Hot prices of the '80s are gone as the art and antiques world enters a predicted down cycle


January 20, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

The flashy, credit-driven art and antiques market of the 1980s is history.

Hot prices are on hold while the art and antiques world weathers a predicted down cycle. Nevertheless, some areas of the marketplace, where collectors have always bought for pleasure and connoisseurship rather than investment, appear stable. Business goes on even in hard times.

The major auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's, reported autumn sales off 50 percent and 39 percent respectively, as compared with increases of 72 percent and 49 percent for the same period a year ago. However, the sheer momentum in the markets for antiques and collectibles and the appearance on the auction block of some top-rate items produced some high prices in the fall term, despite the recession.

In the field of Americana, where there is no foreign competition and little speculation, a few new records were made.

Nothing came close to the record $4.7 million paid for the exquisite Colonial rococo Philadelphia pier table, sold at Christie's in January. It was way back in June that a record $231,000 was paid for a banjo clock at Skinner's in Bolton, Mass. But in October, Sotheby's managed to get a whopping $110,000 for a small Pennsylvania fraktur, a watercolor drawing of "Lady Washington" on a horse by an artist with a distinctive, folky style, making a new record for fraktur.

Ceramics of American interest performed surprisingly well. At Skinner's in September a French porcelain pitcher decorated in New Orleans by a painter named Rudoph T. Lux, with portraits of Gen. U. S. Grant and Adm. David G. Farragut in military dress, was expected to bring $1,000 to $1,500 but sold for $23,100. In November, decorative English pottery made for the American market brought prices well above expectations at Wolf's, in Cleveland, where a set of five red Spatterware cups and saucers with a fish painted on each piece sold for a staggering $39,600 and a gaudy Dutch coffeepot and a washbowl tied for a new record, each fetching $11,000.

In December the record for American folk art was pushed to $990,000 when Edward Hicks' painting "Penn's Treaty with the Indians" sold for its minimum acceptable price to Hirschl and Adler Folk, the New York gallery. The late Philadelphia antiques dealer Robert Carlen consigned it to Sotheby's before he died, hoping it would be the first American folk painting to fetch $1 million at auction. It just missed.

In times of recession people tend to spend more time at home, and make the house look a little nicer. At Morton M. Goldberg's October sale in New Orleans, a well-restored, nine-piece parlor set by J. and J. W. Meeks sold for $51,700 -- a record for a suite of Victorian furniture by this well-known New York maker, in business from 1830 to 1870. At a Pettigrew auction in Colorado Springs in July, a bed stamped "J. H. Belter, Patent Aug. 19, 1856/NY" sold for a record $101,750.

In some parts of the country,however, the picture isn't rosy.

"The auction market isn't what it was in 1988 or 1989," asserts David Arman, who expanded his auction business in Newport, R.I., this summer and says his timing was poor. "I've been telling people if they want to sell middle-range material, sell it without reserves or with reasonable expectations. It's a buyer's market; only if it's rare and fresh to market will it fly."

On the other hand, the market for toys and nostalgia seems recession-proof. Ted Hake, who sells popular culture in cataloged mail and phone auctions in York, Pa., says his last sale in November was the best in his firm's 23-year history. "The catalog covered 100 collecting specialties. We offered good items in every category and the bidders responded," said Mr. Hake. Among the political items: a button picturing William H. Taft and James S. Sherman with a figure of Liberty in the center brought $2,792. Mr. Hake said there were 10 bidders. A "Lost In Space" toy robot sold for $550. A paper store sign picturing Disney characters with Santa Claus made $663 and a Roy Rogers record player went for $318.

Sports memorabilia had its ups and downs. In November, Lelands, a New York mail and phone auction, sold Mickey Mantle's 1954 Yankees jacket for $24,200, and game-used autographed bats were hot. A bat Babe Ruth used in the 1930s sold for $11,859 and the one Frank Robinson hit his 500th home run with in 1971 made $6,160. Autographed baseballs plummeted from their highs. A Babe Ruth ball reserved at $6,000 failed to sell; another with both Ruth and Lou Gehrig's signatures sold for $6,600 -- about 30 percent less than prices a year ago.

The big test for Americana comes at the end of January when Sotheby's and Christie's will offer the best items they've been able to muster. On Jan. 26, Christie's expects to sell 500 lots estimated between $3.9 million and $5.9 million, and in a series of sales from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2, Sotheby's will offer 1,114 lots estimated to bring between $8.5 million and $11.5 million.

The antiques world will be watching nervously.

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