The dramatic shift in decor magazines, those arbiters of taste, can be traced back to around 2000. Looking over covers of Elle Decor and Architectural Digest shows a rise in the early years of the new millennium of modern, sleeker looks, while antiques retreated from the limelight.
The 1980s and ’90s had been the heyday for the English country house style and the gilded European style, said William Strafford, a specialist in European Furniture and Decorative Arts at Christie’s.
“If you went to any Fifth Avenue or Park Avenue apartment in those days, more likely than not they would be decorated in an 18th-century style,” Strafford said. Iconic American decorators like Mark Hampton and Mario Buatta specialized in decor that tied rooms full of antiques together in eclectic, colorful ways.
Around 2000, however, sleek, mid-century furniture became the new decor magazine craze. Decorators followed their lead: Ornamentation receded, rooms became white and minimalist, and mid-century modern furniture replaced its antique antecedents.
“Magazines to a degree in the aughts got into a rut of cookie-cutter interiors: of modern furniture, of modern art and modern everything,” said Mitchell Owens, decorative arts editor at Architectural Digest.
Perhaps more importantly, their readers’ lifestyles, by the beginning of the 21st century, had changed, and their houses evolved accordingly. The rise of mixed-use spaces—kitchens that opened into living/dining rooms, for example—lessened the need for formal furniture (and likely diminished the tolerance for its upkeep).
Misinformation—propagated by magazines and amateur antiques dealers who were little more than hobbyists—also diluted the meaning of the word “antique.” The few antiques that magazines did feature were often mislabeled by writers and editors who didn’t know the facts. Most of what they showed was simply “in the style of” a certain period rather than the actual thing. Auction houses, despite employing specialists and experts, occasionally did the same in their sale catalogues.
Auction houses and dealers had started off in a cooperative relationship—auction houses as wholesalers, dealers as retailers—but by the turn of the millennium this, too, had changed. Auction houses had begun moving into dealers’ territory in the 1980s by positioning themselves as direct sellers to consumers. They gussied up their retail space and catalogues, began holding special viewings for clients, and hired designers to show clients how to decorate with antiques, Bavasi recalled.
That was a sharp change from the prior setup, whereby auction houses largely sold to dealers, who looked there to find mis-marked or otherwise overlooked lots they could then restore and sell at a markup. The auction house Christie’s, by 1985—before it had even opened its Paris or South Kensington locations—had a handle on a multi-million-dollar market in antiques. That year, it sold a total of $20.1 million worth of antiques over eight sales of furniture and decorative arts in New York (in part thanks to one exceptional $11 million sale), and £9.4 million across 13 sales in London. By the 2000s, dealers and auction houses were competitors. Last year, Christie’s sold $46.4 million in the same category in New York across 14 sales, and £28.5 million worth of antiques in London in 18 sales.
Then there are the macroeconomic factors. Antiques were always luxuries. But the rising cost of many essentials—health care, education, housing—has meant less disposable income even for those in the upper middle class, slowing demand among the next generation of would-be buyers.
“The people who were buying from us, people between 45 and 70 who are now in their eighties and nineties, didn’t have to worry about healthcare or education. Now they are major concerns,” said Howell.
The 2008 stock market crash slowed any business that was still standing.
“I did the international antique show that fall,” McCoy recalled, “and all the billionaires were now millionaires, and they were all running around at the pre-party talking about how much money they’d lost and telling the dealers to please come back next year because they were all too sick to buy anything.”
Business never quite picked up again, even if those billionaires regained their wealth. Dealers are worried the antiques market may never recover.
So where do people buy their furniture today? IKEA, which began its global expansion in the 1980s, has more than doubled its sales revenue since 2005, from €14.9 billion then to €31.9 billion in 2015, making its founder Ingvar Kamprad one of the richest men in the world. Restoration Hardware, a few rungs higher in the mass market furniture sector (and many of whose products look vaguely “antiqued”), has nearly doubled its revenue
in just the last three years, from $1.2 billion to $2.1 billion, since going public in 2012.
Ironically, some antiques—one of a kind items—are now cheaper than Restoration Hardware goods. For example, a recent issue of the Antiques Trade Gazette
lists a good-quality English Tallboy Chest, made in the Channel Islands around 1770, at around £1,500–£2,000 ($1,905–$2,540). The Restoration Hardware Marseilles 12-drawer Dresser
, with comparable drawer space, costs $4,995.