One of the most enduring programs on television, watched by tens of millions of people around the world for some 30+ years now, is amazingly about antiques and art. For the BBC at London The Antiques Roadshow has been a jewel in its media and broadcasting crown.
However whenever I speak to friends and family in the 25 – 50 age group they tell me with clear conviction that few people are interested in antiques, or art anymore.
So do the people attending and watching events like the many spin offs, from the Antiques Roadshow event only have grey hair?
The current future of ‘antiques and art’ seems for the moment at least to be an elitist concern, only for those with much much more than the ready necessary. This is informed by the sale of a Tiffany ‘Apple Blossom’ Table Lamp for nearly a million dollars at Sotheby’s New York.
Agent McGee in the popular American television series N.C.I.S. knows that an antique is much more than a load of old tat. He solves the puzzle of where five million dollars has disappeared to from a bank robbery, by identifying rare antique furniture and objects in a room no one else had been visually aware of.
When asked he just says, ‘Antiques Roadshow‘.
Antiques can look equally at home in a heritage space or absolutely smashing in a minimalist contemporary space. An antique works in any setting because it’s all about good design, quality materials and great craftsmanship. In circumstances where it’s not in a museum, it makes good green environmental sense to continue to recycle furniture and objects. So are attendance figures really dropping off as the aging baby boomers fall off the perch? Or is there a smattering of the next generation coming into play?
After all they are the people now enjoying croissants and coffee for Breakfast at Tiffany’s in most major cities around the world every day.
The difference is from my day is that they can go inside and purchase something wonderful to take home in the Tiffany’s signature turquoise blue box, which in many cases, has become a collector’s item in itself.
The Antiques Roadshow has a simple, but successful formula. The crew and dealers set up shop in a smashing architecturally interesting local venue. They send out a message to a cross section of the community, to bring their treasures to be appraised by a savvy team of antiques and art dealers.
The dealers gain a high profile and get to convince the viewer they have considerable expertise, which is undoubtedly good for business. Locals where the shows are held, respond in droves because they want to find out about their treasures. Some will say they are there just to learn about the memories, the stories and the emotions attached to the object or its history.
While others will say that for them it is about gathering information that will lend artistic, historical and cultural context and interest to their object. This means they can talk about it for years and, knowing about its provenance will certainly value add if they do decide to sell. It is quite an exciting event to be part of and, there is a heightened expectation of becoming an instant celebrity on TV, even if only for a few minutes.
Sadly most who attend will go home in some respects, disappointed, because the odds of finding something rare and wonderful, in reality are stacked against them. Finding out they have something intrinsically interesting is all very well, but it is also generally a large let down if they find out what they are having appraised doesn’t have monetary value.
So really when it all boils down to it, trust me it’s all about the money. To know that you only have to look at their faces, which either light up, or let down as the story they are being told proceeds. Everyone wants to find out they own a treasure that will ‘save his or her family’ from hard times or bringing instant happiness through the acquisition of more than ordinary wealth.
Realistically, the odds of finding a treasure are more than hoping to win with a ticket in Lotto. But hey, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a never-ending quest for humankind. After all wealth in terms of money still = happiness for a majority of people. The success of lotteries and gambling options prove that. And if that is not true in reality well then, there is the chance the sums received can at least buy some happiness, albeit for a short time.
What the dealers extensive experience ensures is that they can also let someone know gently the China figurine they own is not rare but was made in an attempt to copy something finer. They make it sound so fantastic the owner goes home feeling gratified, rather than knowing it was really at the same level as the plastic mug you can purchase at a supermarket daily.
With antiques and art collecting from the 50’s to the 80’s in Australia you were able to start small and trade up as confidence and knowledge expanded. But it takes time, more than it seems most people have patience for today. Although I would like to be proved wrong so let me know if that is not your experience.
Collecting well also requires a certain amount of discipline when exposed to say, the exciting atmosphere of an auction room, where emotions run high and any sort of logic or restraint can easily fly out the window. When you get caught up in that milieu you might just as well drive down the street throwing your cash out a car window.
Annual prestigious exhibitions and successful galleries allow a circumspect approach for those who prefer a contemplative environment in which to engage with antiques and art. However it also depends on where it is.
With hire costs and rents the way they are, as well as the cost of hiring staff, even greater huge % commissions from artists and collectors are required just to cover overheads. And let us not forget perceptions of status are involved. Gallery owners, just like artists and collectors and indeed everyone else really, seek to live a more than average lifestyle surrounded by beautiful things.
Internationally, people have a great deal of choice these days so the trade, even at a very sophisticated level, has become tougher and tougher. Success is all-relative to costs, so if you are in a good neighbourhood then you need to cater to a target market of those with well above average incomes.
The majority of the people I know in the 30- 40 age bracket tell me they are perfectly happy and content to hang pictures picked up in a local décor store rather than go after ‘art’ by profiled ‘artists’. They ask how do they know what is good, because many people they know, including their parents, were burned by falling prices late last century and in economic trends and downturns since.
Psychologists observe the current generation will still display special pieces handed down from parents or grandparents, the reason being is it is familiar, part of a cherished childhood memory and in that regard, represents both continuity and security. So that aspect hasn’t changed.
So does that mean antiques and art survive as an important aspect of cultural commercial enterprise?
With reality cuisine, celebrity events and travel shows on TV the attitude and focus for those in the age group that purchased antiques and art thirty years ago is very different to previous generations.
Despite bringing in two incomes and starting out in houses or apartments their parents could not perceive possible at the same stage in life, the majority seem to believe they cannot make money collecting antiques and art.
Does this mean dealer’s trade associations, at least here in Australia, have failed to educate the next generation of traders.
Or does it simply mean that the generation who should be stepping up to buy antiques and art would rather spend their extra money on a gourmet meal in a fashionable restaurant, a visiting celebrity performance, a trip overseas, a relaxing holiday in a design style oriented suite on a desert island, because for them it is only about what they experience now, not the future?
If they do want to embark on an adventure in style they can do that very easily. All they have to do is purchase the latest ‘bovine’ rug, a brand name luxurious leather lounge suite and perhaps a heritage piece, made to look as old and venerable as they would like it to be.
The world is in so many ways their oyster, containing far more pearls to choose from, all of which can be discarded when times and tastes change, or flood and tempest strike.
However if they are going to be the generation caring for the environment and respecting the dramatic changes brought about by a climate being denigrated by a lack of trees, then all of that doesn’t make sense, because being green for the future will mean recycling goods on a grander scale than ever before.
The baby boomer generation were brought up in a thrifty environment and taught to ‘Be Prepared”, the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movement’s motto. After all their own parents had gone through two world wars and a depression saving every rubber band, piece of brown paper, rolling string, turning off the lights and appliances when not in use and limiting water consumption.
They took thirty second showers and learned that Grandma’s china or furniture, while maybe not sensational was solid and if they conserved it, well it just might get them out of a hole when needed. It had resale value, because it was less than half the price of something new and was well made to stand up to wear.
Brand advertising certainly works and in the last two decades older brands have demanded a place amongst the period roses.
Some leather lounges are absolutely ridiculous prices. Because they are seen by the current generation as prestigious, they sell well more easily than antiques and art.
This view is informed by the new Masterpiece Fairs, which have been a success at London where visionary antiques and art dealers have teemed up with brand name firms to promote together. Clever.
During the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s in Australia you could make excellent money purchasing and selling antiques and art. But there are many reasons why it could not last. For decades England and America’s currency was much stronger than our dollar and made it inevitable that dealers in England, Paris and New York would discover the fabulous goods shipped here from the first fleet onward. Once the secret was out there was no stopping the drain.
Now a great majority of the excellent antiques and art that that were here have been shipped back to England, Europe and America as many people and dealers took the quick profit option in the late 80’s and 90’s. There were dealers and collectors at the time who believed they wouldn’t have a future marketplace unless they kept good things in the country, so they settled for less.
Many of the remaining good things during that time were purchased by canny museum curators with better than average budgets. They had well informed boards made up of business executive who understood the investment value of ‘real antiques and art’.
They knew that in the foreseeable future monies expended would be realised many times over in long term ticket sales, as beautiful rare objects and paintings today now form part of innovative, creative exhibitions. This viewpoint is informed by the sale of the ‘Thomas Hope Chairs’, listed with a sale estimate of $500 in a 1984 auction catalogue and purchased by the Powerhouse Museum for $56,000.
Licensed second hand dealers are battling because there is so much information on line too that it now allows for those interested in art and antiques to shun traditional ways of selling their goods in favour of on line trading. They don’t need fancy premises, stock and overheads.
An old warehouse in an unfashionable suburb will do for shipping goods from. It means the protagonists can concentrate on collecting cash, rather than becoming connoisseurs and collectors. How many people are being cheated, or conned by unscrupulous ‘antiques and art’ operators online is anyone’s guess.
Goods purporting to be ‘antique’ available on line to an older experienced well trained eye are often just rubbish, and fall into the category of being a poor copy of something finer.
For instance glasses purporting to be English eighteenth century lead glass are a trap. Most I have seen are copies from the Edwardian and Art Deco era. They have a little bit of age, so look the part. That is all fine if you are not trying to obtain an eighteenth century price.
Without spending years traveling internationally to look at the best quality antiques to train their ‘eye’ and give themselves something to compare the local product with, for my children’s generation at least the trade is fraught with danger and it’s no wonder they’re opting out.
So in the days of ‘reality’ television what is it that defines ‘real’ art and what is an antique anyway?
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2012
Watch The Culture Concept Circle Video – What is an Antique?