Antique tables and chairs might not be every poet’s idea of an inspirational subject for their next ode but they provided more than enough stimulus for a few stanzas in the January 31 issue of the New Yorker magazine.
Brown Furniture, a poem by 72-year-old writer Katha Pollitt, comprised just 20 lines but reached a print readership of 6m people and a further 17m followers on the social media accounts of the venerable US magazine (founded in 1925, now almost an antique itself).
Extolling the shared family moments witnessed by an armchair and a dining table hidden under its green cloth, the poem urged us not to throw out these antique pieces and ended with a question: ‘Who will love the old, if not the old?’
For dealers and auctioneers the answer is a new generation of buyers. Younger than the usual purchaser of antique or vintage furniture and more environmentally aware, this new clientele has been seeking out pieces of quality furniture for good prices and is behind a surge in demand over the past two years that shows little sign of abating in 2022.
City to country
An increased focus on improving living and workspaces at home in the past two years during lockdowns has led to greater interest in upgrading interiors and buying furniture, lighting and items for the garden.
Meanwhile, for some, a move away from city living to buying larger premises in the countryside (usually among people who no longer need to commute to the office every day) has created the need to furnish a larger home on a budget – often with the desire to have a period look.
Younger buyers tend to be more likely to factor in environmental concerns when choosing what to buy and second-hand furniture is one of the most sustainable, eco-friendly purchases one can make.
Even those that might want to buy new furniture often cannot find what they want. Supply chain issues have reduced the choice of new items available at retail and increased their price, making secondary market purchases even more attractive. IKEA, for example, in its annual trading statement in November acknowledged transport issues had led to some items selling out due to a lack of stock and rising costs in raw materials costs would have to be passed on to buyers in store this year.
Those wanting to furnish their homes have decided there is little point waiting for something not currently in stock to become available later when a cheaper and more convenient solution is on offer in the secondary market.
Already more than comfortable browsing and buying online, these fresh buyers have been enjoying the opportunity to explore a whole new market. No wonder Instagram accounts featuring interiors have been growing rapidly in followers – which even prompted City AM, a London financial newspaper, to publish a story last month titled ‘How Instagram conquered the antiques world’.
Man with a Hammer, an account documenting 37-year-old Greg Penn’s renovation of a 30-room former naval residence in Plymouth, now has 130,000 followers (see page 24). Penn is a regular buyer of vintage and antique furniture for his new abode and is enthusing his online audience with tales of DIY and buying at auction.
The ASFairs account run by the Arthur Swallow Fairs team has attracted 40,000 fans with its regular live chats covering antiques and sustainability and a monthly online fair promoting dealers via its Instagram page.
When they are not on Instagram, interiors buyers can often be found at online auctions. Data from thesaleroom.com (owned by Auction Technology Group, parent company of Antiques Trade Gazette) shows that over the past two years searches for furniture terms on its marketplace have grown rapidly.
The number of searches for ‘dining chairs’ grew by 40% in 2021 compared with 2020. Searches for ‘curtains’ were up 37% year-on-year, ‘chest of drawers’ and ‘armchair’ both rose by 36% and ‘bamboo’ was up 24%.
They were all dwarfed by the rise in searches for ‘garden furniture’: up 90% in 2021 which came on top of an 85% year-on-year rise in 2020 (see table on page 16).
And people from which age group were flocking to the website in record numbers? The under 35s. In 2020 the number of sessions from under 35s grew 72% year-on-year, with a further 23% rise in 2021. Use of auction alert terms on thesaleroom.com showed a similar trend with the most alerts set over the past 24 months (March 2020 to February 2022) coming for ‘bookcase’, ‘Ercol’ and ‘sideboard’ – which, along with ‘Rolex’, comprised the top four. Before the first lockdown in 2020 terms such as ‘Cartier’ and ‘Art Deco’ appeared regularly in the list of most-used alert terms, ahead of all the furniture alerts.
The popularity of terms such as ‘Ercol’ point towards the type of furniture these new buyers are making a beeline for: quality 20th century pieces with good design. Pieces by Ercol or Eames are attracting strong bidding (see pages 18-21). Mid-century modern is even more popular than it was pre-pandemic and Scandinavian furniture, which combines great form and function, is selling well.
With antiques fairs getting back to business last year after the end of most Covid restrictions, an even greater choice of pieces has become available.
Dealers at last month’s Battersea Decorative fair noted how well garden furniture was selling (see ATG No 2530) and recent design sales at regional auction houses have enjoyed strong sell-through rates.
“We are definitely seeing a rise in younger buyers,” says Matthew Baker, auctioneer at W&H Peacock in Bedford. Our regular sales are increasingly attracting clients in their 20s and 30s. Design Sale previews are often packed with young couples wearing beanie hats and pushing prams.
“There is a real demand for small, functional pieces that stand out. Many of our buyers are looking for one or two statement pieces to decorate their homes.
“Since lockdown, lots of new bidders have discovered the excitement of buying at auction. We’ve noticed a real change in demand for certain items; for example, certain Ercol pieces have almost doubled in value over the past two years.
“The market for Mid-century design also shows no sign of abating. Even with the complications and expense of obtaining a CITES certificate, Danish rosewood continues to excel.”
Hope at the lower end
For now, at least, the very bottom end of the second-hand market remains more difficult. Standard pieces of modern pine furniture or large, dark-wood antique items are challenging to sell but the low prices they currently achieve could point the way to a resurgence. With the cost of living rising so rapidly, more people will be looking for a cheaper source of goods and when it comes to furniture, second-hand at auction and fairs is hard to beat.
Perhaps auctioneers and dealers will soon be penning their own poems about the joys of old furniture. Just don’t expect to read them in next week’s New Yorker.
Searching for interiors
A number of search terms have had significant year-on-year rises on thesaleroom.com in recent years