2015 started with the hope a revival in antique furniture sales would end the decline of recent years. At auction, a frosty start to the second half of the year blighted this green-shoots aspiration. Results rattled confidence. Even though there were examples of high prices for individually exceptional pieces, unsold lots and low prices for general furniture seemed to indicate that buying had continued to dry up.
Given that there are now fewer furniture auctions than there were 20 years ago, and that furniture is mostly combined with other artefacts, prospects looked bleak. It was not all bad news, however. There were some sales in London in November that restored a little traditional poise to the scene.
Taken on its own, the general auction situation could be depressing but changes in the structure of the antique furniture business have meant that things are now done differently. Other factors affected prices. Led by internet retailers, shops and fairs came to provide some compensation.
New technology has unexpected benefits.Carbon dioxide and global warming are now viewed as a boon to agriculture, confounding green activists. Similarly, the antique furniture trade, its retail position long encroached by the auction houses, has been startled into action by the advent of the internet, increasing direct electronic communication with buyers.
In 2015 prices for middle and lower-quality furniture at auction continued to dismay vendors but dealers’ websites and portals expanded the range available direct to the collector, furnisher and decorator at retail price levels found in shops and fairs. They reported good business.
This suggests a revival in dealing that favours the supplementary services not provided by auctioneers, who have made good use of the internet.
A substantial sector of buyers looks for ready-to-use undamaged furniture available without hassle, at a click of a keyboard button, with no restoration requirements and a return facility if found unsatisfactory. None of the wearying effort associated with traffic congestion followed by clambering round auction rooms has to be endured, although auctioneers also have web sites.
These do not eliminate the uncertainties of bidding nor the disappointments of many sales, where the quality of lots is very variable. Dealers’ websites become more akin to catalogues, in which indexing and pictures save search time. Antiques may be out of furnishing fashion but the internet is making it easier to buy them.
With fewer fine furniture sales nowadays, the auction room still sells top quality but has also become a source of bargains for the bold buyer confident of knowledge and willing to restore or get restoration done. The unskilled furnisher and decorator gets on to the web or goes to shops and fairs for ready-made solutions.
The approach to acquisition, however, is not what it was twenty years ago.
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