge by the project, that could be a little tricky because inevitably things come up that you’re not expecting.”
The national average is $40 to $60 an hour, she said.
“Make sure they provide you with a written contract,” Pickett said. “I would make sure that contract has a liability policy.”
Are they a member of the National Association of Senior Move Managers?
“All of our members have been vetted,” Pickett said. “There is very little barrier to entry into this type of service, and we are keenly aware of this.”
Before a company can be listed on the association’s website, it has to show proof of insurance and has to have two letters of recommendation from senior clients it has moved.
“You have to take our classes in senior move management ethics and accountability and safety, and you have to have a website that highlights your services,” Pickett said.
Other things you can do to make the process go smoothly:
Interview more than one senior move manager.
“This is very much a relationship-based service,” Pickett said. “We joke about this, but when was the last time I was in my father’s underwear drawer? You really have to have a sense of trust, and you have to feel good about that person. You need to follow your gut.”
Lue Taff, a geriatric care manager at The Senior Source, said she asks one key question.
“The one question I always ask anyone I’m considering for any kind of service is, what makes you unique?” said Taff. “If they have someone devoted to really establishing a bond with the family, with my mom, that would make them a standout company to me. I just want them to go the extra mile and do the extra thing for my mom.”
Leave plenty of time.
“Contact a senior move manager three to four weeks before move day,” Parchman said. “Allow time for making all the decisions about what will move with you, what you will give to the kids, what will be sold at an estate sale, and what you want to donate to charity.
“Take the time to plan the details so you have the comfort of being involved, making the move to a retirement community or smaller home happen for you, not to you.”
Follow Pamela Yip on Twitter at @pamelayip.
For more information on senior move managers, go the website of the National Association of Senior Move Managers at nasmm.org.
To the 86 people who subscribed to this blog–many thanks for your attention, but I’ve decided to stop. After 22 months and 77 posts, I have to conclude that there isn’t much interest in this topic. Which surprises me, as there is so much need, with all the Greatest Generation and now Baby Boomers dying and leaving their heirs with so much STUFF to dispose of, and so many people downsizing. However, I’ve reluctantly decided that it isn’t worth my while to soldier on, so thank you kindly for tuning in, and good luck with your own efforts at identifying, valuing, and disposing of unwanted inherited STUFF. Please feel free to email me if you have any specific problems or questions: email@example.com.
If you have exhausted your patience with do-it-youself appraisals (by looking for similar items that have sold on eBay, craigslist, liveauctioneers.com, worthpoint.com, and other free sites), and you aren’t willing to hire a human being to come to your home and examine your object, it may be time to pay for an on-line appraisal. These are cheap and, because the appraisers cannot examine the object except through a photograph and your (possibly inaccurate) description, not as reliable as the real thing, but they can help if you are just trying to get a general idea of an item’s value.
There are many on-line appraisal services you can use. Reputable ones include Kovels, at http://www.kovels.com, where you can have a free subscription and get some information and access to price guides, or pay $3.25 a month or $5.00 a month for access to more information.
Another site is http://www.valuemystuff.com. You send them a picture and $10 and they have an appraiser give you a value. Costs are lower if you have 3 or 10 or more items you want appraised.
Another site is http://www.worthpoint.com. Here you can have a free membership for 7 days, so what’s to lose? Or pay $30 for one item’s appraisal or sign on for $20/month for unlimited access to their databases.
1. your reason for an appraisal. Do you want to sell the item? To insure the item? To donate the item? These require different types of appraisals and will usually produce different values.
2. any information you have about the item: its description, measurements, artist/craftsman, age, when and where purchased, and for how much. You probably won’t have all that information, but every bit helps.
3. a photograph of the item and any identifying marks.
Why are estate appraisers better than auctioneers? They are usually more knowledgeable about the value of objects, especially antique objects. Some appraisers are also auctioneers; other appraisers work with specific auctioneers.