Monday, October 3, 2016

The Ebb and Flow of Antique Collecting

There’s an ebb and flow to the antique market, which in part is caused by the state of the overall economy.  There are other factors too. Personal taste and social trends also play a part in determining what’s popular currently and, more to the point, what's not.

Let’s take a moment to look more closely at antiques that have fallen out of favour in recent years.

While prices for all antiques have been down considerably since the economic slump of 2008, in large part due to Wall Street zealots who sold the world investment community a pig in a poke, otherwise known as mortgage backed securities, some categories of antiques have suffered more than others.

“Brown furniture” - mahogany and walnut furniture have really taken a beating in the last decade. The dark colour of these furniture pieces doesn’t seem to resonate with today’s collectors.

Although not antique, but still well crafted, solid walnut and mahogany furniture made in huge volume between the wars, 1920 to 1950, has reached almost give-away prices.

I have seen entire dining room sets struggle to make a few hundred dollars at auction.

Of course, since this furniture was made in such a large quantity, it is sitting in many, many homes and apartments across the country.  It continues to flood the market but is met with a cool reception by dealers and collectors. Brown walnut and mahogany furniture has been sent to the sidelines by mid century modern, shabby chic and other popular trends.

It’s a shame actually, because the brown furniture of that period was made from solid wood, following classic lines and will be around a lot longer than some of the trendy furniture examples that have replaced it.

True antique furniture from the 19th century and earlier fares somewhat better although prices and demand for this category is also weak.

Canadiana pine furniture, so much of it stripped of its original colour in the 1960’s and 70’s, has also suffered the same fate as the walnut / mahogany category. Good form in a piece of Canadiana furniture will help preserve the value over time but run of the mill pine furniture struggles at auction and in shops.

To a large extent, we are generally living in smaller quarters. The reduced size of homes and condos are not conducive to larger antique furniture pieces. This is another factor in the weak demand for furniture.

Glass, china and ceramic figurines have also suffered a similar fate. Once steady performers and always in demand, these categories have sunk in popularity to a point where there is a barely a pulse in their market.

Chintz china was in vogue several years ago but that ship has certainly sailed. At one point rare stacking teapot sets in hard to find patterns fetched $1000. Not anymore.

There are exceptions of course, certain specific types of glass, pottery and ceramics continue to fetch robust prices. Some Moorcroft pottery, American art pottery and French art glass still fetch good prices but the quality, condition and particular style have to be exceptional.

The rarity of an antique or collectable has a huge impact on its value. It stands to reason that if an antique item is available in large quantity, the price will reflect the availability. It’s simply a case of supply and demand. That rule can be applied to just about any type of antique or collectable. If a collector or dealer has only seen a particular antique the, generally speaking, the item will be more valuable. There are many exceptions however to this rule.

While prices may be down, antiques and collectables are still extremely popular. Design magazines and TV shows promote antiques with continuing zeal. The problem though is that so much material has become “collectable”, there’s a veritable sea of stuff out there. It’s flooded flea markets and other venues, which further adds to the problem. It’s much more difficult to seek out good antiques when they are surrounded by junk.

It’s perhaps only natural to equate the quality of an antique to its monetary value. For some collectors what an antique object is worth in hard currency is secondary to their joy in finding and collecting a particular item. If you enjoy an antique or collectable, that’s terrific. This is how it should be. The majority of collectors don’t plan on selling their things so market value is totally secondary. Sentimental value can often far surpass market value. I don’t happen to own any family antiques but if I did, wild horses couldn’t drag them from my grasp, let alone a bundle of money.

A wise individual once said to me once, “Only collect the best”. Those words are still true to this day. If you are going to put the time and effort into finding certain antiques, be patient, wait for the best example to come along. Buy that one. Excellent things will always hold their value.

 This column also appeared in the Kitchissippi Times newspaper in Ottawa, ON.

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