Saturday, December 14, 2013

Got Antiques?

Hepplewhite Work Table
Last week, as I perused the Arts section of the New York Times, my eyes landed on a small headline above a small paragraph, buried in the small corners of the page.  It said "New York Antiques Stores Are No Match for the Web".  The first line read "Manhattan antiques shops founded decades ago are vanishing at an alarming rate, unable to compete with online offerings."  The story continued with a list of distinguished dealers who have closed their doors.

I have been reflecting on the current state of the antiques business for the past 5 years and this article was not news to me.  It is just a sad reflection of how this important and historic trade has degenerated into insignificance during my lifetime.  It is not the internet which is to blame.  It is the business practices of the dealers themselves, as well as the general lack of public education in this field.

I remember clearly walking into Albert Sack's shop in Manhattan some 40 years ago and meeting Albert.  He asked me what I was interested in, and I told him.  He then went to some lengths to show me items in his inventory as well as discuss other pieces which he thought might appeal to me.  I probably spent 2 hours with him, and he did not seem upset that I did not purchase anything.  The entire event was educational, informative and pleasant.

Over the years, the concept of a shop managed by an expert in his field was gradually transformed into a flea market mall, where each "collector" filled his mall space with his stuff, which usually ranged from kitchen items to toys and dolls.  If you had a question, there was no one to talk with.  The person at the front desk simply rang up the sale and took your money.  It was exhausting to just walk through the mounds of discards, looking for the "treasure."

That said, I would sometimes find something important.  Like the time my wife and I were on a "date" driving up the coast.  My terms for the "date" were that I would be allowed to stop at an antiques mall where I would usually be disappointed.  This time, however, I immediately noticed a period English Hepplewhite work table, in its original finish, with a skateboard on top and buried in shoes and dishes. I noticed that my hand was shaking as I presented the ticket to the sales person and paid the $185.  She remarked, "Oh, that piece has been here for some time.  We were thinking of sending it out to be refinished."  I mumbled, as quietly as I could, "No problem, I like it fine as it is."

I sold it the next month to a New York dealer for $15,000.  Then I made a copy for myself, which you can see at the top of this post, and sold that for $17,500.  Sometimes you bite the bear, and sometimes the bear bites you.

The television is alive with stories about antiques which all focus on this angle: You can discover something which will make you rich.  In other words, antiques are like the lottery.  Value and money are represented as the primary reason to own antiques, and the first question is always, "What's it worth?"

Well, I did not get into the business of antiques to get rich, and my expectations were rewarded by not having to worry about lots of money in my old age.  Lately I have been telling clients that the antiques business is the classic "Buy high and sell low" business model.  It is a perfect example of the economic theory of market forces.  You need a willing buyer and a willing seller to set the price.  When there is too much inventory and not enough demand, the market collapses, as it has recently.

The Millennials are not interested in antiques.  The current fashion is Post Modern.  The stuff I grew up with: Danish Modern, simple lines, foam upholstery, light woods and plastics, solid colors and minimalism as a decoration.  It's not that they don't have money to spend; this generation somehow has a lot of equity.  They prefer to spend it on electronics, entertainment, food and drink, and small downtown condos, where they can easily walk to their coffee house.

As a result, their parents, who invested in antiques all their lives, cannot give their precious furnishings away.  The kids just don't want it.  Too much trouble.  Doesn't impress their friends.  They don't even know what to call it.  I had a young couple accidentally walk into my shop recently and notice a rocking chair.  When I mentioned proudly that it was a true Shaker rocker, they looked surprised and responded, "What's a Shaker?"  Where to start?

Part of my success in the business derives from the early years of my career when I actively taught classes in American Decorative Arts at adult schools, universities and colleges on a regular basis (4 days a week for 15 years), as well as creating a very popular TV series on CBS, "Welcome to the Past...the History of American Antiques."  In all these presentations, I rarely mentioned values.  All the material presented focused on the cultural significance, historical context and technological evolution of furniture made between 1700 and 1900.

In effect, I taught the Southern California collectors and dealers how to identify period furniture and how to recognize fakes and reproductions.  That generation of students has continued to support my business over the years, and I realize I had a significant impact on their lives.  By teaching over the years, I became a legitimate authority in the field.  Unfortunately, funding for adult education disappeared and classes like Art History and Decorative Arts are no longer popular.

Where are the next generation of collectors going to learn about antiques?  The internet?  Really?

There's another serious problem with the business of Antiques: FAKES.  I have seen hundreds of examples over the years where a dealer or collector valued an obvious fake as a real item.  Either through sheer ignorance, or even worse, the desire to make a quick buck, these poorly made objects continue to be sold and collected at prices that make me cry.  I remember standing in front of a French Buffet Deux Corps in Los Angeles at a very high end shop years ago, when this form was in demand.  The obvious fake Buffet was priced at $65,000 while standing just across the room was an authentic Buffet priced at $15,000.  The difference was that the real Buffet was rather plain, but the fake Buffet was highly decorated with fake carving.

If all the dealers in the business would purge their inventory of fakes, the result would be rather empty shops, but the remaining items in these shops would be real, and their value would rise significantly.  We need Antiques shops strictly for real antiques and Decorative shops for objects which only have decorative value.  They are not the same.  When you mix them together, people get confused.

Another problem with the business is that the dealers typically do not pay enough for good inventory to keep up the resale part of the market.  They are more than happy to sell to clients at inflated prices, but when that same client wants to sell it later, they are not interested in offering a reasonable price.  Clearly, if you have invested in stocks and need money, you just call your broker and the check is immediate.  If you want to sell your valued antiques, good luck.

In the last five years there has been activity which has not been discussed.  This has resulted in a flood of inventory through the auction houses.  High end dealers typically keep surplus inventory in storage units.  Since it is not good business for these high end dealers to paste signs in their windows like "Huge Sale" and "Prices Drastically Reduced!" they simply dump the unseen items directly from storage to auction.  No one knows who is selling the items, and the market is flooded, driving down prices.

It seems to me that this is one of the real reasons high end dealers are closing their shops, not the internet, as the Times writer seems to assume.

I am surrounded by antiques.  My home is full and I work every day with marvelous and beautiful objects.  I am being honest when I say that I look at them as historical artifacts that have survived through wars, floods, clumsy movers and dozens of owners.  I don't think of them as piles of money.

As Billy Pilgrim realized in Kirk Vonnegut's "Slaughter House Five," I have become unstuck in time.


Wes Highfill said...

I'd really like to watch the TV series you did way back on CBS. Do you know how somebody could get a hold of those episodes to watch?

W. Patrick Edwards said...

That reminded me that I still have the tapes. When the CBS show was finished, I got possession of the tapes. They were on 3/4" U matic tape in cassettes.

I was teaching Decorative Arts at Southwestern College at the time, so I took the tapes there to put in the library for my students to review.

Years later, after the U matic format became obsolete, I had the idea to get the tapes back. I drove down to the college and asked the librarian about the tapes. She said, "Actually, those tapes are being destroyed as we speak. We are cleaning out some of the old stuff."

I rushed down to the incinerator and found the custodian throwing one of my tapes into the fire. It was the tape on Shakers, one of my most favorite topics.

I stopped him and he said, "If you want them, take them. I don't care." However, he said it in much stronger language.

Those 9 remaining tapes have sat on my library shelf for the last 40 years. When I got this comment, I decided to find a local company which could transfer them to DVD.

When that is done, I will post them on YouTube.

(Note: Since the tapes were done in 1973, I was skinny, had bell bottom pants and floral print shirts with large collars and my hair was long and curly. It will be interesting to see...)

Mat Nedeljko said...

Patrick I would love to see these too...Please post them soon!

Anonymous said...

That looks like who you described on on the right of the page. I have wondered who that skinny kid was all the years that I have been following these pages.
Jack Ervin

Rev John said...

I also would love to see them. I agree with your statements about our treasured past. My kids look at my acorn clock and ask why do I keep it. Even the idea that it was my great grandparents does seem to influence. Thanks for your blog. I assist our local museum clean and protect items that are collected.