One of the biggest perks of my job is that I get to peek inside some of the most interesting and beautiful homes in the Mid-Atlantic region. A common element to some of my favorite interiors is the use of antiques — as an accent or to complement the other furnishings and accessories.
In even the most contemporary schemes, a well-chosen early-American artifact or antique charcoal figure study has the effect of personalizing the space, adding character and differentiating it from a room furnished through so many clicks of a mouse.
Notwithstanding the emotional connection antiques establish, the economy of the past few years has scared away many would-be antiques buyers, creating a soft market and, I suspect, a great time to jump in and buy. To confirm that suspicion, I talked with local experts and "Antiques Roadshow" regulars J. Michael Flanigan and Paul Winicki of Radcliffe Jewelers.
Over the years, conventional wisdom has been that antiques are "a good investment." Then again, the same has been said for stocks and real estate. Today, experts agree that when it comes to antiques, there is no guarantee.
An example Flanigan offers is a set of English chairs that belonged to Francis Scott Key. "In 1903, the set sold for $8,000; today they are worth maybe $25,000," he says. "Something you buy for $20,000 could someday be worth $200,000. But something you buy for $10,000 could also be worth $2,000."
What should overshadow the investment opportunity is that we get to enjoy and live with antiques. Still, nobody wants a raw deal, so it pays to understand what's hot and what's not.
The baby boomers and their parents' generation represent a huge population of collectors. "As they retire and/or downsize, they stop collecting," says Flanigan, "and many of these collections are coming to market." The result? More supply than demand. "Today, people are still buying, they just are not furnishing houses with antiques anymore."
What's more, the new generation of collector has different interests, and the inventory that's available isn't always something they like.
"There is a generational shift occurring," says Flanigan. "Young men and women in their 30s and 40s are still interested in antiques … they just are not collecting what their parents and grandparents did, and it is unrealistic to expect that people will like what dealers have just because they want them to.
"Midcentury modern furnishings have become a hot new collectible — these furnishings are beautifully designed and crafted, and the next generation of collectors is making room for them."
The "generational shift" that Flanigan identifies, along with the economy, is creating some great opportunities for people interested in picking up a few antiques here or there to mix in with their decor.
"Now is a good opportunity to buy silver flatware and some holloware because the value of it is pretty much at the [silver] commodity value," says Winicki. There are "unbelievable buys on brown furniture right now ... average items at auction are bringing record lows."
Although now is a good time to buy unique high-quality pieces at good values, would-be collectors need to do their research.
Often, fear of unscrupulous dealers or a sudden loss in value on an investment scares away people new to purchasing antiques. In some ways, it's like buying a used car. You don't want to think you're coming home with a 19th-century American piece only to find out later that it was made in England.
"Buy what you like; buy the best you can afford; do your homework," Flanigan says.
Being a smart antiques buyer means educating yourself and going to good auctions, shows and dealers to compare market prices and learn the specifics of the type of antiques that interest you. But Winicki cautions against mixing education and purchasing.
"Go without a checkbook," he says. "Auctions are a competitive marketplace and a great way to learn about pricing. When buying, however, go with a plan: Know what you are looking for, know about it and understand the current market."
The right knowledge and appreciation of provenance, rarity and significance will help establish the cost of antiques, but it's their intangible value that makes them special.
Old things create nostalgia, tell a story, make a connection, and that's what decorating a home is all about. A dresser with hand-cut dovetail joinery and a faded signature on the bottom of drawer brings to life a cabinetmaker who lived centuries ago. The years of stains, nicks and wear bear witness to generations of lives bettered by that individual effort.
No matter what style is ultimately prescribed for a home's interior, the best decor tells a story — creates memorable, comforting spaces that are less about showing off and more about inviting in. Mixing antiques with new furnishings remains one of the best ways I've encountered to make that connection through your decor.
Think of all the reproduction and "distressed" new furniture you've seen in catalogs and furniture stores. Now ask yourself why a furniture designer would spend time making something that looks old. Why not just purchase something old to begin with, something you've selected, made a connection with? I promise you'll be happy you did.
Consider Baltimore's history and the resulting supply of unwanted antiques and vintage furnishings. If you've got even one green bone in your body, recycling old furniture is also an easy and stylish way to do your part.
Even better, those special pieces you've collected will become lifelong components of your home and will be passed on to future generations as newer furnishings are moved out to the curb.