‘This modern stuff is simply junk’ – Burned out on Wall Street, young antiques shoppers seeking classic style

A bet on last century’s style, home furnishings and quality of life is opening wallets 100 years later.  For some dealers and real estate experts, the summer of 2010 looked like the summer of 1910, 1948 and 1956 – basically any time but the present.

Antique dealers are combing their inventory in the hopes that old styles with a classic feel assuage consumer anxiety in shaky times. With some Americans feeling as if they can’t trust government, Wall Street or big business, antique dealers are betting that nostalgic antiques and smaller, less cluttered living spaces will evoke memories of better times.

“We’ve been through a very unsettling time, and it’s when people are discontent with the present that they start appreciating and having nostalgia for the past,’’ said Ingeburg Miller, owner of Inge’s Recommendables in Blawnox, Pa.

Miller, who specializes in practical antique items and gifts, said her customers are buying antique bedroom and living room furniture, and handmade linens because they are better crafted than most of today’s traditional home items. Some antique dealers say older pieces fetch 15 percent less in price than most mass-produced store-bought items.

“I faithfully decorate my old home with American Empire-style furniture from the late 1800s,” said young collector Renee Kozlesky of Latrobe, Pa. “The older furniture is both beautiful and functional,’’ she said. “This modern stuff is simply junk.’’

Bridget Shirey of Ligonier Pa. agrees. Her great wrap-around front porch is home to turn-of-the-century wicker furniture. “We live with our antiques and they become even more precious to us as we begin realizing that yesterday’s long forgotten styles were both economical and functional,’’ said Shirey.

“I think people are just fed up with all this new-fangled stuff and they want to enjoy a simpler, less stressful time in their lives,’’ said Bert Wake, a retired life insurance salesman from Wheeling, W.Va. “I collect old carriage lamps because that reminds me of a time when the horse and buggy ruled our roads, and a simple handshake would still seal a business deal. Today, you have to be careful your identity is not stolen on the Internet,’’ quipped Wake.

The public has little confidence in most American institutions, particularly Congress and big business, according to Gallup poles taken over the last several years. After three years of stalled growth, retail sales have only now started to increase the first quarter of 2011.  U.S. retail sales increased in February by the most in four months. Yet rising food and energy prices are pulling down consumer confidence.

That environment has made items that might draw consumer interest all the more important to the bottom line.

“There is something major going on right now in the American consumer mind-set which is leading people to embrace more traditional antiques and smaller living space,’’ said Brenda Mort, a real estate consultant from Morristown, N.J.

After 30 years in the hardware business and more than two decades in a 75-year-old brick Tudor in Ben Avon, Pa., Mike and Marsha Broniszewski moved to a two-bedroom loft at The Cork Factory, an upper-hip factory-turned-apartment building in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. They’ve never looked back.

The seven-story complex where they now live, located along the Allegheny River, was built between 1901 and 1913 as the home of Armstrong Cork, which produced flooring, life jackets and bottle tops for Old Grand Dad whiskey and Heinz ketchup before closing in 1974. Designated a historic landmark in 2004, it was designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style by famed Pittsburgh architect Frederick John Osterling. Its $78 million renovation, tatted in 2005, took more than two years to complete.

“There is more and more of this kind of space cropping up, and smaller spaces demand the just right antique pieces,’’ said Jane Roesch, owner of Merryvale Antiques in the upscale Shady Side section of Pittsburgh, Pa. She sees increased interest in antique silver, furniture and Limoges and depression glass. By contrast, Pittsburgh antiques dealer Mark Evers sees renewed interest in renovated Steinway pianos, miniature bronzes and small oriental rugs. In fact, some of the most coveted antique masterpieces are the ones on the floor.

Oriental rugs, once the obsession of Ottoman sultans, European nobles and American robber barons, rarely topped $2 million a decade go. Now, these centuries-old carpets from Turkey, Iran and the Caucasus are commanding sums once reserved for masterpiece paintings than floor coverings. In March 2010, Sotheby’s sold a 19th century Indian carpet interwoven with two million seed pearls for $5.5 million.

Mary Jo Culbertson of On the Diamond Antiques in Ligonier, Pa., said downsizing has made antique items like rugs, Wedgwood plates and Tiffany silver hot items. “People are looking for things that fit nicely in small spaces,’’ she said.

And “small” seems to be the buzz word today.

Sandra Foster recently turned a tiny 9-by-14 foot Catskill hunting cabin into a romantic Victorian cottage, including a $15 crystal chandelier that she purchased at a flea market.

Then there are the apartments the size of a large RV. Judy Lott’s Santa Monica, Calif., apartment has a 17-foot ceiling, marble countertops and collector airline travel posters hanging on the wall. She’s got air conditioning, a dishwasher and a built-in microwave. All in 350 square feet.

“Everything is within three steps of the next thing,’’ said Lott, a freelance photographer.

In a region known for sprawl, diminutive dwellings are taking a stakehold in neighborhoods where renters could not otherwise afford to live in choice neighborhoods.

Still when it comes to space, there are few things that New Yorkers prize as much as a little outdoor space – a terrace perhaps or a small deck outside.

John and Susie Wu have converted their Greenwich apartment patio into an outside den, replete with two red velvet Victorian high-backed chairs, a small Tiffany reading lamp and an early American maple dropleaf tea table dating to 1870.

“We simply needed a little elbow room,” said Susie Wu, a graphic designer. “We love our small cozy apartment, but we wanted to better showcase some of our old antiques that recently came form our late uncle’s estate,” 

Bea Bradley, a Pittsburgh designer, said that most people are looking to recapture something from their past life. “It could be a piece of antique porcelain or a child’s toy, but they want something from their past that makes them feel good,’’ she said.

And this nostalgia for the past is also fueled by a rise in empty nesters, folks who are selling off the old 15-room family home and moving to smaller digs.

“We want to keep my dad’s old World War II memorabilia and Depression glass, but we need to be smart about what we keep because our new condo is simply not that spacious,” said Rita Hayden, 85, a retired school teacher form Greensburg, Pa.

But Hayden is quick to inject that her new smaller space is easier to clean and more economical to heat. “I don’t miss the big heating bills in the winter,’’ she said. “I had the architect rework my living room with hideaway drawers so I can stuff all my late father’s old uniforms and photos in a safe, dry place.’’
“It’s not the size of your place or the stuff you collect, it’s all about the memories you have in your head, that’s what counts in the end,’’ said Hayden, who converted her apartment balcony porch into a play station for her two 10-year-old Siamese cats, Buddy and Bess. ?

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