Antique dealers weather a market downturn

The stock market may have rebounded. Investment buyers and institutions may have returned to that arena with a vengeance. But another indicator of the nation's economic health has yet to turn around.

Early in the summer a quick survey of the auction scene resulted in dismal findings. Some observers noted that prices were at a two-year low for the average antique. It was no better with the dealers either. Spotty sales, nonexistent customers, and lack of capital were just a few of their complaints.

Now, at the end of the summer, an update of the auction and dealer scene reveals a further downturn.

The auction markets report extremely fluctuating sales. Most observe that while there still is some investment buying, it is only for those one-of-a-kind or top-of-the-line items that are extremely fine. Dealers and private buyers eagerly compete for those items.

There has been a deep drop in buying for the average antique - items such as desks, chests, sofas, and tables. These items used to be the staple of the average antique shop. Such shops are experiencing fewer sales and are overstocked. Folk art is still hot, but only the best items show price increases.

For an example of what's happened to the country auction prices of oak furniture, I visited the annual Labor Day auction of Paul Lawton & Son in Newfane, Vt. This auction, a staple of the Lawton family for over 30 years, usually brings hundreds of tourists and a healthy turnout of dealers to its picture-book location on a lawn in this small Vermont town.

The weather was perfect. The crowd was large. The offerings, while not up to some previous years' standards, were large and varied. The prices were low.

Early into the auction a $125 bid for a large square oak kitchen table and four matching chairs bought the set. They were in perfect condition, expertly refinished, and ready for immediate use in anyone's kitchen. One dealer observed: ''Three years ago that set, in that condition, would have brought $300 to $350 at any auction.''

A small oak rolltop desk with paneled sides and back fell to a wise buyer for condition and ready for any business office, brought $1,200. Similar desks brought $2,000 only two years previously.

The top price for any piece of furniture was $1,300, two pieces brought $1, 200, one brought $1,100. None of those prices could have been matched by anything bought from a new furniture showroom. Yet the crowd sat on their hands and watched them sell.

An examination of the auction's offerings revealed pieces from several dealers. They had tried to sell the stock in their shops. Now, with fall approaching, they were taking a chance on auction prices in order to get their investments back. That is the pattern with a lot of recent auction offerings.

Lack of fresh stock and falling prices are the bane of not only the country auction houses. City houses are tightening and consolidating their operations too. Sotheby's has left its Madison Avenue address for York Avenue. Phillip's closed its Madison and 72nd Street location and moved to 79th Street. All across the country reports come in of staff reductions, moves to lower rent districts, and belt-tightening for the auction industry.

The antiques industry is reacting to all of this as best it can. Dealers are turning to the antiques show circuit to reach more customers. Auction houses are backing away from reserve prices to sell their offerings at any price. They're paring away at their overhead in order to last out the slump.

One New Hampshire dealer, a woman with many years experience in the business, said it all recently for those involved: ''Where are the buyers?'' Most feel they know where the buyers are. The question they ask: When are they coming back?

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