Castors fall off the antiques bandwagon

Plummeting prices and a growing trend towards modern design have left furniture dealers in crisis
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After decades of rising prices, the antique furniture market is beginning to look decidedly rickety. Traditional mahogany furniture, known in the trade as "brown" furniture and once the fashionable taste for many, has fallen out of favour.

After decades of rising prices, the antique furniture market is beginning to look decidedly rickety. Traditional mahogany furniture, known in the trade as "brown" furniture and once the fashionable taste for many, has fallen out of favour.

Today's trend for the minimalist, uncluttered look has left little room for the heavy furniture of the past, and antique dealers and auction rooms across the land are struggling. According to the Antique Collectors' Club index records, the industry bible, prices have been falling in the past two years; 3 per cent in 2002 and a further 2 per cent last year.

The drop in brown furniture is likely to be much greater - The Independent on Sunday found items that had dropped more than £1,000 in just five years. Antiques, it seems, are no longer in vogue among the younger middle classes, who would rather buy minimal pieces or even mix and match different eras and styles.

John Bird, an antiques dealer in Petworth, West Sussex, a town renowned for its antique shops, said: "This is the most difficult period I have ever known. Parts of the trade are definitely in the doldrums."

Elizabeth Poole, director of the Cotswold Auction Company, said: "Auctioneers across the country are seriously having problems with furniture, unless it is the best - which is still selling for high prices. All the middle-of-the-range furniture is going for a fraction of what it used to."

According to the auction company, a typical Georgian mahogany bookcase that five years ago would have been sold for £1,500 is now being sold for about £400. And a Victorian bookcase that would have fetched £500 five years ago will now fetch about £150.

Meanwhile, prices for 20th-century decorative arts, in particular furniture in the Art Deco and modernist styles of the 1940s and 1950s, have risen by up to 40 per cent in the past five years.

As a dealer in West Sussex who has been forced to close his shop put it: "Frankly, I am glad to be out of the business as there is no longer any money in it. The younger generations are just not interested in antiques." His shop was filled with 18th- and 19th-century English furniture that has decreased by £300-£400 in the past five years.

In past years, the furniture could be guaranteed to sell quickly. Today there seems no guarantee that it will sell at all. "There are just not the customers there used to be, so it takes much longer to shift stock. Gone are the days when I could expect to see 150 people coming into my shop on a Saturday - now I am lucky to have 15," said the dealer.

A change in taste is a big factor in today's struggling market. But the decline in American collectors coming to England has also seriously affected the trade. They have been kept away by 11 September, the Iraq war and the value of the dollar against the pound.

Previously, the massive American input into the trade had kept the prices high and the market buoyant. Without their presence, the prices have, inevitably, fallen. This has even prompted the grander furniture firms, such as Malletts in Bond Street, to open premises in New York.

But for many dealers the only way to survive is to try to change with the times and rethink the place of antiques in contemporary living spaces.

The new generation of antique buyers appears to want only one or two interesting antiques for their home, rather than rooms full of Georgian furniture. They are more willing to mix pieces from different styles and ages than previous generations and create a more eclectic mix of the old and the new.

David Swanson, a furniture dealer based in Petworth who has been in the business for more than 25 years, has had to change his stock to suit the new market.

"Minimalist and open-plan living spaces are fashionable now, and they can be every antique dealer's worse nightmare," he said. "But really interesting, quirky furniture does still sell well. People are going for a more eclectic look. Painted furniture and unusual Chinese and Indian artefacts are examples of things that, providing they are high quality, sell well."

Alan Rubins of London's Pelham galleries agrees. "No one is doing classic period interiors anymore. But any dealer who offers exciting pieces and presents them in an imaginative way still finds takers," he said.

The top end of the traditional furniture market is not having the same problems. Prices for the best-quality furniture are still rising. Richard Gardner, who owns three furniture showrooms in Petworth, said: "We made a decision about five years ago, when there were signs that the market would change, to only deal in the absolute high end of the market, and it's a decision that has worked well."

Out with the old

An English early 19th-century chest of drawers with a bow-front chest and a crossbanded top. Made from mahogany, it is classic "brown" furniture, big and bulky and middle of the range.

Currently on sale at an antique dealer's in Petworth, the item hasn't sold for some months.

Current price tag: £900

Value five years ago: £1,500

In with the 'new'

A Charles and Ray Eames-designed rocking chair, manufactured in 1970 by Herman Miller. Moulded fibreglass shell seat connected to a metal rod with a wooden sled base. On sale at Planet Bazaar, a shop selling 20th-century decorative art in north London.

Current price tag: £585

Value five years ago: £300

Andrew Hasson