A regular misconception about the art and antiques market is that prices are always going up. In fact, economic realities like “supply and demand” affect prices of paintings, collectibles and antique furniture as much as anything else. Additionally, small differences between unique items can offer big savings to savvy buyers. Here are a few examples in the collecting world that offer great buying opportunities right now.
As bulky personal computers with their unruly cables and peripheral attachments became commonplace in the 1980’s and 1990’s, drop-front desks from the late 18th Century became all but obsolete. When demand dropped, prices for this beautiful form realized a serious decline. In today’s world of compact, tidy electronics, slant-front desks are an organizer’s dream! With an assortment of cubbies, drawers and shelves, these desks are perfect for laptop or tablet use and add sophistication to just about any decor. While prices are picking up, we are still nowhere near previous market highs. A slant-front desk made in New England, during the Chippendale or Queen Ann period can be purchased from just $500 to more than $10,000, depending upon design and condition. At one time, that range would have been $3,000 to over $100,000.
The dramatic decline in prices of antique chairs is difficult to explain or understand. In many cases, antique chairs were made by hand, with hardwood harvested from mature forests; they are sturdier and generally, higher quality than far more expensive contemporary versions. The set of eight hand-carved mahogany chairs shown here are Victorian-era reproductions of an 18th Century style. They sold at auction for an unbelievable $390!
Historically, mirrors were widely used to provide architectural interest and expand cozy rooms. As homes have become larger, and built-in elements offered a good upsell for custom home builders, the need for antique and vintage mirrors has declined. Remarkably affordable in today’s market, a great, early mirror with beautifully carved details, gilt surface and a nicely worn hand-silvered glass brings glamour and elegance into a space. Prices for period examples typically range from $250 - $2,500 at auction.
Sets of China
Just a few generations ago, every bride had to have one or more full sets of china in her registry. Modern, hectic lifestyles demand convenience, however, and most vintage or antique china is not dishwasher or microwave safe. As a result, lovely, large sets of fine china and porcelain are readily available at incredibly low prices. Antique services for 8, 12, 16 or more from luxury European brands like Limoges and Haviland can often be found with a variety of serving pieces for less than $500, making it almost as cheap as big-box-store dishware.
There’s nothing like the glow of candlelight on an elegant set table with sterling silver flatware, cups, candelabra and tureens. Always the mark of a well-appointed household, sterling silver objects are actually priced according to value of silver on the commodities market, with some markup for age, condition and maker. If you follow the market, you may know that silver is trading very near the 5 year low (but climbing), making it a great buying category in the antiques and collectibles market. Names like Cartier, Tiffany and Gorham command the highest prices, often selling for more than double the “spot” price for silver.
Paintings and Prints
The art market can be fickle and insecure. The price for art is highly dependent upon current trends in interior design and the notoriety of the artist, including previous prices paid for similar works. Simply by buying the works of relatively unknown artists, a careful buyer can build an impressive collection. Prefer recognizable names? Look for lithographs and prints by your favorite artists. Even the signed and numbered examples sell for a fraction of originals. Digging a little deeper, you may find original works by artists who studied a renowned painter. Works identified as “in the manner of” or “school of” can offer the same look and appeal of an expensive work without a scary investment.
Article first appeared in the July-August issue of Sophisticated Living.