How Elle Decor, IKEA, and the Rising Cost of Healthcare Decimated Antiques Dealers
My first interactions with Patrick Bavasi involved hunting for lions. He had come to work as my father’s assistant at Dillingham and Company, my father’s antique shop, in the early 1990s before my twin sister, Caroline, and I were born. He was always friendly, competent, up for any job, much better at anything having to do with technology than my father. But the days the two of us happened to be in the shop, as my father talked to clients, or shuffled papers, or otherwise hovered within a four-foot radius of his big, heavy, wooden desk, in the midst of his shop full of treasures, Bavasi would entertain us. He had us find and count all the lions, including lion paws, a popular 18th-century English feature on chairs and tables. A bluish-grey wooden statue of a lion in the window, right paw holding a ball, its little tail curved upward playfully: One. A brass doorknocker in the shape of a lion’s head, mounted on one of the walls: Two. One chair, two chairs, three chairs with lion’s feet. Four, five, six.
Caroline and I grew up with a sense of impending doom, sure we would have to take over our father’s business when we were old enough: He was always asking, only half-jokingly, which of us was up for the job. But by the time we grew up, Dillingham and Company, like so many other antique shops, had been forced to fold, a casualty of changing tastes, modern lifestyles, and the rising cost of essentials like health care and education for upper-middle class consumers. The lions had scattered to various households.
Bavasi first joined the world of antiques accidentally. He was living on a friend’s couch in San Francisco, and had just graduated from the American University in Paris, where he had studied French literature and art history. He had no plan. When his roommate told him that a woman she knew would pay him $25 to move an armchair for her husband, an antiques dealer, he agreed. It was just a few blocks, from California Street to Jackson Square, and he could borrow the roommate’s friend’s pickup truck. An easy $25. Sure.
The next day, having successfully moved the armchair down the street, he got a call: “Is this Patrick?” came the slow and heavy Southern drawl. “I understand from my friend that you know your way around antique furniture.” Though Patrick knew nothing about antique furniture at all, he replied, “Sure do!”
“I think at the time I may have been less qualified to start a job in antiques than half the guys in the neighborhood,” Bavasi recalled. “But it was from that moment on that I just felt I was in the right place.”
Back then, in the 1980s, high-end antique dealing was the right place to be. Antiques were thriving. They were lucrative. Dealers could buy a piece for $20,000, restore it, and expect to sell it for $55,000. Shelter magazines—the major influencers of decor trends—favored rooms full of antiques. The 1% and the upper middle class were collecting them at top dollar.
Over the next 30 years, however, everything changed. In that time, the number of high-caliber dealers with storefronts in New York City dropped from the thirties to a lonely seven today, according to Clinton Howell, a New York-based dealer in English furniture and the president of CINOA and the Art & Antiques Dealers League. Although you may find dozens of “antiques” shops in the phone book, true top-level antiques dealers, who are recognized by a trade association with a code of ethics, are hard to come by. In London, the original center of the antiques world, there are now only about 15 English and Continental furniture shops still run by such dealers, according to James Millard, a London dealer who, like Howell, no longer has a storefront. Fulham Road, once known as “Brown Mile” for the number of antiques stores it held (as many as 20, Millard recalled), now only has two.
The British Antique Dealers’ Association’s website lists 113 furniture dealers across all of England, slightly under half of which are in London. But over half of them are “by appointment only,” meaning that they have closed their doors and relocated their inventory either to their homes or to warehouses to show upon request. Antiques dealers who don’t own their retail space simply can’t afford to stay open, and for the most part, they’ve disappeared.
That has fundamentally shifted how the antiques market is structured, and where it trades. According to the ACC Antique Furniture Price Index, calculated by longtime managing editor of Antique Collecting magazine John Andrews using retail prices from shops, fairs, markets, and auctions across the United Kingdom, the average price for antiques had fallen every year between 2001 and 2014, shortly before Andrews retired. Yet even as the price for the average antique falls, prices at the very top end are soaring as auction houses offer the rarest, most exquisite finds for their trophy-hungry clientele. In the last published edition of the index, Andrews noted the “widening disparity between retail prices and those at auction,” reflecting the sentiment that “the capital is another country, with a separate economy.” For most people, antique collecting is decidedly out of vogue.
Antiques as Education, Truth, and Beauty
Antiquing really began with the tradition of the Grand Tour. In the 17th and 18th centuries, upper-class English gentlemen, and occasionally women, took off across Europe to study Classical ruins, sculpture, and Renaissance art. This was a rite of passage in the classical education, in which they became versed in Greek and Roman history and literature. Along their travels, the Grand Tourists collected artifacts to display in their homes upon return, often alongside art and libraries that also reflected their knowledge and education.
The Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of 18th-century Europe from which the connoisseur collector arose, also produced what is now considered the best of antique furniture.
“There was a real belief in getting to the truth. Truth was beauty,” said Howell of this time. This beauty, he said, alluded to Classical beauty, the mathematical symmetry that came from Greek and Roman art and architecture. This was most specifically the case in Britain. France, Italy, and a few other parts of the continent were also producing beautiful furniture, and had been for centuries, but of different design and craftsmanship. British craftsmen during the 18th century were carefully trained and often controlled by guilds. Standards, as a result, were incredibly high.
“Every object that was made,” said Howell, “people would do their damnedest to make it beautiful, and that included craftsmanship, the timbers, everything.…I think we’re very far away from that in this decade.”
“The Romance behind It”
Many of the collectors of the 1980s and ’90s, like those of the 18th century, acquired antiques for reasons beyond pure monetary value and even the aesthetics.
“They liked the romance behind it, the stories, the age, obviously, of an antique,” Bavasi said. “I found our clients to be less preoccupied with buying an antique as a financial investment. It was more of an emotional return they were getting. They could sit at the end of the day on a sofa like this, put their feet up on a table like this, and put their drink on an antique table, and just for a minute, things were alright in the world.”
Now, Bavasi says, that emotional drive seems to be gone. “In the last 10 years, it’s been all about getting the best deal.”
For many dealers, too, the value of antiques was never exclusively monetary. The fact that they could make a good living doing something as fun as buying, restoring, and reselling old objects was lovely, of course. But discovering antiques and restoring them felt fulfilling, even altruistic.
“With antiques, when you find something really great that’s undervalued, you feel like you helped the world a little bit, because you’re saving something,”said Howell. “There’s no greater thrill. I could imagine it’s sort of like making a great movie or creating a song. You know, you just feel good about it.”
Antiques dealers tend to be obsessive about their trade. They develop a sixth sense about their chosen field, and often know instantly, without close inspection, whether they are looking at something real or fake, good or mediocre.
“We are sick in the head, we are so obsessed with knowing what’s right and wrong and knowing how to identify, ‘Oh, no, that’s not original hardware,’” said Mary Helen McCoy, a private dealer in French antiques in Memphis, Tennessee. “It goes beyond seeing and feeling, we have to take it apart. I mean, we’re nuts.”
That kind of obsessive expertise is dying out, said McCoy, as the dealer population shrinks.
Blame the Auction Houses and Magazines, or Modernity Itself?
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.
Those Who Remain
Strafford said passionate collectors still exist, even if they’re a smaller group than they once were.
“The really great things do still have a definite trajectory of increasing in value,” he said. This is especially true, he said, for pieces with an important, particularly royal provenance. He pointed to an example from a 2015 Christie’s sale in which a fauteuil from a suite supplied for Queen Marie Antoinette for the Pavillon du Belvédère in the Petit Trianon sold for £1.8 million. Its previous sale price, back in 2001, had been 2.1 million French francs, which was then the equivalent of £186,400.
Anything but masterpiece antiques like this one—or those made by famous cabinet makers like Thomas Chippendale and John Linnell—have fallen in value. That 1770 English Tallboy Chest estimated at around £1,500–£2,000 would have been easily valued at £10,000 just 10 years ago, according to my father, Gaylord Dillingham. A recent Bonhams sale in Los Angeles sold an English Regency Writing Table for $6,875; 10 years ago, it would have been worth $20,000 or more, he said.
But even the auction houses are investing less in their antiques businesses. Christie’s recently announced the closing of its South Kensington location in London, long a hub for antiques collectors and dealers. When Strafford had his first job at Christie’s in the 1990s, he said, an antique furniture sale was held each week at South Kensington. Now, those sales only happen every month or so, and may become rarer in the main King Street location of Christie’s London, where antiques will compete for space on the calendar alongside in-demand categories like jewelry and modern art.
Bavasi remains in antiques. He has landed with one of the few antiques businesses that have been able to stick it out in New York: Hyde Park Antiques. The shop has survived in its large retail space because Bernie Karr, who founded it in 1965, had been able to buy the building in which it is housed in 1980, when downtown New York real estate was still affordable. Located a few doors down from Strand Books on Broadway, just off Union Square, it sells polished wooden furniture, mirrors, paintings, and objects.
Bavasi’s job is to keep the business relevant to today’s world, which he’s doing by expanding its online presence and recontextualizing its wares. He has created an Instagram account, is working on a newsletter, and made the shop’s booth at the Winter Antiques Show a “very ultra-modern” celadon green.
Efforts like those may be behind the renewed interest of younger collectors, said Bavasi, who sold something recently through an Instagram post. Business has been good since January. (Still, the growth of the online marketplace has been bittersweet, coming at the expense of the vital core of the trade: a human interaction, a tactile experience, and an exchange.)
“I just wish people would get out more and pick up things, go to auctions, go to antiques fairs just to touch things, look at things, feel things,” said Owens, who acknowledged that the shuttering of many shops made that ever more challenging.
Of course, I’ve never left the antiques world, and though I couldn’t stand to be dragged to yet another antiques store any day of the week in my younger years, I seek it out now wherever I can. A few weeks ago, I walked into Yew Tree House Antiques on New York’s Upper East Side. Kevin Kleinbardt and Ahna Petersen, its two owners, credit “good fortune” and “the ability to reveal how antiques are relevant and perhaps even essential for today’s interior” for their survival.
I felt immediately transported back to the world of antiques I remembered growing up, reminded of the playful spirit with which my father used to collect things for his shop. The wall behind Kleinbardt’s desk was patterned with tiny shelves holdings old objects of every shape—cups and pewter pots and little wooden animals, all of which seem to be talking to each other; a dog dozed underneath it.
As I looked around, I remembered my first days of hunting with Bavasi. There were lions everywhere: one proudly lying in the window, lion paws scattered under chairs throughout the shop, and many more, I’m sure, lurking about. I should have counted.