The Time to Buy: Collecting American Antiques in 2016

Hadley Chest, sold at Christie's Auction House for over $1 million

Hadley Chest, sold at Christie’s Auction House for over $1 million

I love Antiques Week. Every year, during the third week in January, collectors, curators, and dealers—indeed anyone with a passion for antiques—gather in New York for the Mardi Gras of Americana. The Winter Antiques Show attracts the rich, the famous, and even some of us in the other 99 percent. Major sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s create flutters of excitement. This year, Sotheby’s offered the collection of Anita and Irvin Schorsch. It was a sale for the ages. Collecting voraciously since the 1960s, the Schorsches filled their Colonial Revival farmhouse near Philadelphia with every possible household treasure. Needlework, carpets, ceramics, silver, prints, paintings, and a bevy of 18th-century Pennsylvania furniture (with a sprinkling of New England pieces to boot)—it was all there, and the quantity was overwhelming. The catalogue for the sale ran 608 pages and listed 1,049 lots. The auction lasted three days. Unlike most major sales, every lot was sold unreserved; in other words, there were no thresholds that bids had to exceed. Prices ranged from $970,000 for a massive Massachusetts chest-on-chest to $63 for a 19th-century lead tobacco box. Every lot sold.

Over at Christie’s, well-preserved rarities held sway. A pristine painted Hadley chest with its original decoration still intact fetched just over $1 million. A unique early dressing table brought $665,000, and a classic Philadelphia Chippendale card table with a distinguished provenance achieved $509,000. These high prices garner headlines and prove that the best of the best still generate significant sums. However, these figures mask the fact that the market for early American furniture as a whole has declined dramatically. At many local auctions, chests that brought $5,000 twenty years ago may sell for only $2,000 today. Certain forms, such as sideboards, have fallen out of favor and often go begging. In many instances, the larger the form, the harder it is to sell. In addition, condition has become a huge factor in the marketplace. Replaced feet on a chest or a desk can easily reduce the value of the object by 50 to 80 percent.

What caused antique furniture to drop in value? The reasons are varied and numerous. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, appreciation for antiques was widespread in the U.S. Today tastes have changed; lifestyles have shifted; and interior decoration has moved in different directions. At Winterthur on March 13, I’ll explore the current market for American antique furniture and discuss the factors that have affected its value. And while I can’t gaze into a crystal ball and speak with certainty about the future value of “brown wood,” I’ll offer a few thoughts about what might happen in the years ahead. Most importantly, it is not a time for pessimism. Rather it’s a wonderful time to buy—but with a caveat. Buy because you like what you’re buying and want to live with it, not because you see it as an investment. I hope to see you at Winterthur at 1:00 pm on March 13.

Post by Brock Jobe, Curator Emeritus, Winterthur Museum

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