Thursday, December 31, 2015

Where Have All The Antiques Gone?

Here's Looking At You Kid 2016



As I walk to work every day, I ponder the complexities of life and the simplicity of living.  It takes me about 10 minutes if I walk briskly and slightly more if I stop to look at things around me.  During that time, when I am not bothered by the appointments and responsibilities of work, I am able to do "free thinking."

Lately I have been reflecting more and more about the antique business and what I have learned over the past 46 years walking the same neighborhood and doing essentially the same work, restoring old furniture.  Today, since this is the last day of the year, I decided to sit down and put into words some of the thoughts that have occupied me over the past year.

In particular, "What has happened to the antique business?"

Last week, a good friend and highly respected appraiser in the business, sent me an article from the recent issue of the Economist, written by fellow appraser Marcus Wardell.  As I read this piece, it seemed to reinforce all the opinions I have formed during the past few years, as the business I am in has undergone significant changes.

Just this week Patrice and I were standing in the workshop, surrounded by projects, and we were discussing how, just 10 years ago, this shop was full of period 18th century pieces of the highest quality.  Today it seems to be just "old" furniture, mostly without much value.  What happened?

Sure, we still are working on Boulle surfaces and, in some cases, high end pieces.  But, there are not dozens of projects of similar quality waiting in line for our specialized attention.  We are not driving around Bel Air and Rancho Santa Fe on weekly deliveries like we did for decades.

To start out his article, Mr. Wardell notes that the Louvre des Antiquaires, located just across the street from the Louvre museum in Paris, is now in the process of closing shops and turning into a retail space for high end fashions.  He points out that, in London, all but three of the hundreds of antique shops have disappeared in the traditional "brown mile" of stores.  In New York City, Kentshire Galleries closed and sold its remaining inventory at Sotheby's.  All the top auction houses now feature much less furniture and are focusing on contemporary art, jewelry and wine.

Here, in my neighborhood, the local paper had a lead story last month which announced the end of "Antique Row" on Adams Avenue, where I first opened my store in June of 1969.  I still remember the antique dealer from the store directly across the street walking in to meet me.  In a rather cheerful tone, he asked me "What do you do for a living?"  I replied in my most confident voice, "I am an antique dealer."  His reply was simply, "Yes, but what do you do for a living?"

Now it's almost a half century later and I still wonder how I make a living at this craft.  In my defense, even though I don't have a million dollars in the bank, I do own my business location, all my tools, materials and inventory, as well as nice cars and a large home near the park.  All bought and paid for by working with my hands, and experience gained from living with antiques.

When I started out in the business you could buy real nice old furniture, in oak, walnut, rosewood and mahogany, for very little money.  I found many nice early pieces in thrift stores and used furniture stores.  With a little work cleaning and fixing small details, I could turn a quick profit, as the market for buying antiques was growing rapidly, and demand remained strong through the Bicentennial in 1976.

Today there is no demand for this early stuff at all.  Why?

Part of it is that to appreciate antiques you need a sophisticated understand of early culture, craft and historical perspective.  I am sorry to say these talents are not so common in the younger generation, who should, by all accounts, be the consumer for these items.  Rather than consume durable goods, the general attitude these days is to own disposable objects.  When they break they are just replaced.  Just look at our attitude towards electronic items, like TV's and phones.  They are expensive and last a few years.  Because the newer versions are so much better and the old ones were not designed to be repaired, they are just discarded when they break or become obsolete.

This is not environmentally sustainable.

It is true that, over centuries of collecting objects, the desire to own objects from an earlier period has gone up and down with periodic cycles of demand.  In ancient Rome the elite sought out Greek bronzes, sculptures and vases.  Again, during the Renaissance, rich young gentlemen took the Grand Tour and returned flush with valuable antiques to demonstrate their worldly experience.

With the emergence of the middle class during the Victorian Period, a large new consumer class began to spend money on early objects to decorate their homes.  Mr Wardell points out "By 1890 Paris had 300 antique shops, up from 25 in 1850...but antiques, like clothes, go in and out of style.  They boomed again in the 1950's and 1980's, when 'period rooms' in a single nostalgic style were all the rage."

When I read interior design magazines today or visit rich client's homes, all I see are simple, unassuming, plain lines, devoid of decoration or expensive materials.  Each room is designed exactly like a hotel room.  Neutral colors, basic functionality, predictable forms and function.  Nothing to challenge the senses or intellect.  Nothing to draw your attention.  In my opinion, completely boring.

Mr. Wardell continues: "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."

There is another aspect to this lack of investment in antiques which I can directly blame on the dealers themselves.  The presence of fakes, and the common practice of selling fakes and copies as "authentic" has seriously damaged the confidence of the consumer.  Too many times I have been the expert who has to explain to the owner that the expensive antique he just bought is a "pastiche" or simple fake, and that it has nothing more then decorative value.

For example, in Los Angeles many years ago I was asked by my friend, the appraiser, to provide analysis of a rather large and expensive armoire.  The client had paid $250,000 for this cabinet, which was a Louis XV television cabinet!  The dealer had taken two armoires, cut one in half down the center and attached the sides to each end of the center armoire, making a single cabinet about 8 feet wide.

We were able to get the dealer to refund the money and the cabinet was returned to the store.  Several years after that, as I was in another mansion up in the hills above LA, I mentioned this event to the client, who then exclaimed "I think you had better look at the armoire in my bedroom!"  To my surprise, it was the same cabinet, sold at the same price, by the same dealer.  Again we were able to get the dealer to refund the money and the cabinet was returned.

Soon after that event, as I drove down the street in the antique section of Los Angeles, I looked in the window of the dealer's store and there, in all its glory, stood the same cabinet waiting for the next victim.

These actions do not instill confidence in the buyer.  If only the dealer would clearly price the genuine antiques properly and identify the "decorator" pieces fairly, the buyer would be more inclined to shop.  The lure of the quick buck by these unscrupulous dealers has ruined the market.

On another point, our living habits have changed in the past generation.  Armoires which used to be popular for hiding TVs are not needed, as flat screen televisions are just screwed to the wall.  Smaller rooms in homes and condos do not work well with larger pieces of furniture.  Modern architecture does not include traditional spaces for traditional furniture.  In fact the dining room has disappeared, as we often eat in front of the TV and formal dining parties are less and less common.  Gone is the demand for sideboards and dining tables and chairs.  They are worthless these days.

There is one part of the antique market which has always been solid: the 1%.  It is a fact that the genuine object, which has been professionally conserved and includes a significant provenance will always demand a high price.  These pieces are naturally rare and the very sophisticated consumers with unlimited resources will compete for ownership and bragging rights.  As Mr. Wardell mentions: "They see antiques as 'an undervalued piece of art'."

One of the most famous antique dealers in Paris, Benjamin Steinitz, says "If you have a Picasso or Jeff Koons everyone knows what it is and that you're a success.  If you have a lovely Andre-Charles Boulle desk, people may think you have the taste of your grandmother."

When the world economy crashed in 2008, the business of antiques was hit hard.  Since the market for furniture is directly related to the health of the real estate market, buyers stopped buying.  As the market recovered in real estate it is interesting that the market for antiques failed to follow.  The reason is that there is way too much inventory.  After the crash I noticed a trend among high end antiques dealers.  Since it is not good business to put "Half Off Sale!" signs in the window of a high end shop, these dealers began quietly disposing of their unsold inventory which was in storage.  For several years the auction houses have been full of this inventory, which has returned only a fraction of its original pre-2008 value.

I have seen too many examples of clients who paid at the top the market and now are selling at the bottom of the market.  They are often forced to settle for a small fraction of their initial investment.  The demand just doesn't match the supply.  At the same time that dealers are liquidating tons of stock, the older clients are down sizing.  Since their children do not want the stuff they have collected over their life time, they are forced to either settle for a fraction of its worth or just give it away.

The market for antiques today, such as it exists, has transformed from a knowledgeable dealer in a bricks and mortar business location to an unknown person with a internet connection.  Ebay, Craig's list,1st Dibs and similar sites are now the preferred place to shop, with all the problems associated with gambling on the unknown.

As I walk to work each day these thoughts fill my mind.  But I am not discouraged or depressed.  I am always excited to come to work and enthused about the future for my craft.  I console myself with the realization that antiques have survived the test of time and will return to fashion at some point in the future.  It may take years, but I am a very patient person.  Life is a process, not a destination.

I live and work with antique furniture because it gives me comfort and pleasure.  I have never thought of "investing" in antiques for a profit.  They are not a good investment commodity, in any event, as they are not easy to sell, like stocks.  You buy them because they give you pleasure.  They are beautiful to look at and they make a home personal and stimulating to live in.  They "speak" to me, since I understand how they were made and used.  I am transported back in time to a period when quality was measured by skill and materials.

I care about the world and its finite resources.  Rare woods and materials are disappearing.  It is no longer possible to cut down huge mahogany, cherry or walnut trees, or harvest tortoise shell or ivory. Why not protect the surviving resources as they exist in antique objects?  I am the first person to support CITIES and the protection of endangered species, but I am the last person to throw a tortoise shell and ivory tea caddy that was made in 1800 away in the trash.

Collecting and restoring antiques not only preserves these early objects for the future, when they will once again be in demand, but also reduces the need for new replacement objects that have an increasing carbon footprint.  Modern furniture uses a high percentage of man-made synthetic materials and often toxic chemicals.  In addition, the manufacture and transport of these new items is causing enormous damage to the environment.

Mr. Wardell concludes his article as follows: "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."

Remember, an antique piece of furniture was made from a tree that was harvested by hand, transported by wind and water power, and made into its final shape with human effort.  You can't get more "green" than that!  Give a homeless antique shelter.  Open your home to the past.








5 comments:

Luke Addington said...

I think the concluding paragraph is exactly right. I can't count how many people I know who are learning blacksmithing, woodworking, stone sculpting with hand tools and can appreciate that kind of work. In the next few decades my generation will bring it back.

"Lafayette, we are here!"

Anonymous said...

Nice article. When I was young and away in the military, one of my grandmothers passed away. My parents asked if I wanted any of her furniture. I told them I didn't want any of that "old stuff". It wasn't until I was older, married, and a fledgling woodworker that I regretted that decision. I fortunately still ended up with a piece or two. They connect me back to my heritage, and the craftsmen who's labor I can now appreciate.

I was unaware of the current state of the antique business. I think a lack of knowledge about quality furniture is also an important contributor to its demise. Even as a knowledgeable woodworker, I wouldn't feel comfortable evaluating the worth or quality of an antique.

Keep well,
Rob

Anonymous said...

Nice article. I'm an aspiring woodworker. Just picked up an 1840's New England 2 drawer dropleaf table with crotch mahogany drawer fronts. An amazing little piece. The top is broken but the break joint is in good shape. Looking forward to a proper restoration.

James

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Luke, you are right. I believe that your generation will save the business. There are lots of young professional and amateur craftspeople who are passionate about "doing it the old way." I am not talking about the crazy "Steam Punk" freaks. I am talking about the people who take the time to understand the process, seek out the proper materials and tools and just do it, even though it may not be the best way to get rich.

Money comes and goes. Knowledge is forever.

As to the small drop leaf table. These pieces are really neat and rather scarce. Now that the prices are low again they represent a great commodity to purchase and restore. I originally started collecting because the prices were lower on old pieces then new pieces. Good find.

As to keeping the "old stuff" from the family. Without knowing where we came from it is difficult to appreciate where we are now.

Bryan Robinson said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful and thought inspiring piece.