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"I like cluttered, old, dark-wood antiques. I like character." - Martha Plimpton, American actress, (1970 --- )
BY JULIA ANDERSON
Lately PBS’s Antiques Roadshow has been doing what it calls “vintage” episodes where appraisals made on the show 10 or 15 years ago are revalued in the current post-Recessionary resale market. Often times the values have declined. No surprise.
It turns out that our children and certainly our grandchildren are absolutely not interested in grandmother’s mahogany bureau with the cute pull-down writing table, interior slots for envelopes and stationery and storage drawers. For them, a piece of dark brown desk furniture makes no sense in a world of IKEA, laptops and Facebook.
Unfortunately that mahogany bureau has sentimental value for me. I picture my grandmother sitting next to it in her small living room while doing her latest embroidery project. My house is full of that kind of stuff – furniture, table clothes, cut crystal and a few of my grandmother’s quilts and needle work. There's a lot of emotional baggage tied up in this stuff. I wonder a lot about what I’m going to do with it all. In conversations with friends, we ask each other the same question. Then we laugh and shrug. What ARE we going to do with our stuff when we downsize?
Following the trends
In July, Portland, Ore. hosts one of the biggest, if not the biggest antique and collectible show in the U.S. The event at the city’s EXPO Center attracts 1,400 vendors and 16,000 visitors over two days. Everything is on display from antique woodworking tools to wind-up clocks, vintage jewelry to movie posters and neon lights. Christine Palmer of Portland-based Palmer & Associates has been part of show for the past 30 years and now owns the show promotion and production business. Here’s what she told me.
Collectibles and antiques evoke a childhood memory of something we experienced or something we wish we had owned. For me those memory-triggers include Western art, cowboy lamps, pictures of horses and for some reason that I don’t understand, tin toy motorcycles and cobalt blue glassware. I’ve collected them for years.
But like everything else, the antique-collectible business is changing as the baby boomer generation approaches retirement. The last of us turn 50 this year. With all the downsizing yet to come that prized family heirloom may have turned into (I hate to say it) junk. Sorry, baby boomers.
What's not in demand
According to Palmer and others, glassware -- those crystal goblets your mother or grandmother so lovingly placed on their Thanksgiving dinner tables – is less collectible and less valuable. No one is buying formal glassware because no one is hosting a formal Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. No one even wants the formal dining room table.
Upholstered sofas, china hutches, formal dining sets, wood-finished dressers, even pianos have become almost impossible to sell or even give away.
Talk to people like Palmer or read the Wall Street Journal Lifestyle section, which regularly runs articles with headlines like this: “Why the Market for Heirloom and Secondhand Furniture Has Disappeared.”
No one wants "Brown Furniture" reports Alina Dizik in the Wall Street story. Antique oak tables and bedroom sets, Victorian-style mahogany – if it’s brown, forget it.
Who are the buyers?
Palmer said the antique business is alive, but the buyer profile is changing and what they want to buy is evolving. Buyers are 40-year-olds (and younger) who are furnishing their first or second home. They are looking for what the industry calls “mid- 20th Century Casual.” By that we are talking about 1950s dishes in bright colors, '50s and 60s table clothes and other textiles. Younger buyers like decorative outdoor garden items -- the smallish wrought iron table with glass top and two matching chairs. Again, it’s casual not formal or fussy.
In Portland, (near where I live), vintage clothing is popular. By vintage, we’re talking 1930stothe 1970s. That category includes hats, shoes, dresses, jackets and eyewear.
Vintage toys.... G.I. Joe and Star Wars action figures, lunch boxes from the 1980s -- are selling. A generation or two earlier, it was Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger.
In my early years of marriage, I gladly accepted hand-me-downs from my parents and grandparents…furniture, dishware, sterling silver. It was a way to get started. There was no IKEA or Target or imports from China.
Families ate around a real dinner table separate from the kitchen. Now it’s one big happy free-for-all bar-style meal. Boy, do I sound old-fashioned.
The Age of Consumption is over
The reality is that the collectible business is changing all the time. The big demographic shift under way now has baby boomers downsizing after 50 years of post-World War II consumption. The bad news is that the resale market is glutted with their household goods.
Items in the general antique category have lost 50 percent or more of their value since the late 1990s, say some reports. Young families that once bought second-hand furniture or took hand-me-downs, now want new but cheap and sleek imports ala IKEA.
Palmer is confident that Portland’s EXPO Center will continue to host a big show. The antique business, she said, is not dead but in flux. The Internet has certainly been a part of the change; it’s so easy to sell items like dolls, or paper or other small items online. Did you know that some people collect vintage swim suits and make them into wall displays? Vintage office supplies (ala Mad Men) is a fresh collectible this year, according to CountryLiving magazine.
Knowing what to expect
Selling antiques and collectibles can be a fun part-time business in retirement but you’ve got to be prepared to sell online, to sell at shows and to maintain a niche sales display in an “antique mall.” The three-way combination can pay off in revenue with little expense. Meanwhile, the old line antique store is gone.
If you are a baby boomer getting ready to downsize:
- Find out what your kids really want. Don’t be hurt, if they’re not interested in the “priceless” Spode china.
- Network with those in the business. What’s selling, what’s not? Ask about trends.
- Look at eBay, Craigslist and other online sales Web sites to get real about values and prices.
- Go to a few garage sales, estate sales and antique shows. Look at the prices.
- If you decide to have an estate sale, do your homework. I wrote about how to hire an estate sale business in a previous post, click here. Be sure to interview several estate sale business owners before narrowing it down.
- Get real about values of your priceless items. It won’t hurt so badly later when you try to sell it or give them away. Your stuff, especially your brown furniture, may be worth a lot less than you think. Sorry.
Editor's note October 2015 : How to Work Inherited furniture into your Décor from the WSJ, click here
Editor's note November 2016: Boomers often rebuffed when passing down heirlooms, USA Today, click here.
Editor's note: May 2017: 6 Things to consider getting rid of before they become a burden for your kids. - Country Living magazine.
Consumer Reports, click here.
Estate sales, click here.
How to hold a garage sale, click here.
What antiques to collect, click here.
I meet women all the time who face job and money transitions and who want to do them right. It’s about building confidence and taking charge of the future. This is your money. No one cares more than you do!
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