Antique evaluation

If you’re a close reader of the Wall Street Journal, you recently may have felt the urge to race to the closest antique store in Southwest to find incredible bargains.

You might want to hold on.

In a story published in late July, the newspaper found some huge discounts brought on, sources in the story said, by changing tastes — think a love for sleek Ikea and Target looks — and a soft economy.

A mahogany corner cabinet last year valued at $3,000 sold for only $710 at an auction house in New York. At a Sotheby’s auction, an antique card table expected to go for as much as $60,000 made $37,000. Nineteenth-century grandfather clocks, the newspaper reported, today can sell for less than half what they were valued at last year, down to $1,500 from about $3,500.

To find that represented in Southwest antique shops, however, isn’t easy. While there are several options here for those interested looking to buy classic used items, none are showing a big difference in prices today than what they were in recent history.

For evidence, just head to Lyndale House Antiques.

There, a walnut parquet table remains listed at $1,895. A mahogany chest is $2,295, and a walnut mirror-back sideboard still costs $3,495.

“The finer stuff is holding its own,” the shop’s Gina Vermilya said.

Is it uniquely Southwest, then, that the area is withstanding those reported huge price drops?

There are a couple of ways to look at the issue.

The first is the more obvious: Southwest stores aren’t exactly major auctioneers like Sotheby’s.

“We’re a neighborhood antique shop,” said Judi Haberstick about Loft Antiques, where she is a dealer. Shops, she said, target a different audience, one that’s more prone to be looking for a wider assortment of items — ones that are functional or unusual, vintage or antique — than simply 18th-century French furniture.

But when it comes to the bigger items, Minneapolitans’ tastes aren’t much different from those of the rest of the country, said Jonathan Campbell, manager of consignment shop H&B Gallery. Campbell said any furniture produced from the late 1800s on has seen a pretty steep drop in demand, similar to what was reported in the Wall Street Journal. H&B Gallery, for one, has stopped accepting the majority of those pieces.

“It does no one any good if we just take it all in,” Campbell said. “If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t sell.”

Why have people lost interest in the Victorian era? Campbell said it’s partly because pieces from that time were the first to be mass-produced. Like with all collectors’ items, people are much less willing to pay thousands of dollars if there are more of the same object to be found.

Furniture from other eras, on the other hand, remains expensive. The website of Coe and Channell Antiques, for example, lists a pre-Victorian butler’s desk at $9,950. And some pieces from the mid-20th century are appreciating to record highs.

A steady slide?

Another way to look at the lack of a huge drop in prices at Southwest antique shops is a bit more discouraging. While they may not be experiencing a one-year landslide with prices, they have seen a trend that could spell more trouble than a recent swing in tastes.

Judy Bramsen, who sells at Loft Antiques, said the Internet made certain items more available to everyone, forcing some prices down. The soft economy hasn’t made things easier.

“Some antiques are not appreciating as they used to,” said |
Haberstick, also of Loft Antiques.

The trend hasn’t killed off the antiques industry, but it hasn’t helped. Haberstick said citywide, it’s been harder for some antiques businesses to pay the rent. Lyndale House Antiques is converting its top floor into apartments, and a few Southwest antique stores have closed in recent years.

Don Hinytzke, the owner of Lyndale House Antiques, said that in the 23 years his store’s been in business, these days have been the toughest.

“Every year, it gets worse,” he said. “People aren’t buying furniture.”

But that’s not unique to antique stores, he said. It’s been a tough decade for all furniture providers — big and small — as people have less discretionary money to spend.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have regular customers. People still swing through looking for classic armoires or old-style light fixtures, hoping to return their mission-style Southwest homes to their roots. Yet Hinytzke is finding that the fickle tastes of younger generations aren’t leading them to antique stores.

Debbie Ahlstrom, a dealer at Hunt & Gather, has her own view.

“Nothing classic is really popular anymore,” Ahlstrom said. “It’s kitschy fun stuff [that’s in].”

She may be biased. Hunt & Gather, after all, carries an antique-store label but deals with a thrift-store mentality, creating funky combinations of old furniture and trinkets to interest shoppers. A table with a set of mismatched chairs? At Hunt & Gather, that sells.

The store’s owner, Kristi Stratton, said it’s that unique quality that has helped Hunt & Gather continue strongly with its business.

“We started off with a bang,” Stratton said of the store’s opening a few years ago, “and we’re still banging.”

At the same time, she said traditional antique shops shouldn’t write off their business.

“Everything comes full circle,” Stratton said. “Tastes will swing and come back to the classics.”