Anyone in the decorative arts and specifically the “antiques business” has been overwhelmed by the last decade’s collapse in pricing, glut of supply, and dearth of dealers to create a secondary market. Yes, Tiffany is holding its own and modern design is still testing its limits but the industry’s many other categories are faring on a different level than has ever been seen in this market’s new re-balancing. Pricing now is a much more elusive number that tests Adam Smith to his core.
Willing buyers and sellers balance price with knowledge. The knowledge is a critical component for gauging value, but the value can be altered by an emotional or visual reaction to the object; does it turn you on! The emotional connection and appreciation of the intrinsic quality of the item has an edge, at least for me. So why can’t the public at large want some of this stuff like I do; to live with and enjoy. That big $64,000 question is killing the business, and it is all because of how these items are perceived by the public, which does not include being functional, decorative, and moments in time.
Even a Jeff Koons sculpture will be dated, just like Picasso, or Rembrandt. Perhaps Contemporary Design will eternally evolve, with form and functions ever driving innovation. The only salvation for the antiques business is to promote its point in time as a period designed piece. By all (my) measures an eclectic mixture of decorative arts is the best interpretation of taste, style, and knowledge. Mixing French with bamboo or Mid-Century with Italian Neo-classic, adding in a little Rustic, it’s the individual pieces that have to compete for your eye. How much fun is that! Going to a museum and seeing these things can evoke feelings of fantasy and make believe, so why is it so difficult to make these items appealing to a market that is much bigger than when the industry was thriving 15 years ago?
It’s really all about how these items are marketed. I have yet to see a professionally created analysis of the hard core antiques business. Trends are one thing, but the generational destruction of the market cannot be blames on 1stdibs and its sort. The whole image of these items has been hollowed out to Antiques Roadshow pricing. Sentimental value will get you nothing, and that’s not the kind of value you need as a buyer. Buyers have given up on this stuff not because it’s not “contemporary” but because our items have lost their ability to attract any emotional interest. Buying some “disposable” Nike sneakers can get your blood flowing, a cool Art Nouveau bergère in any room would light it up.
The antiques business is unfortunately in a downward spiral because of a simple problem, we’ve lost our sense of time. Our potential consumers have other more pressing needs than a slow selective process which requires both time and your attention. Yet there is interest and something of a mystery about the pieces and how they got here. The potential is there in anyone who likes non-fiction and has a visual sense. We trade in the real, not make believe. We should turn the image of these items into owning a piece of time and place, with good modern design pieces, that will get old too. Creating a marketplace that will foster that kind of thinking is daunting but is the best option for a resurgence.