Dealers see upturn in antiques market

No one is pretending that all segments of the antiques market are back to normal, and certainly no one is claiming that the resurgence has spread to all sections of the country. But for now, the antiques business is holding its breath and assimilating the good news: the two-year-old recession in antiques sales seems to have ended.

The upturn began to be noted at the same time the Reagan administration released figures indicating an upturn in the nation's economy. The first quarter of the year saw dealers reporting record sales and a renewed interest in antiques.

The year opened with both of New York City's two major auction houses recording record prices for pieces of furniture. On Jan. 22 Christie's sold an American Chippendale sofa for $264,000 (including the 10 percent buyer's premium), and on Jan. 29 Sotheby's sold a Newport, R.I., kneehole desk for $687, 500 (also including the premium).

Record auction prices are nothing new (some records were actually set during the 1929-1940 Great Depression), but they do indicate a belief that the business is basically healthy. Reports coming in from a different quarter seem to validate that belief.

Dealers traveling the show circuit, those one- and two-day affairs set up in high school gyms, armories, auditoriums, and shopping center malls throughout the country, report that the hustle is back. As one dealer put it: ''I had my best-selling show ever in February in Albany. The customers are back and they have money to spend.''

Tales of record sales aren't limited to New England and the North. Stories coming out of Nashville and the February Heart of the Country Show there indicate record attendance and sales. Some dealers reported an almost unheard-of occurrence: a full sellout of everything in their booth.

What's selling? One dealer answered that question with a smile. ''I can sell anything good today, from furniture to china, glass, iron, brass, and quilts, but it has to be good. People are willing to part with their money for quality.''

That seems to be true. Prices for everything from paintings to silver are on the rise. Even in the overlooked field of American glass, prices and interest have recently risen.

There are exceptions. While the demand for the finer pieces surges, there has been no corresponding interest in the lesser examples. As one dealer explains: ''It's going to take some time to bring the small collector and dealer back into the game. They're the ones who bought the 'one-off' pieces. They'd read about the demand for a style or a form and, because they couldn't afford a prime piece , they'd settle for a cheaper piece almost like the good one.''

Dealers who sell to the retail trade report a fair amount of this price shopping. Customers find they can't afford new furniture, or good-quality antiques, and have to settle for lesser or cobbled-up antiques, if they buy at all.

Both the oak furniture and collectibles markets have been badly hurt by the recession. Both relied on the new affluence, an economic segment severely curtailed by the recession.

The next six months, and the return of the large outdoor antiques shows and flea markets, will indicate if this portion of the industry has truly recovered.

Dealers are anxiously watching the scheduled sales and auctions due this spring and summer for signs of full recovery in such fields as bottles, trade cards and advertising material, arts and crafts, oak furniture, and tools.

Right now the opinion is that while the future is bright for good-quality antiques, the business won't have recovered fully until customers return for the entire spectrum of dealers' offerings.

One New Hampshire dealer looked around his barn recently and observed: ''One New York dealer used to come over once a month. Now he's here once a week. He keeps saying he wants the good stuff. But where does he think I'm going to get it? Somebody has to buy the other stuff, too.''

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