Priceless Antiques?

Fellow appraiser Joette Pierce sent me a very interesting Wall Street Journal article not only on the declining prices of antiques, but also on the high expectations of the collectors and their families. As appraisers in the current economic climate, we have all had to deliver bad news of declining prices and low values on many assignments. This WSJ article quickly looks at the families as they discover declining prices due to changing tastes, condition issues or outright fakes.

As I have stated about similar articles, this is a good piece to print out and reference in a market analysis to substantiate and support value conclusions to a skeptical client.

The Wall Street Journal reports
GROWING UP, MY COUSINS AND I were given regular tours of Nana and Granddad's 300-year-old Virginia home, allegedly replete with the snootily described "priceless family antiques." After my grandparents died a few years ago, an auction house came in to do an estate appraisal. That American Colonial George III table? It would fetch less on the market than a twill love seat at Crate and Barrel. Even the "good family china," which was supposed to put the next generation through college, ended up being Dresden's version of Fiestaware. Oops. Sometimes pricelessness is of the gushy, toothless MasterCard-ad variety—especially with antiques.

"I can't tell you how many people I've had walk through the door—divorcĂ©es, wives of finance guys whose jobs went down—wanting an estimate of their 'priceless' collection of silver or Empire furniture," says Gary Leon, owner of Leon Vanderbilt Antiques in Charleston, S.C., and a dealer of about 40 years. Most items, he says, get 20 cents on the dollar from the original price.

Those in the antiques business know that, for the most part, "brown furniture"—Victorian highboys, pieces from throughout the Empire period and, really, any article whose defining characteristic is brown wood—continues to tank in value. Unlike art, which has held its worth, antiques have drooped, experts say, for reasons both familiar (the economy, a surplus of older boomers selling them) and surprising. Among the X factors: (a) a surfeit of fakes and forgeries from England and France have glutted the market, often fooling even discerning buyers; (b) dealers have closed shops because of high rents; and (c) lacking easy access to reputable dealers, more folks are relying on their own instincts to judge antiques at auction houses.

I hear many horror stories. "Who puts nails in a William and Mary secretary desk?!" "Polyurethane is not an antique finish!" Exclamations like these come ripping out of the workshop next to my house every day: My husband is an antiques restorer who studied under a master restorer from Buckingham Palace's antiquities division. As he says, most of his work involves delivering "the heartbreaking truth to customers that their antiques are either fakes or have become devalued in the marketplace." When that happens, he reassures clients by telling them there's really only one true measure of the value of a piece: "Do you love it?"

But that very question brings us to the final reason why antiques just aren't what they used to be: Most people with money to spend on furniture just, well, don't like antiques, with the possible exception of Danish Modern pieces. According to many pros, we are dealing in the age of IKEA, of replacement furniture. Ed Roumillat, owner of Roumillat's Antiques & Auctions in Charleston, says younger buyers don't mind the cycle of replacing old furnishings. "They are just happy to get rid of them."

As for me, I kept my grandparents' relatively worthless Victorian settees, the Federal-style knockoff secretary, the cigar box that the late Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista allegedly gave my ambassador great-great-grandfather—and the crappy Dresden china. They remind me of my grandparents and their home. As for my husband, he's now selling Gustavian-style painted furniture to get away from anything brown.
Source: Wall Street Journal

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