Antique furniture still sells, yet dealers must invest carefully
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – For the past 18 years, JD Gass has been buying, restoring, selling, and collecting antique furniture. He spent the first half of those years growing up and learning the trade in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. When he started at 15 years old he was the youngest person he knew in the business. Today, at 33, he figures he is still one of the youngest.
The last half of the 18 years he has spent in northwest Arkansas, just outside of Fayetteville, Ark. Gass has become one of the premier antique furniture restorers and cabinet makers in Northwest Arkansas. His custom hand-crafted cabinets end up in some of the finest homes in the area. He sells his antique furniture mostly to other dealers. Some of his favorite American antique furniture is Renaissance Victorian and Empire. He also operates his own Web site at www.thegasstationantiques.com.
Gass believes that with the dawning of every new year, antique dealers look forward to a better sales year than the year previous. This is the time of year dealers think about revamping their modus operandi in order to make their business more profitable. This is also the time of year when he attends a lot of antique furniture auctions.
In the following, Gass relates his experiences with auctions he has recently attended and gives his insight on what furniture is especially “hot” in today’s market.
Antique Trader: JD, I know you have been to several auctions lately. Tell me about some you have attended.
JD Gass: A lot of the auctions I go to are in the Southern states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. These areas seem to have a strong antique market at this time. I’ve been to Stevens Auction in Aberdeen, Mississippi and Moundville Auction down in Alabama. I was recently out in Virginia trying to buy. Prices there seemed steady and strong on the good antiques.
AT: What would you like to have that might sell well at auctions right now?
JD: Anything RJ Horner is still demanding a pretty good price. French furniture seems to be bringing money today that it wasn’t bringing a couple years ago. I think this is because a lot of French furniture is being sold back overseas as their dollar is now worth more than ours. Since the euro is strong, it pays for them to buy it from us and ship it back over to their countries. We can’t afford to import the antiques from their country for the price they bring when sold back to them. Really powerful American furniture still demands pretty good prices but not what it was bringing three years ago.
AT: So I think you are saying that if a person had French furniture, they could do well in today’s market by selling it to overseas buyers. But how does one handle the shipping of it overseas?
JD: You would just have to bring it to the auction and the buyer will arrange for the shipping.
AT: At the auctions you have been to lately, what percentage of sales occur through a phone call or Internet bid?
JD: Those auctions have had considerable representation of French and Italian furniture. I have verified that a high percentage of that period furniture was sold overseas to buyers who placed their bids remotely.
AT: Is it common for foreign buyers to buy American furniture in addition to just buying their own back?
JD: Yes, the Chinese and Japanese have been buying American RJ Horner and John Henry Belter furniture.
AT: You mentioned earlier that some things were still bringing good money but not what they were three years ago. How has this recession affected the auctions you attend?
JD: If there is a buyer that wants a specific item, it will still bring a good price. But if there isn’t someone who really wants to own it and put it in his or her home, it won’t sell. It used to be that 99 percent of the antiques at auction would sell. A dealer at the sale would pick up the bargains. But now the dealers won’t even bid because they are concerned about selling their own antiques first. You can’t blame them. It is definitely a “buyer’s market,” especially on the cheaper or bargain antiques.
AT: If it were possible for you to improve on the auction market, how would you proceed?
JD: In my mind, the perfect auction scenario would be this: A person would have an original estate auction in an antebellum home, Mississippi or Louisiana for example. It would be fresh merchandise, antiques not shopped around before. Then you would pull in the general public who would then decide what something was worth by what they were willing to pay for it. At many sales now, everyone feels they know what it is worth because they have been following it at other auctions!
I see pieces I sold 10 years ago and some I sold last month! They keep recirculating. They can show up in Oklahoma one week and literally two weeks later be found in a New Jersey auction. I think any dealer who deals in quantity and attends a lot of auctions will testify to the same thing. These antiques continue to float around. And if it were going private (someone buying it to keep in their home) we would never see it again.
AT: Do you have any favorite auction houses?
JD: Yes. I like John Stevens Auction Company in Aberdeen, Miss. He has a wonderful auction. Another would be Michael’s Antique Auction in Carrolton, Ga. He deals in fine early American furniture. In addition there are many auctions I attend in person and I also bid at many more via absentee bidding, using the phone or Internet. I just watch the posted ads and see who has furniture I might be able to buy for resale purposes.
AT: JD, what is your gut feeling on the future of the antique furniture business and can you offer some recommendations for buyers and sellers?
JD: If it was not for the dealers, the antique business would have already gone by way of the dinosaur. Every year I say I’m going to quit, get out of it. It’s generally feast or famine but for the last month or so it has been really hard to make any money. My main income is from building homes and cabinetry but I put a tremendous amount of time and energy into the antique business. My love of the antique business has outweighed my losses. I think if you interviewed a hundred different dealers, 95 would tell you the same thing.
The most functional furniture price guide is filled with completely new listings covering all types of American and European furniture from the 17th century through the late 20th century.
Even if they never made any money at it, they would still continue to do it. I think it will recoup in the next year or so; it has recovered a lot already in the last year, but we still have a long way to go. I’ve recently talked to some major players in this business and they are real skeptical of the future, but yet you don’t see them shutting down their shops.
My advice is to buy powerful furniture like high-end American and period French and Italian. Also I recommend buying bronzes. The Russians are currently buying bronzes. China is getting to be a better customer all the time due to their expanding economy and are buying back their old artifacts.
Again, don’t overlook foreign sales as foreign currency, such as the euro and pound, are strong now compared to the U.S. dollar. This may be one of the best times I’ve seen in the market to buy expensive high-end antique furniture, if you can afford to hold on to it for at least a year or more. I spend every dollar I can on antique furniture because I don’t know of any other market that pays off as well. When high-end antiques are not worth anything, nothing else will be worth anything either.
Antiques are part of the economy. When people are talking negative about the economy it makes recovery that much harder. The same is true about antique furniture. People are not going to spend money when all the talk is negative. Again, I firmly believe that the market is going to improve in the next year or so. I’m going to ride the antique market until the end.
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