Had Edward Gibbon, the great 18th Century parliamentarian, historian and author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89), been alive today he may have felt compelled to comment on the recline and fall of antique furniture, frequently referenced, and pejoratively so, by many today as ‘brown furniture’. It is a fanciful thought, and the observations would never have run to six volumes, but it is interesting to speculate what furniture would have graced his residences during the mid to late 18th Century. The furnishings could have been the latest pieces in walnut, mahogany and satinwood casting out the heavy Jacobean and Elizabethan oak in favour of the then contemporary lightness and elegance of the Rococo and Neo-Classical. So are we today collectively casting out of the old and bringing in the new? It would appear so for the value of high end antique furniture has fallen by 28% this past decade. Yes, the very finest with exceptional provenance has continued to maintain its ground, but this is a small percentage of the overall furniture market and how matters have changed for during the late 80’s and into the 90’s, good antique furniture outsmarted the rise in value of housing stock. Such has been the about turn that many dealerships and shops have shuttered on both sides of the Atlantic.
Auction houses now combine and include antique furniture with other disciplines from the decorative arts when offering furniture under the hammer. Old and maybe landmarked/listed residences when being offered for sale come with images of decorated interiors depicting minimalism and modern furniture – all part of the current design aesthetic – with little or no provocative dialogue with the old host. Out have walked the walnut, the magnificent mahogany ‘monsters’ and satinwood splendour in favour of the mass produced, often stained or painted to simulate the original. Such has been the change that it is not unusual for the antique to now cost less than the new.
What has contributed to the recline aside from changing tastes?
- Antique furniture requires greater attention and care and the maintenance does not fit comfortably with people’s busy lives.
- Antique furniture comes with history and a formality to which we can relate and enjoy, but for some this might not be their reaction and emotion as they pursue a more casual life. Taste is subjective and the decoration of a home can often say more about the owner than the owner(s) themselves!
- The price of real estate has risen significantly so that space has become increasingly limited for what we can buy. Therefore, furniture has to pay its rent, figuratively, resulting in pieces having to provide more than one use.
This is not an exclusive clarion call for antique furniture, for today there are some wonderful contemporary pieces being made and commissioned. Perhaps Gibbon may have been involved in seeking the bespoke? He may have seen and enjoyed the compelling attraction of juxtaposing the old with the new.
When will antique furniture come back in fashion? That is hard to predict but the price at which much of it may be purchased is now singularly attractive. Antiques remind us of who we are and where we have been; surely it will always have a place in our culture?
In closing his history of the Roman Empire, Gibbon in what is a timeless comment wrote, “Whatsoever might be the future date of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.”