In times past, “antique” generally meant something more than 100 years old. Now the idea has become more flexible. Antiques fairs and dealers are selling ever more contemporary items in an effort to reverse their fortunes after a prolonged downturn in the trade.
Britain’s best known fair, the Art and Antiques Fair at London’s Olympia, has introduced a section devoted to contemporary art and modern design – just one of several to branch out from Louis XVI chairs and medieval English sculpture.
Dealers and fairs are also quietly dropping their “datelines” – the cutoff point for whether an item can be included – to allow space for some of the latest 21st- century designs.
Customers are no longer bewitched by ornate Regency mahogany chairs or Pembroke tables, says Thomas Woodham-Smith, a dealer and art adviser who set up the Masterpiece fair in Chelsea. “When I started on fairs back in the 1980s, there were still quite a few institutions that believed all antiques stopped in 1830 or thereabouts, pre-industrial revolution,” said Woodham-Smith. “The principle now is that you talk about things being ‘relevant’.”
“Relevance” means furniture and furnishings that fit in modern homes that no longer have parlours, drawing rooms or even dining rooms. “Everybody eats in their kitchens,” Woodham-Smith said. “They don’t have a dining room as such. They are used to modernity.”
While TV shows such as Antiques Roadshow encourage the idea that people have treasures hidden in plain sight around their homes, the reality is that the value of antique furniture has fallen by about 45% since 2002, according to the Annual Furniture Price Index, compiled by the Antique Collectors’ Club.
The economic crisis of 2008 is also partly to blame. The bankers who once spent their bonuses on smart investment pieces disappeared with the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Chinese buyers filled the gap for a while, keen to repatriate relics of ancient China that had been acquired by Victorian collectors. The downturn in China’s economy means this trend slowed last year – global trade in antiques shrank by 7% in 2015, according to the annual report by Tefaf (The European Fine Art Foundation).
The Olympia Art and Antiques Fair hosted seven contemporary dealers at its most recent event, at the end of June. Specialists such as Jaggedart, Berengo Studio and Arusha Gallery displayed glasswork, abstract art, fashion prints and mixed media pieces with great success. “I think it offers what we see as the antiques of the future,” Mary Claire Boyd, the director of the fair, told the Observer. “The antiques we enjoy now were modern in their time. It can appeal to a younger audience, but an older audience likes this stuff as well.”
Items are still vetted by a team of more than 100 experts to make sure they are accurately labelled. “We do allow people to sell contemporary items within our fair, but they have to be of a certain quality,” Boyd said. “The artist has to have a reputation and be known so that it’s got a lasting quality about it. Our visitors want modern or contemporary items as well.”
The taste for modernity has also been fuelled by retailers such as Ikea. A new breed of dealer has sprung up, offering a similar showroom and warehouse experience for antiques shoppers. The leading British proponent is Lorfords – 44 dealers spread through two aircraft hangars on the site of RAF Babdown Farm near Tetbury, Gloucestershire. Each dealer also contributes to showroom displays for customers to walk through. The idea proved so successful that the owner, Toby Lorford, opened a second a year later. “I suppose it’s a halfway house between Ikea and Harrods if I was being really grand,” Lorford said. “Rather than Ikea, where it’s easy to mix and match everything, for us there is quite a brand feel when you step from one stand to another. Some are extremely complementary, while others are not but quite theatrical for the visitor.”
Contemporary is part of the feel. “We don’t dateline. It’s important that we are primarily dealing in antiques, but the market is much more about furnishing homes for people,” Lorford said. “And they want choice and inspiration. If we say you can’t put anything new in, I just feel the customer is missing out.”
The shift towards a more retail focus means dealers hope to entice a new sort of buyer into the world of antiques: the type of person who doesn’t consider an antique as a financial investment, but realises it is possible to buy centuries-old furniture that undercuts modern equivalents.
“You can buy at the Battersea decorative fair, or at Olympia, a really nice 18th century period sofa for £2,000,” Woodham-Smith said. “It may not be £400 from Ikea, but there are lots and lots of people out there who are prepared to pay more than that for a modern sofa at Habitat or John Lewis or Heals.”
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