Antiques trade adapts to survive

Dealers downsize or go online as tastes in furniture and collecting change


Times are tough for the antiques trade. Storefronts on a stretch of Madison Avenue that was once home to august firms like Kentshire, Florian Papp and Mallett are seeking new tenants, while Bland, Louis Bofferding and the Chinese Porcelain Company have moved to smaller quarters near the Decoration & Design Building.

Although demand for modern and contemporary furniture and all things Tiffany—as highlighted by the December design sales—continues to climb, the market for British and continental antiques is languishing, down 50% by some estimates, says Alistair Clarke, former worldwide head of English and European furniture at Sotheby’s. He now has a gallery with his wife, Blair Voltz Clarke, who trades in contemporary art while he offers antiques.

Indicative of the steep decline, Sotheby’s made $120m in the category in 2007, but last year the total take plunged to $20.5m. “Ten years ago, the exceptional, like a delicately inlaid commode pegged at $250,000, would always sell,” says Clarke. “But now one doesn’t know”.

Tastes, and lifestyles, have changed dramatically. According to the London dealer Thomas Woodham-Smith, “clients no longer want a separate dining room and study”, obviating the need for a suite of period pieces.

What is left of the market is driven not by connoisseur collectors but by decorators like Tony Ingrao, who used to select one splashy commode or console per room—until recently. “Today, for a 20-room house, I will include ten antiques at the most, and the percentage of my budget is but 10%,” says Ingrao.

Sensing this shift, 1stdibs founder Michael Bruno is launching a new site with a tightly edited roster of dealers, Design Carta, selling exclusively to decorators. Online marketplaces like eBay and the just-launched Decaso are stepping in to support a seemingly endless supply as dealers ditch stock.

Those who remain in the game are opting to forgo the bricks and mortar, like Clinton Howell, who closed up his 72nd Street shop a year ago. “I’m saving $250,000 in rent and therefore making far more money than ever before,” says Howell, who now lists inventory on his website and looks to fairs for new clients.

The London-based dealer Justin Evershed-­Martin, who left Mallett in the spring to trade online, spends his time on the road in Italy and Spain, connecting with collectors who are seeking to sell or purchase. He recently sold an 18th-­century gilt mirror by John Linnell for a six-­figure sum. “The market is cyclical and the demand for antiques will rise to the top,” says Woodham-Smith.

He is more upbeat than most. “At the end of the day, no younger dealers are on the horizon,” says Clarke. In other words, there will be no one to teach clients the hallmarks of a great set of Chippendale chairs—nor restorers and gilders to conserve them, yet another by-product of the field’s decline. Clarke adds, “It will be tough for the market to bounce back.”