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Oldies but Goodies

Greg Spears, 3:15 am ET

IF YOU’VE EVER wanted to own antique furniture, now is the time to buy. The cost of “brown furniture” has plummeted. That old-money mahogany is deeply out of fashion with today’s tastemakers, who prefer mid-century modern set out in spare, white rooms.

I won’t claim that 18th century goods are better aesthetically. That’s my personal preference, and probably an East Coast sensibility. Rather, I’d say that old furniture is better value. The fact that a table or desk has survived for two centuries is a testament to its durability—and it may cost less now than flat-pack furniture made of particle board.

Last summer, I spotted a Chippendale tea table with a solid mahogany top. A faded note pasted to the underside dated it to 1773. I bought it for $105 from the dealer, who said he wanted to make room for other goods. It could have been priced at five or 10 times as much a decade earlier.

Another piece we own—an English dressing table—dates to around 1750. My wife worries that her makeup jars may leave rings on its top. I tell her that use marks can be helpful indicators of authenticity. Besides, it cost $250, so it can be put to use without fear of hurting its value.

I try to draw the line at buying antique chairs. People were tiny long ago. Their chairs can break under modern weight. But tables, desks, chests and chests of drawers all seem to function as well today as the day they were made.

It does take time to acquire a roomful of antiques because you can’t just buy a set. But the hunt for something rare is a good weekend diversion for me. I’m always trying to snag a bargain—and can easily find them these days.

One problem: Low prices make it hard for dealers to earn a living. A lot of antique shops have shut their doors. It’s partly the pandemic and partly because trade has moved to the internet. Still, when prices are too low, any market can grind to a halt.

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John Yeigh
John Yeigh
9 months ago

To quote my son a few years ago when the two of us were struggling to move just a couple of our antique family pieces “Dad, this is the last time ever, I am going to move this heavy, ugly brown furniture.”

R Quinn
R Quinn
9 months ago

Fascinating. I didn’t realize prices have dropped like that. My info comes from reruns of the Antique Roadshow. My oldest pieces of furniture are two chairs from the 1880s which I ruined many years ago by having them dipped and refinished. Nothing today can compare with the craftsmanship of the 18th century. Try even finding furniture made in the US. However, the one exception I know about is Amish made furniture which we had made for our bedroom three years ago. Pretty solid stuff.

Greg Spears
Greg Spears
9 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Original finish is hard to find, which makes it more valuable. On the other hand, I bought a circa 1750 chair that had just been painted turquoise for $25. Sacrilege, I thought. But it became my daughter’s favorite because she found it cheerful.

Luckless Pedestrian
Luckless Pedestrian
9 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

”Nothing today can compare with the craftsmanship of the 18th century.” Perhaps, but your two chairs are from the late 19th century, not the 18th.

R Quinn
R Quinn
9 months ago

I know: two separate comments.

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