The Elegance of Living: Part 3 – The Past as a Future Commodity

One breezy Sunday afternoon this past month a young couple came into our store to peruse our wares. After a short conversation, it turned out that one of the pair had been lured to our store by his spouse under the pretense that they would be visiting the botanical gardens next door. Not an ardent fan of antiques, the young man pointed out several things in our shop and wanted to know how we allocate the prices we have. “What are the prices based on?” he asked.  “Is it simply what you paid for them? How do I know the pieces here are really worth what you are asking? Is it totally arbitrary?”  Great questions.


18th Century Gilt Buddha which sold for more than $38,000

As a concept, value and valuation is one of the more intriguing of considerations. Here in Australia several of the top auction houses have been stunned by the results certain items have been achieving.  In one such case, a seated Buddha statue had been appraised by a Sydney auctioneer and given an estimated hammer price of $800-$1200.  After a very heated exchange on the auction room floor, the timber gilt figure finally sold at just over $38,000.  In the same auction an oil painting of flowers tipped to reach between $6,000 and $8,0000 at best more than doubled it’s estimate selling at close to $19,000. No more than 6 weeks earlier, a Melbourne auction house saw staggering results on a pair of early Chinese chairs which were expected to achieve between $12,000 and $18,000. When the hammer finally fell, the auctioneer sold the two possibly zitan (a rare tropical hardwood) timber chairs for $146,400.  That was the most stellar example of an auction full of pieces that double, tripled, and even more than quadrupled its estimates.

I know what you are thinking, these are largely examples of Chinese antiques, and the people buying at the moment tend to be wealthy Chinese. Following this logic, one might assume that anything old and Asian might fetch high prices. Well, it aint necessarily so.  In some cases there were pieces as old as the Song (960 AD- 1279 AD) and Ming (1368AD -1644Ad) dynasties that achieved modest prices or didn’t sell at all.


A rare and exquisite inkwell by defunct 19th century French boutique firm Dreyfous

It isn’t enough to have something old and assume it will be valuable based on that. There are several other factors to consider. Is it rare? Is it of fine quality? Are the materials valuable? Did it belong to someone important or have relevant history? Is it beautiful? The truth of the matter is, people pay for what they love and at the end of the day the value of the items is the figure that people are willing to pay. Of course, the equation of value is not always as crass or simple as that but something old and important that isn’t of interest or attractive to anybody, just doesn’t seem to fetch a high price. Knowing what is of value to others is key to investing well, but also knowing that trends and interests change.

repousse bowl

Sterling silver repoussé bowl by influential American silver firm R. Wallace and Sons Mfg Co

Jewellery and silver for example have a bricks and mortar quantifiable value as metal and stones. In terms of silver, most people can recognize the intrinsic value of the material but that is how some people view silver’s value as these days: melt value. What is amazing to me is that there is no company left in the United States that still make silver flatware. The reputed firms with centuries of tradition behind them like Gorham, Reed and Barton, and International Silver have all either gone out of business or started producing in stainless steel. What so few fail to recognize is, the art of crafting these objects is also being lost. There just isn’t that much art in pumping out steel forks from a mold that haven’t had repoussé (the art of decorating a metal object by hammering a pattern from the reverse side) carefully applied by hand.

Case in point: here in Queensland, Australia the Governor recently retired and we were approached to find an appropriate presentation gift in silver to mark the occasion. Suitable gifts we had in spades, however; when in came to finding a craftsman to create a presentation box and engraver for the gift, the government office was stunned to find how much the price for that service had increased and how difficult it was to find someone with the skill to do it. The value of this sort of technique has been lost to so many that those with the art are a dying breed.


Sterling Silver Tea Set by the Jennings Silver Company

Gary Douglas, the owner of The Antique Guild asked me, “So, if people stop making silver flatware, how long will it be until we have lost the technology?” It occurred to me that it will likely be less than one generation before there isn’t anyone left that knows the techniques to carve, chase, craft, and engrave these items. “So, if that is the case, how much more valuable will these items be than just their silver content?” Good point.

Here at the Antique guild we would like you to join us in championing the past as a future commodity. This is not from the altruism of protecting the arts. Rather we advise that in many cases, the prices these antique items are now, reflects the most affordable they will be in your lifetime.  Seeing the value in items of old beauty and craftsmanship, and investing in them now, may show you a massive return on investment as the rest of society turns to more affordable or convenient alternatives. Who knows, you could be the one sending your chairs to auction and seeing your $5,000 investment net you more than $100,000. What would that be like?


Written by Christopher Hughes