Ron Long has always adored antiques. “Even when I was young and didn’t have a dime I’d haunt the antique shops and auction houses,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by them.” So fascinated, in fact, that he parlayed that interest into a successful 38-year career with Charlton Hall, a Columbia-based auction and appraisal company that deals in antiques and fine art. As the president and lead auctioneer, Ron sees not just what sells under his gavel, but also who is making the purchases. And while plenty of people are still purchasing old, vintage and antique furnishings, both the demographic and the style trends have shifted dramatically in recent years. “The audience is definitely skewing older, particularly those purchasing the traditional dark-wood pieces from Europe and the United States,” he says. “The real growth seems to be in Chinese antiquities, Scandinavian-style pieces and anything painted.”
Like many auction houses, Charlton Hall deals in antiquities of every ilk, but for most of its 87-year history, the company has dealt mainly in fine European and American furniture and paintings. Clients purchased pieces for themselves and for their children, who would often accompany them to the auctions. Over the years, as the children grew to middle age and became more financially successful, they would become clients.
That all started to change in the past decade or so. “I still see many of the same faces in the crowd, but they’re not bringing their children like they used to,” explains Ron. “The question of who the next buying generation will be is being asked all over the auction world. We’re still not sure what the answer will be.”
The cause is equally vexing. “We’re a mobile society,” says Carroll Weston with Charlton Hall. “These days, families are choosing to spend more of their discretionary income on experiences, like travel, instead of on art and furniture.” That mobility also means that potential customers just don’t have the time or the patience to look through an auction catalog to find a piece they like and can afford, visit the auction preview to determine if they really like the piece and, finally, attend the auction, where they’ll need to wait for the piece to become available.
For many furniture buyers, it’s easier and much less intimidating to order a sofa or a kitchen table and chairs from a designer or a local furniture shop. “Buying furniture through an auction is actually a similar process to buying a used car because you can walk away with an incredible bargain, but you have to do your homework, stay flexible and be patient,” says Ron. “These days, more and more young people are opting to buy new.”
Chris Livingston, who opened CH Livingston Auctioneers in 2014 in a 1940s train warehouse off Hampton Street, agrees –– but is a bit perplexed. “My generation is very focused on recycling and other global issues, but many of them are furnishing their homes with throwaway furniture,” he says. “Even furniture built as recently as the 1970s is generally of better quality than something of a similar price that’s new. Back then, furniture manufacturers used better wood and built their pieces in the United States.” As an example, he points to a 1970s dark-wood secretary manufactured by a famous American furniture company. “They probably still make this piece, but where the new one might have veneers, this one has solid wood, all for a fraction of the cost.”
Like Ron, Chris has had an interest in antiques for nearly his entire life. “My dad went to auctions when we were on vacation, and he’d take me with him,” he explains. “I got to where I enjoyed it as much as he did.” Chris’s first foray into a career in antiques was a retail shop called Worth Repeating. Though successful, the shop needed to be staffed, usually by Chris, which limited the amount of time he could spend on the road acquiring new things to sell. Now, monthly auctions give him flexibility to travel to other auctions and to study trends. “My peers want mid-century furniture, Danish modern, really anything that’s painted or has clean, modern lines. So if you’re looking for Continental and English wooden furniture — the industry term for dark-wood furniture constructed in styles like Georgian, Federal and Regency — now is a great time to find bargains and fantastic pieces, particularly if you’re willing to purchase them at auction.”
Pence Scurry, a former appraiser trained at Sotheby’s in London, also believes that now is a great time to invest in brown furniture. “Since it’s not as popular right now, it’s really a bargain,” she says. “And since antiques always seem to come back into style, it’s a lasting investment.”
Experts agree that a good choice for a first purchase is an antique chest of drawers. “It can go in any room, it’s fairly easy to move, and you can use it for storage,” says Carroll Weston. “You can find a good one at auction for about $800, and it will last a lifetime.” Older pieces are more easily repaired, too, due to their high quality. “A water ring on an older table can usually be buffed out because the finishes were so durable,” says Carroll. “On a newer table the moisture can more easily get past the finish and into the actual wood. Once that happens, it’s nearly impossible to hide.”
Chris Livingston says that bargain hunters might also consider “married” pieces, basically a piece of furniture crafted from two separate pieces from different eras. A table in his showroom illustrates the concept. “Here you’ve got a 19th century tray mounted onto a 20th century base to form a table,” he explains. “You can tell because even though the lines of the two pieces work together, they’re obviously different. In this case, the details on the tray are rounded, but the legs are squared off. You’ll also see it a lot with tall cabinets — they’re often two pieces instead of one.”
For first-time antique buyers, though, the fear of discovering that the rug or painting they’ve just brought home is worth far less than they paid is often a driving force in purchasing new furnishings. Although no one is perfect, auction houses spend a great deal of time authenticating the pieces they include in their auctions, calling in experts and conducting extensive research. “We stake our name and reputation on what we sell and work very hard to determine the correct details about a piece before we sell it,” says Ron.
That doesn’t mean that a potential buyer should consider making a purchase without doing a bit of homework. “Believe what you read in the auction house catalogue, but protect yourself with knowledge, such as learning the terminology used in the industry,” says Pence Scurry. “For instance, it’s good to know that if the catalogue lists a piece as ‘in the style of,’ it’s a replica. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing — there are very old, very lovely replicas out there, but it’s good knowledge to have.”
Pence also suggests ordering a condition report, offering more details than are printed in the catalogue, and visiting the auction preview which generally runs a few days prior to the auction and is open to the public. “Some things, like rugs, really need to be seen in person,” she says. “It’s hard to capture the exact color in a photo.”
Ron Long offers another reason to visit the preview: to learn. “Let us know when you’re coming with questions, and we’ll have someone on hand to answer them,” he says. “We can tell you about what we’re offering as well as how the auction actually works.”
James Brannock, who owns Personal Property Appraisers, LLC suggests spending time visiting live and online auctions, both to determine value for specific pieces and to potentially make a purchase. “There are terrific buys on good, solid furniture right now,” he says. “If you’ve done your research and find a piece you really like, there’s no reason not to bid on it. Small flaws can be repaired, and you’re making an environmentally-friendly decision.”
Experts also recommend looking for signs of repair as a way to determine if a piece really is an antique. “Oddly enough, that’s one of the ways to determine if a piece is truly old,” says Ron. “True antiques are rarely perfect.”
And what is a true antique? In the strictest sense, anything at least 100 years old is an antique. If it was made in a style outside the period when it was made, it’s considered a replica — even if it’s hundreds of years old. These days, though, furnishings from the 1920s are often called antiques, even though they fall just outside the 100-year cutoff. That doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. In fact, right now, mid-century pieces like Lucite chairs and low-slung coffee tables are all the rage, garnering top-level prices. The popularity of painted chests, tables and chairs is so great that customers often purchase older pieces, planning to strip them and repaint.
Although that’s a good strategy, James Brannock suggests diligence. “Be sure about what you have before you paint, strip or refinish a piece,” he says. “You could be destroying a lot of the value … an early or original finish is always the most valuable.”
Although antiques can be purchased at a retail shop, auctions offer the best way to get a bargain. “The dealers shop at auction, so you’re basically getting whatever you purchase at what can be considered wholesale,” says Chris Livingston. “A good rule of thumb is that the starting bid is about half of what the auction house considers to be the lowest price at which the piece will sell.”
The first step in being a part of the auction scene is to check the auction catalogue (print version or usually online), which lists everything that will be sold along with a description, the estimated selling price and, sometimes, a photo. Next, potential buyers should take a closer look at the items they’re considering, either by attending the preview, ordering a condition report, or both. First-timers will need to register with the auction house, where they’ll receive a bidding number.
Items, or sets of items, which is often the case for flatware, tea services, books and, sometimes, chairs, are auctioned in order by lot number. Since there’s no way of knowing how long it will take for a particular lot to come up, participants often spend hours waiting around — or dash in with seconds to spare. “In general, a lot is sold every 30 to 40 seconds,” says Ron. “But that can vary widely.”
When it’s time to make a bid, participants have four options: bidding online, with an absentee bid, on the phone or in person. Absentee bidding, where the bidder sets a high bid for an item and lets the auctioneer do the bidding, is the least intimidating. It’s also the least time-consuming: since bidders aren’t part of the actual bidding process, they don’t need to monitor the action. Once the item is sold, the buyer pays the auction house a “buyer’s premium,” which varies from about 10 to 25 percent.
Though the auction process is not always understood by the general public, it is incredibly popular with buyers. “The internet lets buyers find what they want no matter where it’s located,” says Ron. “In March 2014 Charlton Hall Auctions had clients from 48 countries participate in our sale. There have been times when more than a million people will view a catalogue online. That wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. There’s just no way of knowing what technology will bring to the auction world in the future.”