Friday, January 6, 2017

Antique Furniture Forensics

One of the reasons that antique furniture is less and less appreciated these days is that few people are left in the business who are "experts" with real "experience" in the field.

40 years ago, when I travelled the country, stopping in every antique shop I could find in every town, I would usually find a dealer in the shop who was an expert in something.  It might be porcelain, silver, art, carpets, books, tools or furniture.  I learned a great deal from those dealers.  They would take the time to explain as much as they knew about what they were selling.

As I gathered data on the regional characteristics of American 19th century furniture, I would pointedly ask "what furniture do you have in the store which was made locally and what features can you identify that prove your theory?"  I gained a real understanding of what made Texan furniture different from Tennessee or Connecticut from Ohio.  Everywhere I went was an education.

A terrible transformation occurred over the next few decades, as individual dealers either retired or closed their stores, due to less demand and more expensive overhead.  What took the place of the owner operated stand alone antique store was the "antique mall."  This new marketing venue was a direct result of the success of yard sales and flea markets, where less knowledgeble sellers would offer items of unknown origin to bargain hunters.  Each mall was managed by a single person at the front, and walking through these "stores" was as miserable and disappointing as you might think.

Each seller would rent a stall and fill it with junk.  After all, it was cheaper than renting a storage unit, and there was always the possibility that someone would want to buy something.  If you, as a shopper, found something interesting you would take it to the front desk and make the purchase.  The manager or sales clerk knew absolutely nothing about the item.  Only which stall and how much.

There was no possibility of learning anything.

Over time, even these pitiful excuses for antique stores became obsolete.  They have been replaced by online sites like Craig's list and eBay.

Antique buyers need help.  I have always believed in educating clients and prospective collectors about the process of understanding how early hand made (pre industrial) furniture was made.  One of the methods is to have lectures, with examples that students can examine and touch.

For over 30 years I have been associated with Nancy Martin, ASA.  Her career began in science, as did mine, and we think alike.  Always looking for evidence, details and facts which can be used to identify the specific origin of an objects.  Looking at tool marks, construction features, wood analysis, hardware, and other materials provides the best basis for determining the origin.  It can be a fake, a reproduction, or an antique that is original or repaired.  It is not always obvious but careful examination will ultimately provide sufficient evidence to indicate the proper date and origin.

Next month I will again be sharing the podium with Nancy Martin.  We are jointly teaching an ASA class for appraisers at the Huntington Library in San Marino.  ASA members as well as non-members are welcome.  Here is the link: Antique Furniture Authentication Presentation

If you are in the Southern California region and wish to learn more about antique furniture in a wonderful environment, send in your reservation.  I hope to see you there.

I guarantee you will learn something useful.


Anonymous said...

Antique business is dying just like film cameras, LPs, etc. The tide is irreversible; what is left will be small antique dealers who have other income or don't have money issue to sustain their businesses.

I recall seeing an article 10 years ago that "NOW is the time sell" nay antique collectibles because the generations (45 to 70)that have the money and interest are dying. The newer generations at large are not interested in antiques, let alone being willing to spend a decent sum on them. When they become 40 to 50 -- financially stable and capable of being antique customers -- they are not going to spend any money on antiques.

I used to collect tin toys but sold my whole collection (kept in the family for over 25 years) several years ago. I wouldn't have been able to get the same amount of money today had I waited. The demand is simply vanishing.


W. Patrick Edwards said...

Thank you for your comment. I have a slightly different perspective. Antiques by definition have been around for centuries, sometimes in demand and at other times out of fashion. One of the reasons I started collecting was that I found good quality antiques at bargain prices in thrift shops during the 1960s. This is happening today and young collectors will find similar pieces if they shop online or in thrift shops.

When the world economy crashed in 2008 high end antique dealers found themselves with a lot of inventory, much of it sitting in storage units waiting to be brought into the market. Instead of putting "Sale" signs in the front windows, they generally decided to dump their unseen inventory at auction. This flooded the market with good pieces and, since there was less demand due to the economy, the prices dropped across the board.

It was, and still is, a buyer's market. This is the time to start collecting or add to your collection.

Antiques are not like film or LPs. High quality furniture is comfortable and functional. It has no carbon footprint. It conserves valuable resources, harvested by hand before industrial production took over.

Also, you can never be sure about records...they could come back. Film, I'm not so sure.

R Francis said...

Don't forget the auction houses. I have learned a lot from their experts.
Wish you would write more and travel east more often.