Millennium catapults prices Antiques: As 2000 approaches, purchasing 19th-century American items becomes viable only for the rich and museums.

March 22, 1998|By SCOTT PONEMONE

I am humbled, truly.

I thought I was a player. Admittedly a minor one, but a player nonetheless. My credentials being: (1) I can talk the talk and (2) Occasionally, I actually will put my money where my mouth is.

But at last month's Hunt Valley Antiques Show, prices left me mute. I doubt I can be a player, i.e., a collector of early 19th-century American furniture, at this annual show in Cockeysville anymore.

I fear the millennium, or rather the change of century, will make the 19th-century too distant, too exotic, without any living connection to the present day. I fear that young collectors will not be able to follow in my footsteps unless they inherit very deep pockets.

If so, they'll miss out on the joy of living with furniture that originated then. These objects not only glow with a time-given patina, but they speak of a time when all furniture was crafted by hand and often exhibited the pride of achievement only the guild system with its apprentices, journeymen and masters could produce.

Soon only the wealthy and museums will be able to purchase early 19th-century decorative arts. Soon these pieces will be so dear, hardly anyone would dare actually use them as furniture. And when they lose their function, they won't be furniture ever again. Might as well be fossilized in a museum.

Anyway, at this year's Hunt Valley show, I knew not to expect the 2 percent inflation we Americans enjoyed at the retail level last year. Few of the show's items, after all, were produced after 1870. There's not exactly an infinite, or even a replaceable, supply of this stuff.

But after I heard the asking price for a Baltimore-made writing table and bookcase, c. 1830, I avoided all further conversations with dealers at the show, even ones I had patronized several times before. What could I say?

The piece in question, flashy in its skin of mahogany veneers and carved to reflect the nation's then fascination with classical Greek motifs, has made four public appearances - three of those here - in the past six years.

First, it was featured at the Maryland Historical Society in its 1993 exhibition "Classical Maryland, 1815-1845" and in the accompanying catalog.

Then the owner, a former Baltimore antiques dealer, probably hoping to profit from the desk's newfound eclat, placed it at Christie's auction house in New York in the fall of 1993. The result, the seller told me last year, was disappointing - $7,500.

The purchaser was Carswell Rush Berlin, a dealer whose showroom is his New York penthouse. Appointment only. Berlin displayed it at the 1994 Hunt Valley show - the asking price in the high teens. It was fun admiring it up close, after seeing it unreachable on a dais at the historical society show. The carving of the muntins (that's antiques argot for the window dividers of the bookcase) was elegant and crisp.

If I thought I wasn't a player then, I certainly knew it down to my toes when Berlin offered it at Hunt Valley again this year.

First we chatted about how he came to be selling it again. Simply put, he said he had it on consignment from the woman he had sold it to initially. And he asked about the man who put it up for auction in 1993, but he already knew the name. So I asked, in passing of course, how much this time. His reply: $40,000.

At its previous price, I would have had to save up for a few years. And I'm not that disciplined. At its current price, I would have to jeopardize my retirement.

When the previous owner who sent it to auction heard about the current sticker price, he hooted, "Who's going to buy it for that?"

Berlin, however, quoted New York auction prices for classical American furniture over the past three years to justify the bookcase's price. And at $40,000, he said, "it still is a pretty good value."

If I were writing to a sour-grapes conclusion, I would say: Who needs Hunt Valley anyway? I've done quite well for myself poking about the peripheries of the antique market, using whatever smarts I've picked up as a collector and a reference-book reader to find relative gems in less obvious hunting grounds.

And if I were to consider how robust the economy has been, I'd say: The haves are even plusher than ever these days, so why shouldn't the dealer make them pay and pay? For those who can, why not turn that paper Wall Street wealth into some polished showpiece for the parlor.

But I see this extraordinary inflation in a different way:

The geometric progression of fine early-American decorative-arts prices inversely equals the precipitous disappearance of the 20th century. And upon reaching the millennium, the sky may not be a sufficient limit.

Largely to blame is the human failure to commonly live more than 100 years. Already we have few living links to the 19th century. By the year 2000, the severance from the 19th century will be virtually complete.

I had the privilege of growing up with grandparents born in the 19th century. Most of the elderly of my childhood were born the century before.

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