There are very few positives to take from the latest findings of The Antique Collectors’ Club’s Annual Furniture Index (AFI). For reasons of fashion and function, the English antique furniture market remains in a parlous state and no category from early oak to Georgian mahogany held firm.
As a whole the index, based on a blend of
retail and auction prices for 1400 typical (rather than
exceptional) items pictured in John Andrews' book British
Antique Furniture, fell by 6% last year. Set at 100 when Mr
Andrews began the project in 1968, the Index reached a high of 3575
in 2002, but now stands at 2238, down 62% from its peak and a level
it last saw in the late 1980s.
The past decade has seen the AFI in steady
decline, including record falls of 7% in 2009 and 8% in 2010 - a
sustained fall in contrast to the gains seen on the stock exchange
or the housing market.
According to the AFI, antique furniture - a
marketplace that rode high on the wave of its investment potential
in the 1970s and '80s - is struggling to keep pace with inflation
(recorded here as the Mars Bar Index) across 45 years.
In 2013 falls were recorded in all seven of
the major categories from which the Index is derived.
The categories most associated with the
decline in formal dining, Late Mahogany (-7%) and Regency (-8%),
show few signs of returning to form, while falling demand for
dressers and coffers meant Oak (-6%) and Country (-7%) again showed
the new-found vulnerability that has marked them among the biggest
losers in recent years.
Large amounts of Victorian and Edwardian
mahogany furniture continues to be discarded cheaply at auction -
"there is a widening disparity between retail prices and those
being noted at auction," observed Mr Andrews - and the separate
Victorian & Edwardian index, started in 1973 and once the
recipient of spectacular gains, registered a 6% drop.
Some forms remain strong, such as the
upholstered tub chairs popular with interior decorators, while
other standard late 19th and early 20th century pieces, such as the
davenport, the work table and the credenza still languish among the
unfashionable. Anything too bulky for the modern interior meets
Early Mahogany, a category based on
good-quality, middle-range pieces made between 1730 and 1760,
during which period the reputation of English furniture was
established, fell 4% in 2013. This wipes out the 3% gains seen the
previous year when the words 'green shoots' were used amid
suggestions of an imminent change in fortunes.
The buying base has doubtless contracted,
observes Mr Andrews.
"In these circumstances the acquisition of
antique furniture is becoming concentrated into a smaller and
keener body of enthusiasts rather than being a staple source of
general domestic furnishing," he said.
Like dealers and auctioneers across the
country, he continues to push the message that antique furniture is
both better quality and better value than modern alternatives - and
points out the cyclical nature of fashion-led markets.
"In the 1960s it was said that the price of
oak furniture had not yet regained the level at which it had sold
in the 1930s. Those who like antique furniture purely for itself
are in the happy position of being able to acquire it now at prices
in many cases of 20 years ago. There is a sunny side to
A fuller analysis of the numbers is published in the February
edition of Antique Collectors' Club magazine Antique