The unfashionable value of Western antique furniture

April 8, 2016

William Shakespeare’s widow Anne Hathaway was no doubt delighted that the playwright left her in his will – as has become famous – his “second-best bed”. Though this seems to us funny, and rather insulting, I recently read that on the contrary, this was a great compliment. The best bed would have stayed in Shakespeare’s house, and the separate “second-best” bequest shows the playwright’s heartfelt desire to ensure Anne’s comfort after his death.

Frankly, in the 16th century, any bed would have been welcome and cherished. Our forebears had an association with their possessions that often seems lost with today’s disposable modern furniture. Millions across the world shop for modern designs that are affordable and practical but not built to survive the centuries. And heritage furniture, as I noted at the recent Maastricht Art and Antiques Fair, is no longer in fashion.

Indeed, as I explored the Fair, I was interested and saddened to see fewer antique furniture dealers than before, some having reduced the scale of their business, others having closed down altogether. Recently, I have seen a kilim dealer selling off his collection of rugs and textiles at Sotheby’s, and another dealer in Paris change his focus from furniture to Old Masters and Contemporary Art.

No wonder figures quoted in the Financial Times, from Art Market Research Developments, show the value of high-end antique furniture dropped by 9 per cent in the year to the end of 2014 and plummeted almost 30 per cent over the past decade.

I understand of course that large mahogany tallboys and dining tables with curved legs, which seat 20, do not fit the lifestyle of many these days. Indeed, they simply do not fit physically into people’s homes. And there is much contemporary designer furniture which is exquisite – and some of it will surely be cherished in centuries’ time.

But for me there are wonderful treasures to be found in the warehouses that store antique furniture. I applaud the craftsmanship, the artistry and design which turn household objects into heirlooms. And I believe that sometimes these pieces choose their owners quite as much as we pick them. Are we perhaps drawn to reclaim heirlooms from a past life? Sometimes it seems the only way to explain how people amass the most extraordinary collection of pieces – from different periods, and many countries – and yet, they fit together in beautiful synergy.

Chinese collectors are apparently among the groups turning their backs on Western antique furniture. I wonder if this is because many of my countrymen are more focused presently on buying back Chinese furniture, especially Ming dynasty pieces which are prized for their precious wood, comfortable design, simple decoration and superb craftsmanship.

Here, prices have risen substantially, reflecting collectors’ pleasure in the ergonomic and graceful qualities of the work.

For writer Jung Chang, Chinese furniture has a deeper purpose – to provoke an understanding of history. She says: “I like to have Chinese furniture in my home as a constant and painful reminder of how much has been destroyed in China. The contrast between the beauty of the past and the ugliness of the modern is nowhere sharper than in China.”

Perhaps that strong connection to our history – even when it causes distress rather than joy – is what will drive buyers back to choose and treasure Georgian and Victorian pieces. Such items have a beauty that comes in part from years of use, an emotional resonance beyond the patina of the wood. They are living history, part of the story of civilisation, and they outlive us all.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation