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Back to the budget brink

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Your cherished antique may not be very valuable

Dan Bobkoff Feb 27, 2014
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One Saturday a month, the Capo Auction in Queens invites the public to bid on everything from art to pianos to antique furniture. Some stuff does quite well. Other times, the auctioneer has to beg a little, resorting to saying “pretty please,” when an item has no takers.

The stuff here comes from all different eras but if you want to see what’s happened to traditional antiques—old wood furniture and the like—watch Lot 527. On this day, 527 is a Regency mahogany drum table, and let’s just say it’s a bargain.

 This style is “very undesirable now,” says Karen Cangelosi, Capo’s chief appraiser. “It’s bringing much less than it did 10 years ago.”

 That mahogany drum table, she says, came in with an estimated value of $1,000  to $1,500. A decade ago, it could have gone for as much as $7,000. The bidding on the table starts at $1,100, and after a few bids, sells for $1,300. 

Experts say prices for furniture from the late 1700’s and 1800’s is down as much as 60 to 80 percent. 

“You can find period American antique furniture for prices that are not any more than new quality furniture costs,” says Lincoln Sander, executive director of the Antique Dealers Association of America. 

And, like many things in this economy, Sander says the best quality pieces have held up. It’s the mid-level that’s tanked. 

“Eights, nines, and tens are doing pretty well, but the stuff’s that’s fives and sixes are not and prices are down considerably,” he says. 

Kenneth Ames and his wife recently downsized their home and sold many of their antiques.

“And the result was, which we knew would happen, a pretty substantial loss,” Ames says. 

He says for most pieces, he got about 30 cents on the dollar. Some did even worse. A Federal style desk and bookcase from around 1820, which he calls a “cute little thing,” brought in something like $300. He bought it in the 1990’s for about $1,200. 

Experts say younger buyers aren’t as interested in taking the time to find good pieces. And, there’s style. Brown wood furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries just isn’t in right now. Many people covet the sleek, simple lines of Mid-Century Modern. And cheap versions are easy to find at stores like IKEA and West Elm. 

Ames is a professor at the Bard Graduate Center. He knows a lot about antiques, and he thinks the business got itself into a bubble. Par- time dealers were also often the buyers of antiques, “buying frequently from one another, back and forth, from one another, so some of the illusion of retail health was a little bit fraudulent,” Ames says. 

It’s like hot potato. It drove up prices. Add to that, the combination of the financial crisis and changes in fashion proved devastating to the antique market. 

Ames thinks people were lulled into the idea that antiques would never fall in price.

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