Have The Glory Days Of The 1980s Returned?
New York - It's not everyday that you hear longtime decorative arts dealers exclaiming the virtues of the antique and vintage business, but that's exactly what happened recently at one of the country's largest antique shows in Round Top, Texas, this past April. With over eleven miles of vendors, Round Top has grown to become one of the most important national antique venues for serious collectors and buyers alike - rivaling even the famous thrice-yearly Brimfield shows for marketplace dominance.
For those who took to the backroads of Texas to visit the festival, business was brisk. Very brisk, according to many of the well-established dealers who participated in the show. Robert Phillips, who's worked as a longtime industry reporter for a number of antique and decorative arts publications, wrote that he intended to spend most of the show interviewing dealers about what was selling best, but instead, came away surprised to find out that it was pretty much everything in their inventory that seemed to be moving. "Most dealers I spoke with were just stunned at the cross-section of buyers," said Phillips. "They were literally snapping up Mid-Century to Victorian and anything else in between." Phillips says that some of the older dealers whom he spoke with at the festival's close, had even begun drawing parallels to the golden-years of the industry back in the 1980s, when prices were at an all-time high. "It wasn't everyone, to be sure," said Philipps, "but you could just tell from many of the old-timers that it was like a cresting point - something they hadn't seen in almost forty years."
However, for those on the 'other side' of the table, like Andy Shelton, an avid collector of vintage and Mid-century lighting, who's been collecting for over three decades, it's become much more of a slog recently to score a deal. "I used to be able pick up good vintage pieces for peanuts," say Shelton, "but it's becoming increasingly difficult with more and more younger collectors entering the market." Shelton remembers a time not too long ago when there was virtually no one under thirty at Round Top, or almost any antique and vintage show for that matter. "Finding quality items at cheap prices was easy-peasy," he says. "Nowadays you're literally jostling with every beanie-capped, bearded hipster for standing-room only at the sales tables." Shelton admits that while it's getting harder to buy at reasonable prices, the flipside is that his own long-term collection has also soared in value. "A lot of the dealers are making good money now," says Shelton, "which is great in one way I suppose, because it'll allow them to sus out and offer up even better finds in the future." It's not that Shelton wants to pay more for his collecting habit he says, "It's just that I have to recognize current market conditions for what they are; not what I want them to be."
For others though, it's not just the 'larger' shows that are witnessing the price increases, but many of the smaller venues as well. Becky Carlin, an east-coast dealer who shows at events from New York to Miami, says that prices for many items she used to discount have risen sharply in the last couple of years. "It's not every single piece," says Carlin, "but it definitely started with the Mid-Century craze and has gradually expanded into other areas." Carlin wasn't around during the heyday of the 1980's, but says she's heard plenty of other antique dealers talk about the "glory days," and thinks there's a pretty good chance we might be headed that direction shortly. "Most of my buyers are now young twenty and thirty-somethings," she says. "They've got the collecting bug and they're just starting to move into their maximum earning potential." Carlin says that five years ago rustic pine washstands and harvest tables wouldn't move for months, but that now she has a wait-list for some of these items. "It's a different buying aesthetic than what it used to be," says Carlin, "today's younger buyers are not just interested in price anymore, but also in the history behind the pieces."
Taking that one step further, Don Holtz, a young entrepreneur who sells vintage furniture and retro-style decorative pieces on sites such as OfferUp and LetGo, says that it's no surprise that antique and vintage prices are rising. "The trend of going vintage has stormed onto the scene for a number of reasons," says Holtz. "Firstly, people are becoming more conscious about sustainable living and promoting the value of old items rather than buying new, and secondly, because of the uniqueness and rarity that many of these products afford." Holtz says that most of the queries he gets online related to his listings are from people in their twenties and thirties who want something different to decorate with, other than just the local flat-pack selection at their big-box store. "When I started selling, just before Covid began," says Holtz, "my prices were all negotiable - they had to be - I was selling stuff from the 1970s and 80s." Today, Holtz says he gets multiple bids on most pieces that he lists. "Prices have definitely gone way up," he notes, "especially for some of the older 70s white plastic modular stuff like tables and chairs." Working with a small budget at first, and not wanting to leave anything to chance, Holtz also formed a membership of online sellers into a group that were able to share information amongst themselves about market trends and sales when first starting out. "It's been a real eye-opener for us to see where things have gone," he said, "especially when comparing sales figures - which have jumped dramatically for all of us in the past three years." Holtz doesn't know exactly what to attribute the increase to, but like many others, feels that it's probably a combination of new buyers, who are also likely to have a new (and more sustainable) outlook when it comes to investing in the decorative arts.
There are probably a multitude of yet-to-be discovered reasons for the recent resurgence in popularity (and rise in price) related to today's antique and vintage marketplace. While this increase may not be reflected in absolutely every geographic region or area just yet, there can be absolutely no doubt that just like a rising tide, it will be coming. Or, as Mr. Phillips so succinctly summarized from his visit to the Round Top festival in Texas last month, "The allure of historical pasts is compelling, and antique items possess that aura of elegance that is very seldom found in modern-day products, making them not only extremely desirable, but available... for the right price!"
- A.I.A. Staff Writers
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