A number of people brought to my attention the article written by Nancy Keates in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. It was impressive that Ms. Keates could put a number on how little antique furniture is compared to last year, i.e. thirty cents to the dollar.
Facts and figures really are punchy. The quotations accompanying the article point to a severe decline in the antique furniture market. Having written about the English furniture market for over 30 years, I can say that one of the quotes by Simon Redburn from Sotheby’s is no different from the quotes I have heard from dealers and auctioneers from the very first article I wrote in Art and Auction in 1979. Good things sell, second rate things don’t.
The furniture market belies market analysis for one simple reason. Quality, the essential ingredient behind value, is undefinable. Two pieces made by the same cabintmaker might be worth vastly different sums for a number of reasons. No other market is like furniture in this way. Does Ms. Keates understand this? I don’t think so.
Within the English furniture market, there are a number of different markets which heat up and die down. Economics can cause a market to go off the boil as it will reduce the number of bidders, but collectors die or complete their collections as well. It isn’t just a function of price. If you look at the sale Christie’s had in June in London where the record for English furniture in auction was broken three times in one night, you might conclude that one part of the market was bullish. Mid-Georgian furniture with a provenance seems very hot to me. Wish I had more of it.
Generalizations about the furniture market suffer for other reasons as well. The economic recession has reduced the number of players in the market. Many of these people could be called speculators and speculators will ride good economic times and pull out in bad simply because they don’t understand the markets as well as they might. What a surprise this is! Housing also seems to be falling as well. Don’t kid yourself, there are a great many people watching and waiting and wondering when to get back in. The WSJ article is just a starting point for them.
I often liken the complexity of the furniture market to trying to assess the value of a diamond at thirty yards. Is that actually a diamond one sees glittering on the ground over there or is it a discarded plastic bottle? The people who know it is a diamond are the people I don’t want to listen to.
One of the things that has made America unique in the world is the ability to quantify things that are unquantifiable.The hamburger is a good case in point. The Wall Street Journal turned their attention to quantifying antique furniture sales last Friday in an article by Nancy Keates.
The numbers she throws out are impressive, but what do they mean? She cites the fact that only 141 Queen Anne pieces sold on Ebay compared to 2,376 mid century modern pieces and 2,132 Eames inspired designs. Which part of the market do any of these pieces represent? She quotes both Leigh Keno and Simon Redburn, luminaries in the business to bolster the article from the high end perspective, but when coupled with the Ebay statistics, the reader is more confused than edified.
Articles such as the one by Ms. Keates make me wonder just how newsworthy a great many articles are. What does she know about the furniture she cites in her article save to say that it underperformed at auction. Did it have good color, was it restored, were there other pieces in the sale that were similar? The variables are many in such situations. What I would suggest to Ms. Keates, had I been asked, is that quantification of the antique furniture market is not one that the Wall Street Journal should attempt. The attempt, in the eyes of the professionals at least, comes off as silly verging on pejorative.