A recent sale of antiques and art at Christie's brought the sellers half again as much as the highest estimates. The sale involved antique silver and the works of Old Masters, seized from the holdings of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos. Estimates were that the art would bring $14 million, tops. Yet, when the gavel announced the end of the two-day sale, $21.3 million had changed hands. Plus $4.9 million for the silver.
That might lead you to believe that there's something new and intriguing going on in those markets.
"At a certain level, prices really have nothing to do with economic conditions," says Paul Vandekar, secretary of the National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America (NAADAA). "With certain objects, such as Old Masters and English silver, you're looking at a degree of quality and rarity that makes it very difficult to estimate the market.
"In some cases, there will have been nothing equivalent on the market in several years. If a collector or a museum is determined to have such a piece, it takes only two people to create a record price -- which has no relation to the general market."
But in many other areas, the value even of masterpieces is to some extent governed by the fashion of the moment.
"As a rule, antiques and art are not objects you should purchase simply as investments," says Vandekar. "There are so many factors that influence the price of items that most people would be likely to buy." By this, Vandekar said, he means items that are not of museum class, but of the sort that one might find in an art gallery or antique shop.
"Fashion is one of these. Americana is affected by how interested Americans are in it. Germans are the big buyers of German porcelain and furniture." The economic conditions and, to an extent, popular decorating styles determine whether such items are fashionable.
"Another factor is the exchange rates. Depending on the relative value of the currency, something that is a bargain in pounds is not one in dollars."
The high prices paid for the upper tier of art and antiques, then, is relatively constant, though it tends to rise, he said.
"For those who are buying for decorative purposes, for their homes, buying pieces because they like them, now is a good time to buy. There is no frenzy."
That's the experience of Washington-based radio correspondent Jeff Young, who has been passionate about antique radios for years.
"There's always a chance that they will become very popular and my collection will become very valuable," Young says. "But that's not why I collect them. I collect them because I love them. There have been times when certain kinds of radios -- the first plastic and catalin (type of plastic) radios from the 1940s and '50s, for example -- went through the roof. Now it's cathedral radios. I stopped buying them and concentrated on 'coffin' radios from the 1920s. At some point, what's popular now will become less so, and those prices will come down, and I can complete my collection."
If you wish to decorate your home with art, the chances are good that etchings and prints are the market that will interest you. Carefully selected, these over the years have shown the potential to grow in value -- though as a rule not as much as other investments. Conversely, you do not get to enjoy other investments. A certificate of deposit is hardly an objet d'art.
But the print market can be a mine field. Art dealers report that the market in forgeries still thrives. There is a clearinghouse among art dealers to handle reports of known phonies.
"It's important to recognize that you're not going to be an instant expert," says Vandekar. "Reading a book does not give you years of experience.
"You must know the people with whom you deal. Look for people with a good reputation in business, who are held in esteem.
"The NAADAA doesn't claim that if you're not a member of us, you're no good -- there are many good dealers' associations. We're small, only 46 members. You're asked to join -- you can't apply for membership.