A Look at Period Antique Furntiure

The Financial Times takes a look at the period antique furniture market, and is many appraisers know, it is not strong and has suffered severe devaluation over the past few years. This is particularly true for the middle market.

About two weeks ago I gave a webinar to Chubb Insurance underwriters and claims representative about the state of period antique furniture, and some of the evidence, both tracking charts and anecdotal were rather severe. The Financial Times article.

The positive of all of this is there are bargains to be found. I have a client who recently purchased a card table that was sold through the Sack firm in the early 1990s for $65,000. It was listed in the Sack Finer Points of Furniture as a masterpiece.  Purchase price of $13,000 plus commissions.

The Financial Times reports
Last year the fine art director at Halls auction house launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #BringBackBrownFurniture. In a 10-point manifesto, published in the Antiques Trade Gazette, Jeremy Lamond argues that antique wooden furniture — known as brown furniture — is suffering a gross failure in marketing. Brown furniture, he suggests, has been surrounded by a “gloomy atmosphere” for too long both in the national press and in the auction room and fair caf├ęs. “Gloom and despondency can affect a whole market,” he writes. “Snap out of it folks.”

Thirty years ago brown furniture was the backbone of the country saleroom. It was considered an investment so sound that in the 1970s and 1980s the British Rail pension fund invested in antiques. It was a time when London’s Fulham Road, parallel to the King’s Road, was known as “the brown mile” for its cluster of antique dealerships. With the launch of the BBC television programme Antiques Roadshow in 1979 the popularity of brown furniture seemed assured.

Those heady days are now past. As reported in the Financial Times earlier this year, over the past decade the value of high-end antique furniture fell 28 per cent, according to figures from Art Market Research Developments, including a 9 per cent drop in a single year to the end of 2014. As retail and auctions have moved online, bricks and mortar dealing has declined.

Demand for modernist furniture, in contrast, is strengthening. Last year, there was a 2 per cent rise in the value of early and mid-20th-century furniture. Marc Newson’s aluminium sofa, the Lockheed Lounge, sold at Phillips for £2.4m in 2015, making it the most expensive work by a living designer.

Despite brown furniture’s diminishing returns, antique dealers and interior decorators remain loyal enthusiasts. Will Fisher, founder of antiques dealer Jamb, is a self-confessed life-long fanatic. His Pimlico showroom is already packed with 18th and 19th-century antiques, and he admits the only way he can stop buying is if he runs out of space. “Now is an amazing time to buy because so much is massively undervalued,” he says.

One 19th-century gothic pollard oak extending table, sourced from Arley Castle in Worcestershire, is on sale for £240,000. The same table would have fetched almost double that in the 1970s and 1980s, says Fisher. It has been sitting on his showroom floor for more than six months. Fisher is drawn to pieces where both colour and texture have deepened with age. “There’s been a lot of harm done to brown furniture through over-restoration,” he adds.

Antiques in the mid-range are especially feeling the pinch — a result of oversupply and lacklustre demand. “There are huge warehouses around the countryside full of lovely reasonably priced furniture,” says Caroline de Cabarrus of Hotspur Design, a consultancy specialising in historic interiors. However, most of these treasure troves are open only to the antiques trade, she adds, and “they do not like anyone turning up only to browse”. De Cabarrus recently unearthed a Regency-period mahogany chest of drawers with original brass dolphin handles that was created to commemorate Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. It cost £650 in a warehouse in Lincolnshire, while a similar piece in central London is likely to be sold for £2,000 to £3,000.

Falling prices are as advantageous for dealers as they are damaging for auctioneers. Colin Stair is the founder of Stair Galleries, an auction house based in Hudson, New York. He has found the brown furniture “downturn” brutal, citing a recent sale of a rare George II mahogany bureau, c1750, which sold for $15,000 excluding buyer’s premium — its lowest estimate. Only the “drop dead gorgeous” pieces at the top of the market have retained their value, Stair adds.

Richard Shapiro, a Los Angeles-based interior designer and antiques dealer, also thinks that exceptional pieces remain good investments because there is still strong demand. Many Russians are buying them, he says, as well as the Italian villas and palazzos to put them in. “Often,” Shapiro suggests, “just one incredibly strong antique surrounded by more contemporary things can create a wonderful mix”.

Robert Kime has been buying and selling antiques since the age of 12 and today counts the Prince of Wales among his clients. Sipping tea from an antique china cup in a room above his London showroom in Bloomsbury, Kime wonders if the dwindling interest in brown furniture is connected to a society increasingly averse to sitting still. “People don’t thirst for things any more just because they’re old,” he says.

Kime thinks the best English furniture has a “roast beef” quality. “It’s plain and robust with wonderful, simple but beautifully detailed lines,” he says. His favourite piece is a chair that once belonged to William Wordsworth. He shows me a photo of the chair taken in his house in the Lake District. It is squat but well-proportioned with a worn leather seat. Kime bought the chair not because it is an outstanding piece of furniture but because of its history. “It’s the young revolutionary I am interested in,” he says, “this not particularly good chair tells me about another life.”

Where to buy: tips from dealers and designers

Robert Kime
“Ten years ago, there would be at least three shops in any [UK] provincial town. There may still be some worth visiting. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have two sales a year, though their stock is more continental now, not as nice.”

Will Fisher
“In the Internet age auctions can be viewed 24 hours a day around the globe. However, it is very unwise to buy unseen. The cull of antique dealers over the past decade has been fairly brutal due to the downturn. The upside is it has thinned out the industry with the better dealers left. Finding a dealer you trust who shares your aesthetic can be an excellent route. Let him or her drive and fly the thousands of miles to vet the goods.”

Richard Shapiro
“When I go to Italy, I see very good brown furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries. I frequent Florence, Milan, Genoa and Brescia, from where I acquire pieces for my showroom in Los Angeles.”

Colin Stair
“It is a great time to be buying at auction. Furniture at every level hasn’t been so affordable in decades. A good way to follow a regional house market is to sign up for alerts for things you are looking for specifically. Search platforms such as the Antiques Trade Gazette or Invaluable are things I use myself. It is also a marvellous time to buy retail. Many dealers are willing to deal, as if they are able to sell something and get some capital back, they can then replenish stock.”

Caroline de Cabarrus
In England, “Hungerford, Petworth, Lewes, Brasted in Kent and Tetbury are all good villages for finding antique furniture at decent, retail prices. Blanchard Collective in Froxfield and Salisbury Antiques have good websites.”
Source: The Financial Times 

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