Moderating a presentation at the Heart of Country Antiques Show in Nashville, veteran painting, and furniture dealer Woody Straub commented the slump in the current market was actually the third such dramatic decline in his lifetime. If you walked over to a table along a side wall and picked up a complimentary issue of Maine Antiques Digest, you’d see the current slump spelled out in black and white.
In his monthly editorial, S. Clayton Pennington set the scene for what was the auction portion of Americana Week in New York. A Queen Anne slant-front desk which had sold at Christie’s for $44,650 in 2002 brought only $15,000. A New Hampshire slant-lid desk which brought more than $200,000 at Sotheby’s in 2002 hammered at only $104,500. While the downward spiral is not without its spurts of confident bidding, Pennington didn’t seem as convinced the current situation was temporary. He termed it a “new price structure.”
Trend or paradigm, you can see the situation playing it in other furniture categories elsewhere in the magazine. A pair of Rococo Revival chairs by John Henry Belter that sold at Neal Auction in New Orleans for $30,550 in 2005, exceeded the present-day estimate of $3,000 to $5,000 but brought far less than the 2005 price at $16,250. Likewise, a set of six side chairs attributed to the shop of Duncan Phyfe brought more than $70,000 in 2003 and only $50,000 in January 2011. The second set of chairs with a similar attribution which had brought $119,500 in 2003 failed to find a buyer this time around.
When dealers and auctioneers talk about the market, they usually mention the high-end is still doing well. The March issue of MAD seems to reinforce that notion in the sales of American furniture, but apparently even Belter and Phyfe are not high end enough. For the creme de la creme we have to move up the coast to Rode Island. A block and shell carved mahogany bureau table attributed to John Goddard and estimated at $700,000 to $900,000 brought $5,682,500. At Sotheby’s in 2005, it sold for $940,000.
It may be the case that Straub’s comment means prices will eventually rebound. It also seems the common advice given by the panel, buy the best you can afford, still holds true. Yet at times, the best you can afford may not be good enough.