February Editorial

This month sees the magazine focus its unrepentant gaze once again upon antique furniture. The ACC Index figures for last year are available, detailed in this issue’s special article, with regrets that the news is not better – the Index is down four percent. It is not much of a drop but as John Fiske of the New England Antiques Journal put it succinctly, tongue in cheek, not so long ago: ‘Every year John Andrews publishes these figures and I wish he wouldn’t.’ What he means is that he wishes I wouldn’t as long as the news is of a further decline in prices, even if it is a small one. If the news recorded an increase, publication would be welcome. It is rather like the economy generally: up is always better than down. An Italian colleague once said to me that a little inflation is not a bad thing if it comes on top of a general upsurge. Grinding along with a low interest rate, low growth and little return is much more depressing than dealing with a bounding economy in which soaring prices and inflation require reining in like a team of runaway horses.

The feeling that we are bumping along at the bottom of a cycle for antiques and that the time for recovery and upward movement of prices cannot be far off is hard to resist. Everything else seems to be going up in price. To reiterate the boring actuality without prospect of change is extremely tiresome. Yet serious economists are warning us that we face grave danger of another recession and that the situation is precarious. The government’s plans to cut the country’s amazing deficit started well but have now slowed because tax revenues have declined. A whopping series of further cuts in public expenditure are to be set in motion as soon as the next election is over. What, you may ask, does this have to do with antique furniture or indeed any sort of antiques? The answer is that people without money in their pockets do not indulge very much in period ornamentation. But when it comes to functional things, if second hand is cheap and new is expensive, second hand gets a boost. Mike Golding of Huntington Antiques is quoted as saying, à propos of the current lack of interest in antique furniture, that ‘it is no longer necessary’ because the function it fulfils is efficiently performed by modern producers and firms like IKEA.  But much modern furniture is both flimsy and expensive, whereas antique pieces are solidly made, and in today’s price drought they are much better value for money. In the recent contest between modern design made by machinery and traditional style hand-made by craftsmen, modern design has won the fashion war comprehensively. Now that the price relationship is changing, the contest enters a new phase. It is clear that there is still plenty of money available for the choice plums of antique furniture on offer. What has caused the downward spiral of prices is the collapse of the middle ground, as every auctioneer and most dealers will testify. No one is brave enough to guess if and when that will revive; the feeling that it ought to revive is ingrained from previous experience, impishly suggesting that history always repeats itself. Only the timing is in question.

Antiques optimists take the timing view, looking for a revival. Pessimists say forget timing, there won’t be a revival. Interior décor has changed forever, according to them, because housing, social attitudes, income patterns, design education and a series of influential factors dictate permanent change. The Victorians thought much the same. They entered their highly influential era detesting anything eighteenth century in design. Housing, social attitudes, income patterns and other factors were all changing the country permanently and they rejected Georgian precedents. This rejection led them to all kinds of different styles. But they ended their era making large quantities of excellent reproduction eighteenth century furniture. Plus ça change, as they say in France, plus ça c’est la même chose…

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