Collectors scramble for top-quality antiques

Despite talk of a recession, the antique market continues to boom. Long-popular fields are hitting new highs, and new fields are emerging. "People are still buying like mad -- including art and antiques," says Richard H. Rush, editor of the Art/Antiques Investment Report.

There's catch: while demand is brisk for top-quality items, medium-grade examples are often doing little more than keeping pace with inflation. Buyers are picky, and from a financial standpoint, it's more important than ever for collectors to limit themselves to a field where top quality is within their budget.

These trends were evident at last January's major Americana auctions. Christie's, New York, auctioned a Queen Anne tiger maple chest of drawers for $ 32,000. Sotheby Parke Bernet auctioned a fine Duncan Phyfe carved settee, circa 1810-15, for $26,000. An American eagle quilt, cirica 1837, realized $7,500 a record for an American quilt.

These outstanding pieces, the kinds of things that make news, represented only a small part of the sales, however. Most pieces could be had for under $2, 000, and they appear to have had an only modest appreciation during the past year.

Look at early American silver. At Sotheby Parke Bernet last June, there was excited bidding for an elaborately carved silver presentation bowl by Hugh Wishart, circa 1799. It brought $105,000, double the previous record for American silver. Yet the more common pieces like odd spoons, porringers, and mugs are often hard to sell, according to David Firestone, a Boston dealer in antique silver.

Among old paintings, there's a big gap between exceptional quality and medium grade. For instance, a fine John Copley will being more than $100,000, but lesser-quality Copleys have brought as little as $10,000.

Middle-range Old Master paintings -- about $2,000 to $20,000 -- are doing well after several years of little or no appreciation.

Though Westerners have always been fascinated with Oriental art, the opening of political relations with China, plus spectacular Chinese archeological finds and an outpouring of books, is stimulating new popular interest. Chinese ceramics, jades, bronzes, snuff bottles, furniture, and paintings, as well as Japanese ceramics, lacquerwares, and prints, are bringing higher prices.

Perhaps nowhere in the art market is fashion more evident than in art nouveau , the turn-of-the-century styles using natural forms. Tiffany lamps fetch high prices. A doubled bed by Louis Majorelle brought $12,000. On the other hand, many lesser pieces of art nouveau failed to sell.

Photography, a new and rather rocky market for several years, is coming into its own. The auction houses are reporting record sales, and the percentage of unsold consignments is about half what it used to be. The most bullish sign in the popularity of Ansel Adams, because collectors commonly start buying his majestic landscapes. Surging Adams prices suggest more collectors are entering the market. A dozen of his images fetch over $5,000, and his celebrated "Moonrise," in a large size, hit $22,000.

At the same time, there's growing sophistication evidenced in high prices paid for fine 19th-century work by little-known photographers.Second-rate work by first-rate photographers brings second-rate prices.

Vintage posters are catching on in a big way. These fragile creations, seldom intended to last more than a few weeks, were used to advertise shows, restaurants, circuses, dances -- you name it. They began to appear toward to end of the 19th century. A handful of dealers promoted them during the 1970s, but they didn't really become popular until a series of auctions last fall.

Phillips auction house held the first and set the record for a single poster -- $16,000 for "La Dame aux Camelias," by Alphonse Mucha. Toulouse-Lautrec, perhaps the most highly regarded maker of vintage posters, brought high prices. His "Salon de Cent" fetched $15,000.

Last year, the Islamic revolution made it difficult for Iranian rug collectors to get their funds out of Iran, and prices declined for Iranian-taste rugs. These included large, ornate pieces, sometimes made from silk instead of wool, from Kashan, Tabriz, and Heriz. The low point occurred last June, when more than 50-percent of rugs offered at some auctions failed to sell.

By December, however, Iranian collectors were bidding again. John Edelmann, New York, the only US auctioneer specializing in rare rugs, tapestries, and textiles, sold a Sarouk Fereghan hunt carpet for $25,000.

Caucasians -- nomadic weaving noted for small sizes, geometric patterns, and bold colors -- continued appreciating 15 to 20 percent last year. Iranians aren't much interested in them, so they are mainly collected by West Germans and Americans. Since they're in a lower price range than Persian rugs, they're an attractive area for new collectors. The most popular, Kazaks, Karabaghs, Daghestans, Shirvans, and Kubas, range from under $1,000 to $20,000, with a few outstanding pieces going above that.

A recession might be on the way, but it hasn't shown up in the art market yet.

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