Quarantine Series: Antique Prices

“Brown furniture is dead and no one wants it, that is why antique prices are so low”, is something we often hear. It is true that there is very little demand for “brown” furniture compare to the past. But lots of antiques aren’t brown or even furniture. So it is a bit more complicated than “no one wants brown furniture”.

First, there still is a significant demand for antiques. If there wasn’t we would not be able to stay in business. Until the recent shutdown, the Barn was selling more antique pieces to retail customers on a daily basis than we have at any point in our history. We have to sell more because prices are so low. That is the only way it is profitable to sell antiques these days. Antiques still sell well, but only at a very low price point.

For those who are unaware, the antique market has collapsed. Prices for most antique pieces are 30% of what they once were and many are significantly lower. We are in the middle of the great depression for antiques. The start of the collapse dates back to the great recession starting in 2008. And prices gradually declined for over a decade. Before 2008 antiques were an investment. For thirty years antique prices rose tremendously. Very much like the recent real estate market. People would buy antiques and just hold on to them for a few years, and make a tremendous profit when they resold them. Also many would fix up antiques and resell them at a tremendous profit.

We were recently contacted by a customer who bought an average antique bedroom set at the Barn 40 years ago. She was downsizing and wanted to resell it. She was shocked to find out how little it was worth in today’s market. She told us when she originally bought the bedroom set she had to decide between buying the bedroom set and buying a car. That’s who valuable antiques were 40 years ago. We informed her that if she had decided to sell the set 20 years after she bought it, she would have tripled her money. But unfortunately she waited until after the antique market had collapsed and her set was now worth a fraction of what she paid for it. Sadly this is not an uncommon situation. Antiques were a great investment for decades until the bubble burst.

Why did the antique market collapse? There is a lot of factors. For starters free trade, most consumer goods are significantly cheaper because of all the goods that are constantly flooding into the country from overseas at low prices. The prices of the new items we sell has come down significantly as well due to free trade. Changing styles is also a factor, younger people don’t want the “brown furniture” their parents had. Changing lifestyle is a big factor. It used to be standard for a woman to receive a formal set of dishes when she got married, not anymore. Everyone used to have a formal dinning room set. Now almost no one does. No antiques have dropped more in value than formal dinning sets. Also people don’t collect things as much as they used to, and houses and condos are smaller than they used to be. Open concepts and open spaces in homes is more normal than filling a space with collections. The rise of the internet also brought prices down. But the number one factor in my opinion is that most people don’t care about history the way they used to. Or rather they aren’t willing to pay for history. The history and age of a piece was largely what gave it value. We used to get asked dozens of times a day: “How old is this?”, “Where was it made?”, “Do you know the history of this piece?”, “Is it in original condition, or has it been altered?”, “Do you know what house it came from?”. We almost never get asked these questions anymore. Now most pieces just sell for their utility, quality, and aesthetic value now. History is no longer a consideration for most customers. There are obviously some exceptions. Like probably most people who are reading this article.

There are some exceptions to lower prices. We couldn’t give manual typewriters away 30 years ago, now the price of them just keeps going up. Sterling silver prices have held their value. Sterling still sells at a high price. What is now called mid-century modern furniture is and has been in high demand for many years. In the 1980’s we couldn’t give away mid-century modern furniture. Seriously, donation centers wouldn’t even take it. Lots of it went to landfill at the time. The old stereo’s from the 60’s and 70’s are selling now. We used to give them to furniture makers to use as glue tables.

The conclusion to all this is that there has never been a better time to buy antiques. There is tremendous value in antiques these days. For many items you could not buy the raw lumber required to make the antique furniture we are selling for the prices we are selling it for. You can furnish an entire home with wonderful pieces that will last many lifetimes for a fraction of the cost of buying new low quality items made of MDF that will not last. Buy the way, none of the new items we carry are made of MDF. The downside is that if you invested in antiques before the market collapsed you lost your shirt. The upside is that thanks to free trade cheap shirts are widely available.