In June, a delicate French tulipwood and amaranth table dating from 1750 sold for $93,750 at Christie’s New York. In the same auction, a pair of upholstered gilt-walnut chairs from 1770, known as bergeres, sold for $15,000. Those prices are significant—you could buy a Porsche for less than the table—but in the context of 18th century French furniture, the results represented nothing short of a market collapse: At the height of those tables’ demand in the late 1990s, equivalent pieces were regularly selling for $200,000, according to Christie’s, and 15 years ago those exact chairs sold for $50,000, meaning that in less than a generation they'd experienced a 70 percent decline in value.
“The market has definitely taken a turn,” said Mark Jacoby, the president and partner of the New York antiques store Philip Colleck. “Pricing has gone back to what it was in the 1970s and early 1980s.”
Jacoby can point to his own stock as an example. A lovely, massive George III mahogany breakfront from around 1780 is on sale for about $80,000. At the height of the market 20 years ago, Jacoby says, “it may have been around $125,000.”
Christie’s is about to embark on its fall interiors auctions: “Opulence,” which features 19th century furniture and decorative arts, and “Living With Art,” which includes a mix of furniture and objects from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. At them, collectors have the opportunity to purchase lots that appear to be near the bottom of a market downturn. “There are certainly segments of the market where there’s incredible value, like French furniture,” said Casey Rogers, the Christie's specialist who organized the Opulence sale. “In the middle market, from around $5,000 to $30,000, there’s been a leveling-off.”
While there’s no single reason for the market decline, and the absence of a comprehensive price index means that any declaration of market "trends" involves a measure of speculation, there are a few easy culprits to blame for antique furniture’s decline.
The first reason is the simplest: Taste has changed. “It wasn’t really until after 9/11 that there was a big shift in taste towards midcentury modern,” Jacoby said, pointing to the rise of glassy luxury towers. “Glass-clad structures with floor-to-ceiling windows don’t allow for furniture placement against their exterior walls. And they have these high ceilings, with almost loft-like interiors, and I think that’s helped drive the switch to modernist furniture and the contemporary art market, as well.”
The other main cause of antiques decline may be demographic. Many of the people who could afford to buy $100,000 dining tables in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s are dying, and their heirs are less than eager to hold on to their parents’ furniture. As they look to unload, the rising stock and diminished demand could cause prices to slump. “There is a lot more coming to market,” said Rogers, of Christie’s. “And what we’re doing more, now than ever, is to curate these sales. No longer do we put everything that comes our way up to market.”
Indeed, as the antiques market continues to sag, Christie’s is beginning to promote antiques as “statement pieces.” “We might not have a buyer who walks into the salesroom to buy 20 or 30 lots to furnish a house,” Rogers said. “Now they want to layer more pieces [from different eras] together. That’s been a real shift for us.” To that end, Christie’s has enlisted the interior designer Kirill Istomin to design “site-specific vignettes” for the October sales, allowing clients, a press release boasts, to “envision their collection possibilities and reimagine works of art in various settings.” Thus, a potential buyer might find new or at least novel uses for a French ormulu-mounted kingwood and fruitwood marquetry table, estimated to sell for $10,000 to $15,000. (A similar one sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for $39,000.)
Christie’s might also consider an appeal to the budget-conscious. A 300-year-old George I walnut chair carries a high estimate of $3,000; compare that to a stainless steel and leather armchair designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—it’s on sale for $5,884 at Design Within Reach.