Market has settled down -- but not too far down

January 05, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

As the new year begins, antique collectors and dealers are assessing the past year and asking what's hot and what's not.

An overheated antiques market cooled off in 1991, but it's not in a deep freeze. Already, there are signs of a warming trend. After giddy price rises in recent years, the market generally has settled down to about where it was in the mid-1980s. A more sober, careful and selective antiques market is doing business, even in the recession.

There were bargains to be had for those with cash. Debtors in bankruptcy and estates brought good pieces to the market, often selling for prices much lower than what might have been paid in the late '80s. But good collections formed a generation ago still realized big profits when sold in 1981.

Checking in around the country, some dealers reported 1991 sales volumes down as much as 50 percent from 1990. Yet a few claimed it was their best year ever, despite slimmer markups. Several show managers had trouble renting booths as dealers ** cut expenses; others had waiting lists. Show attendance was off, but not dramatically at better shows. Auctions buyers had invested millions, and in the speculative contemporary art market. But when anything fine and fresh came on the auction block, bidders paid some record high prices.

Here's a look at some of the trends.

*Records for peace, quilts and guns.

In a year when America was at war in the Persian Gulf and unstable Eastern Europe embraced democracy, the two Americana auction records made at Sotheby's in New York in October seemed poignant. Peace themes prospered. "The Peaceable Kingdom," an oil painting by Edward Hicks, sold for $1.21 million, a record for folk art. An album quilt dated 1867, depicting the rebuilding of the Union after the Civil War, sold for a record $264,000.

Gun prices shot up, too. Butterfield & Butterfield, San Francisco auctioneers, set a record for an American firearm: an engraved Winchester rifle presented in 1884 to Queen Victoria's aide de camp sold for $517,000. The day-long auction on Oct. 22 totalled $3.5 million, a record sale of firearms in the United States, surpassing Butterfield's $3 million March sale of the collection of Texas banker Robert Howard.

*Linking up.

Jewelry, especially costume jewelry, is holding its own. One dealer reported selling all of his pins marked $50 or less at a December show. Cuff links, in style again, are small and relatively inexpensive gifts and collectibles. Most popular: antique pairs with glamorous and humorous decorations, and Art Deco designs. Two New York galleries mounted exhibits in conjunction with the publication of a new book, "Cuff Links," by Susan Jonas and Marilyn Nissenson (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1991, $35).

Ceramics, particularly spatterware, Gaudy Dutch, Leeds, Prattware, Mochaware and early-20th century French and English china decorated with flowers -- the more flowers the better -- are finding buyers. Sometimes it takes just one aggressive collector to drive up prices. That's what happened in the auction market for fine and large 19th century Liverpool jugs decorated for the American trade. At F. O. Bailey's sale in Portland, Maine, this summer, a jug decorated with a scene of the 1792 Boston Rope Walk sold for $33,000. At Skinner's in Bolton, Mass., one made for a New England ship captain decorated with a hand-painted rendering of his ship and with an American eagle printed in magenta, sold in October for the current record, $39,600.

*Nostalgia sells.

Nostalgia prospers during recessionary times, according to collectibles auctioneer Ted Hake. In November, he sold a 1962 "Fred Flintstone on Dino" Marx battery-operated toy in its original box for $840, a 1956 Elvis Presley Enterprises Rock 'n Roll Wallet for $988, and a 1939 Wizard of Oz scarecrow cloth doll by Ideal Toys for $1,512.

Throughout the country, collectors of mechanical banks paid premium prices for ones in pristine condition. At a Skinner's auction in November, board games sold well; one example, the National Game of the American Eagle published by Ives of Connecticut in 1844, won $5,390.

The demand for art glass, including works by Lalique, Tiffany and Galle, as well as Icart etchings, fields once dominated by Japanese collectors, is frozen without any thaw forecast. "The market is on hold," commented New York dealer and author Alastair Duncan. "There is just no movement now." Pre-sale auction estimates are more conservative, yet many pieces remain unsold. However, fine quality is selling, although at lower prices. At Sotheby's in November, a Tiffany Favrile glass and gilt-bronze poppy filigree table lamp sold for $33,000 (estimated at $30,000-$50,000), and a Japanese collector bought a fine Galle Marquetrie-sur-verre wheel carved cameo glass vase, circa for $140,800 (estimated at $150,000-$200,000).

*Russian dolls play politics.

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