Balancing record highs with affordable prices in antiques market

The arts and antiques world was mildly surprised when Harold Sack of the New York firm of Israel Sack Inc. bid $687,500 (including a 10 percent buyer's premium) and set the record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a piece of American furniture this year.

Although Sack admitted the high price might not look reasonable until 5 or 10 years have passed, that record price came in the midst of an industrywide recession and started some observers looking back to the big recession of 1929.

Antiques had become fashionable in America by the time the fall 1929 auction season opened in New York, home for both the stock market and the great auction houses. Doomsday for the stock market came on Oct. 29. The ticker closed 2 1/2 hours behind. By Nov. 13 industrial stocks had tumbled 228 points from their September position. By July 1932 the same stocks would be down another 166 points, to a low of 58.

There was no corresponding spectacular crash of antiques prices. It wasn't until the spring of 1930 that dealers and collectors began to note the declining prices. The first signs came at a two-day April auction of American antiquities at the American Art Association-Anderson Galleries, the premier auction house of its day. Prices ran as low as 50 percent of then-current values. The magazine Antiques tried to justify the prices by explaining that a springlike weekend had held down bidding attendance, but the trend was in place.

By July of 1930 the magazine was attempting to shore up collector confidence with comments like this from a Swiss collector: ''The value of a good antique is one of the steadiest things in existence and will remain so.'' Unfortunately, no commodity was to prove immune from this recession.

The truth of the matter was revealed in a short editorial observation in November 1930 that a number of dealers were making price concessions, even on their finer and rarer pieces. It had just begun.

At a February 1931 auction at the Anderson Galleries, a John Trumball painting, widely expected to bring as much as $10,000, sold for $1,500. In April 1931 the second half of the famed Flayderman collection was sold. The first half had sold during the relatively secure days of January 1930, and when comparisons were made the business knew the depression had arrived. The 1931 pieces sold for an average of $230 per lot; the 1930 pieces had averaged $830.

What began as a trickle of disposals among a few pinched collectors soon developed into a flood. Famed author and collector George McKearin broke up his landmark glass and pottery collection at auction in April 1931. Also that month came a two-day auction of American furniture from the collection of dealer Israel Sack.

By the time 1934 had ended, the figures were ominous indeed. The Anderson Galleries recorded $3.4 million in sales for the 1933-34 season, as opposed to $ 4.6 million for the 1929 season.

Some idea of how dealers reacted to the depression can be seen by looking at the offerings of the Boston firm of Shreve, Crump & Low. In December 1930 the firm offered an English breakfront bookcase for $900. In December 1934 it was offering a similar piece, but now the price was $725. By late 1939 the firm was offering American Queen Anne lowboys for as low as $285. Antiques had become more affordable.

Many dealers and collectors frankly admitted that by the time prices had reached their peak in 1929, the rank-and-file collectors had been forced out of the market. Even some of the wealthier buyers had deserted. Antiques magazine believed that in July 1931, when it took this editorial stance: ''Worse yet, young people who, with a right start, might have been counted upon to develop, in time, as important collectors, had begun to turn in disappointment from a field fenced against them with a seemingly unscalable barrier of mounting prices. The situation is now changed.''

After the initial shock of a shrinking market and a period of retrenchment and price adjustment, most antique dealers did return to the fray, but with their eyes on a new class of collectors. Many dealers believe that's what is happening to the business today. Beyond the record prices and the staggering amounts, the business must return to the affordable antique to survive.

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