Thursday, June 30, 2005

What can the antiques market tell us about shifting values?

The tables have turned

My generation's bourgeois pretensions led to us spending a fortune on furniture. Sensibly, today's young people prefer Ikea.

Max Hastings
Tuesday June 28, 2005
The Guardian

Consumers of business pages read a shock horror story this month about the annual results of glass and ceramics manufacturer Waterford Wedgwood. Its figures were ghastly, and published amid the company's third rights issue in two years. Part of its workforce is threatening strike action about mass redundancies. Production is shifting to China. If not on the rocks, a great name seems to be stuck on what tall-ship sailors used to call a lee shore.

Something tells me that I have not yet captured your attention. Perhaps you are lucky enough not to own shares in Waterford Wedgwood, or maybe the vacillations of commerce leave you cold. But this story is worth attention for sociological reasons, not financial ones.
The troubles of Waterford Wedgwood, as usual in such cases, reflect the fact that not enough people want to buy their
products. They make expensive glass and china. Once upon a time, every upper-middle-class wedding present wishlist in the land featured their claret and hock glasses, their ashtrays or dinner plates.

Today, regardless of how much cash a family has, fashion has changed, probably irrevocably. The upwardly mobile young have lost enthusiasm for the ornate stuff WW sell. They want simpler glass, most likely unpretentious dishwasher-fodder from John Lewis.

In the same way, there has been a dramatic change in tastes for furniture. A generation ago, the upper-middle classes aspired to fill their homes with mahogany tables, bookcases, bureaux, either inherited from grandmother or bought in a saleroom. The price of old furniture soared, year after year and decade after decade.

Socially ambitious wives convinced husbands with overdrafts that buying "a good piece" was an investment. A huge industry grew up of restorers rebuilding rickety Georgian chests, in which only the woodworm was original by the time they reached a showroom. Antique furniture was big business. Everybody wanted it, and every market town was selling or forging it.

Over the past few years, however, the market in what dealers call "brown furniture" has declined dramatically, and wholly unexpectedly. Almost anyone who bought a piece of antique furniture a decade ago, and tries to sell it again now, will discover that its value has fallen.

The very best - the stuff for which a few collectors pay tens or hundreds of thousands - is still competed for. But anything in the mid-market languishes. A substantial number of antique furniture dealers have shut up shop. Others are hanging on, making no money, but waiting for another sea-change in public taste that will make their wares fashionable again.

I doubt whether this will come. The young, even the rich ones in the City, want to live in a different way, and to live with a different look. When my daughter moved into a flat, I offered her the sort of bits and pieces from the attic that many of us started life on our own with. We own a lot of old curtains, some of them once expensive, and dangled these before her.

She spurned them all. Friends say their children do likewise. They want to head straight for Ikea, and equip themselves with the clean, simple, cheap, classless products that enable one to furnish a home out of crates in an afternoon. My daughter loves her Ikea flat, and I must say that I am impressed, too.

It has the sort of charm that Conran provided 40 years ago, a lot cheaper in real terms. Sixties minimalism could cost the earth. Its 21st-century counterpart, from Ikea and other suppliers like it, is amazingly affordable.

The best thing about the new way of doing things, it seems to me, is that the young who shop like this do not waste money on a ridiculous struggle to preserve the old middle-class pretensions that nearly ruined some of us a couple of generations ago.

When I first got married in 1972, my wife and I convinced ourselves that we had to have a Georgian dining table. This cost us £500. At that time, my income was short of £4,000. The dining table was an act of insanity, and not the only one. I still wonder how we stayed out of the bankruptcy court.

But our kind, in those times, were always playing those games, squandering money on keeping up appearances in the most literal fashion. A New Zealand sociologist wrote a shrewd piece in New Society some 20 years ago, suggesting that the English middle-class's enthusiasm for aping the aristocracy was their curse.

Whereas the European aristocracy was so exclusive and snobbish that no young French or German executive would give a moment's thought, nor a franc or D-mark, trying to match its lifestyle, said this Kiwi, the British were always hoping. Hence, instead of investing money sensibly in shares and pensions, they wasted ridiculous amounts, in relation to their incomes, on glass, china, brown furniture. They were big spenders on Waterford Wedgwood.

This is the game that now seems to be over. I am not suggesting that social competitiveness is dead among the middle classes. It never will be. But one foolish manifestation of it has run its course, and a lot of families are better off in consequence.

Brown furniture is for terribly old people like us, who have time to love and polish it, and no small children's sticky fingers to mark it. As a dabbler in salerooms, I was speculating the other day about whether, if that Georgian dining table I bought back in 1972 went into an auction, we might get £500 for it - the money now worth maybe a tenth of its value 33 years ago.

No, of course I shall hang on to the table until my children inherit and almost certainly discard it. To them, most of our treasures are baggage from another age, a wholly different way of life and by no means a better one. I am not going to start telling them that they are wrong.


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