Consider Investing in Antique Furniture

Physician's Money Digest, May 15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 9

Selecting furniture for your home is a pleasurableexperience. It's an activity that youcan enjoy with your spouse or significantother. A way to make this event even more enjoyableis to buy useful items that maintain or evenappreciate in value. For example, you buy yourliving room chairs in 2003 for$10,000. Fifteen years later, when youdownsize, you sell these same objectsfor $10,000 or more. Of course, itdepends on the market.

You're probably thinking that usedobjects decrease to half their value themoment you buy them. This is truemost of the time. However, if you'repatient enough to buy antique furnitureand art at major auction housesand antique stores, you will ownpieces that almost certainly will maintainor increase their value. The cost ofmany antiques is often comparable tothe cost of high-end new furniture.

AUCTION MARKETPLACE

The 2 major US auction houses areChristie's and Sotheby's. Both haveauctions in New York City, andChristie's has auctions in Los Angeles as well.Each also has offices elsewhere. In addition, theyare located internationally. Other large auctionhouses should be able to offer similar advantagesto Christie's and Sotheby's.

Antique dealers can be found in every city.The dealers most likely to buy back your antiqueitems or sell them for you are those that are wellestablished and respected. It's best to ask abouttheir policy for trading in or reselling pieceswhen you buy from them initially.

FURNITURE APPRECIATION

The Antique Collector's Club of theUnited Kingdom has kept a tab on theappreciation of antique furniture since1968. Its compilation, the AntiqueFurniture Index (www.antique-acc.com/acatalog/FurnitureIndex.htm), is composedof furniture from different periods,ranging from the 17th to early 19thcentury. Since 1968, the antique furniturestudied has appreciated 33 times itsoriginal value through 2001.

British AntiqueFurniture: Price Guide and Reasons forValues.

Victorian and Edwardian Furniture: Price Guide andReasons for Values.

At the same time, the FinancialTimes Stock Index, which is like ourDow, went up by a factor of 19. In otherwords, the antique furniture went up invalue nearly 2 times more than thestocks. These statistics are based on aselection of representative pieces fromJohn Andrews' book, Another book published by thesame author covers later furniture from 1973, To my knowledge, there is nosimilar antique price analysis in the United States.

The Antique Furniture Index is based onaverage antiques, not the finest. The "best ofclass" appreciate even more so. For example, aChippendale mahogany secretary sold for $12.1million in 1989. Most of us are not going to bein that kind of market, but obviously less expensivefurniture of good quality has historicallyappreciated as well.

Antique furniture is easy to transfer back tothe auction house when you choose to sell it. Thespecialist at the auction house will know theitems from the earlier sale in which you purchasedthe piece. They can tell you over thephone whether they will auction it (providing thecondition is suitable) and the date. Antique dealersmay not be able to be as specific about theresale of your antiques.

INVESTMENT TACTICS

You can do catalog shopping (offered by themajor auction houses), Internet shopping, or gosee the piece in person. No matter what yourapproach, you will pay what a dealer would pay foran object at auction. This means you don't havethat second-party markup. You're paying the mostcompetitive price for a piece that is classy enoughto be in a major auction. These houses don't takeevery piece that comes their way.

Dealers will even help you choose pieces for apercentage of the selling price, often 10% or15%, depending on the total price. Your job is toindicate an interest, and others can take it fromthere. The specialists at the auction house shouldbe able to direct you to some of these dealers.They will also keep you informed as objects thatyou might be interested in come up for sale.

A word of caution:

Log on to Christies.com orSothebys.com and go to lot finder.You will be able to quickly search forany article. Sotheby's has 2 kinds of auctions—online and live. The objects in thelive auction are generally of higherquality and more likely to hold theirvalue than the online auctions.Therefore, I would recommend buying"live" from the auction houserather than online. The right box onthe Sotheby's homepage is for theauction house's live auctions.

If you see something that catchesyour eye, you can bid in personor over the phone. Another option isto leave a written bid that could winthe object, depending on the competitionin the room and on thetelephone. Before bidding, you maywant to obtain a condition reportfrom the auction house. This willgive you more details about anydamage to the piece and can helpyou better make a decision as towhat it's worth to you.

Some bidders feel that the writtenbid is a good way to go becausethey decide what the object is worthto them and put down that number.They are not influenced by the frenzyin the room during the auction.This makes for a more objective bid.

ON THE DOWNSIDE

Furniture is illiquid. You can'tsell it in a day like stock. Therefore,you can't obtain money quicklyfrom the sale. Furthermore, whenyou sell it, the auction house willtake part of the hammer price (15%or 20%). Other smaller expenseswill be the cost of transport to theauction house and the photographyfee required so that the piece can bein the auction catalog. The antiquedealer is likely to take 30% of thesale price if they sell on consignment.They also may take up to severalyears to sell your piece.

Furniture subdivisions are notcreated equal. This is similar to thestock market. Although the generalgroups appreciate over time, a subdivisionof a group may be higher orlower than another at any 1 timebased on current trends. For example,oak and walnut furniture haverisen in price more than mahoganyfurniture over the past few years.

A hazard of antique furniture isthat it can be more fragile than newfurniture. Children, of course, arenot aware of this, and can easilydamage the more fragile items. Ifthis is a concern, buying sturdyantique pieces or few antique piecesmight be best. You may even want toput off collecting antique furnitureuntil the children are older andeveryone can breathe more easily.

A risk of buying antiques is thatyou may not be buying what youthink you are buying. Purchasingfrom a major auction house orestablished dealer is a benefit if thiswere to occur. Not only does it minimizethe risk of buying fakes orreproductions not identified assuch, it's also more likely that restitutionwould be made.

The whole process can be fun,and could open a stimulating andinteresting new world to you. Whilethe object you choose may notappreciate like the stock market oryour home, if it holds its value,you're still ahead compared to a newpiece that's sure to depreciate.

Shirley M. Mueller is boarded in neurologyand psychiatry. She was a practicing neurologistuntil 1995. Since then, she hasretrained and is active in the investment andfinancial planning area. Dr. Mueller is a seniorwealth advisor at Star Wealth Managementin Indianapolis, Ind. She welcomes questionsor comments at mymoneymd@aol.com.