When Todd Merrill opened his self-named antiques store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 2000, it was filled with pieces made before the Titanic: neoclassical French chairs that were contemporaries of Napoleon, an American sideboard from the time of James Madison’s administration and a Japanese shrine that could have been owned by Queen Victoria (although it wasn’t).
Today, at Merrill’s new Lafayette Street location, not a single object predates World War I. The white-walled space is dominated by contemporary creations: monstrous bronze LED chandeliers by Niamh Barry, an Irish designer; sinewy wood console tables by Marc Fish of East Sussex, England; and animal-inspired stools by Erin Sullivan, a New Yorker. Sharing the room are blue-chip examples of 20th-century modernism.
The name has changed, too. Todd Merrill Antiques is now Todd Merrill Studio.
Custom-made pieces by living designer/artisans have “become 70 to 80 percent of our business,” said Merrill. “It’s a big behavioral change for the trade, for collectors and for dealers. We’re not buying things on the secondary market for resale. We’re presenting artists and representing them like an agent.”
He is not alone in turning away from antiques. Since the turn of the 21st century, the value of much 18th- and 19th-century furniture has plummeted. Shelter magazines, once look books for rooms bursting with lyre back chairs and giltwood credenzas, more often show pared-down interiors with just a few older pieces — or none at all.
Top-tier antiques dealers who once occupied prime Manhattan storefronts have either closed or scaled back. Other antiques and vintage goods galleries have pushed into contemporary design, where newly made furniture with the appeal of sculpture can run to six figures.
Even New York’s prestigious Winter Antiques Show has changed its rules. Founded in 1955, the show once required that exhibited pieces be at least 100 years old. In 2009, the organizers and dealer committee changed the cutoff date to 1969 to include midcentury objects. In 2016, they removed the date restriction entirely, paving the way for contemporary design.
One exhibitor to take advantage of that change is Jason Jacques Gallery, which was once known primarily as a dealer of late 19th- and early 20th-century European ceramics but is increasingly focused on contemporary design.
At the 2018 Winter Antiques Show in January, its presentation included a pair of black plywood benches sprouting moose antlers by fashion designer Rick Owens (about $5,500) and a new 7-foot-tall rococo-inspired porcelain wall piece resembling a medallion by Katsuyo Aoki and Shinichiro Kitaura ($250,000).
The medallion “was probably one of the most Instagrammed pieces,” said gallery director Jason Busch.
Declining value of antiques
Compared with the heyday of antiques collecting, prices for average pieces are now “80 percent off,” said Colin Stair, owner of Stair Galleries auction house in Hudson, N.Y. “Your typical Georgian 18th-century furniture, chests of drawers, tripod tables, Pembroke tables,” he noted, can all be had for a fraction of what they cost 15 to 20 years ago.
In 2002, Stair sold a set of eight George III-style carved mahogany chairs for $8,000; in 2016, he sold a similar set of eight chairs for $350.
In 2003, he dispatched a Regency breakfront bookcase for $9,500; in 2016, the sales price of an equivalent piece had plummeted to $1,300.
There are exceptions. Some designers and homeowners still mix antiques with contemporary furniture to create eclectic interiors, and particularly stylish pieces can bring high prices. Dealers of Asian antiques, like Betsy Nathan, owner of Chicago-based Pagoda Red, report strong sales to overseas buyers. (“We’re shipping back to Asia now,” she said. “In a million years, I never would have imagined it.”) Some passionate collectors also are willing to pay for pure historical value.
Stair’s highlights from the past year include a George I cut-gesso and giltwood table that sold for $31,000 and a Louis XVI mahogany desk that sold for $13,000.
But antiques that move for more than $10,000 in his auction house are rare, he noted, and the market for midcentury modern furniture without a recognizable name attached — popular just a few years ago — is also flagging.
Dealers, auctioneers and designers point to a number of reasons for the declining interest in antiques and rapid rise of contemporary design. More homes have open-concept, casual living spaces rather than formal dining rooms and studies, which reduces the need for stately mahogany dining tables, chairs and cabinets.
And a new generation of homeowners may be rebelling against the preferences of their elders.
“The 40-something crowd isn’t looking to put a highboy in their house,” said Ethan Merrill, third-generation president of Merrill’s auctioneers and appraisers near Burlington, Vt. (and Todd Merrill’s brother). “They relate more to pop culture, fashion-oriented materials and rock ’n’ roll.”
Will other 18th- and 19th-century furniture pieces ever return to fashion? Many designers say that antiques will rise again but, after nearly two decades of decline, few are willing to predict when.
“The pendulum is going to swing just like it does in politics,” said Thad Hayes, a New York interior designer. “It always does. But I don’t see it coming anytime soon.”
Jamie Drake, the New York interior designer, also views the current dismissal of antiques as a trend, “just as color trends have moved from neutrals to vibrants, back to neutrals, back to vibrants,” he said.
In his own home, most of the furniture and art is modern, “but I do still have some antiques,” he said. A home without them, he added, “would be like a sentence without punctuation.”