(last updated July 2019)
What has been happening in the antiques trade
Demand for antiques depends to some extent on the health of the economy, so the antiques sector is vulnerable during any period of downturn or recession. During the first half of the 2000s antique dealers benefited from a period of relative economic stability. However, trends in interior design and decor saw many home owners opt for modern, minimalist furniture from shops like Ikea rather than traditional antiques. To make matters worse, the economy suffered a sharp downturn during the late 2000s and conditions remained very difficult for many into the early 2010s. The downturn in the economy inevitably had a negative effect on the antiques and fine art trade (although the very top end of the market stayed buoyant), hitting demand from investors, collectors and home owners.
It wasn't all bad news for the antiques trade though. A number of popular television programmes about antiques and collectibles raised the profile of the industry and prompted some people to take an interest in hunting for interesting pieces and bargains for the first time. So when the economy began to pick up again during 2013, the antiques trade saw demand begin to firm up once more. Some dealers saw growing demand from collectors in countries like China and India. The economy continued to improve during 2014 and into 2015, but then slowed again in the second half of 2015 and into 2016. The market stayed fairly lacklustre during 2016 and 2017, reflecting the uncertainty surrounding the UK's vote in June to leave the EU. However, the value of sterling fell sharply and remained low into 2018 and this may have helped to boost sales to overseas buyers.
Unfortunately the mid 2010s saw a growing backlash against the previously popular television programmes, leading to period furniture falling out of fashion with younger people. Influenced by home improvement programmes and interior design magazines, they now want more minimalist decor and modern furniture with clean lines and neutral colours. Prices for dark mahogany furniture, Victoriana, oak and country saw substantial falls. While there were reports of prices for mid twentieth century furniture having quadrupled in the 10 years up to the mid 2010s, over the same period prices for period pieces were at their lowest since the 1930s.
Many dealers report that finding good quality pieces is becoming more and more difficult. They are having to travel further afield to find them. One of the reasons for this shortage lies in the fact that private householders have become increasingly knowledgeable about antiques and send their own pieces to auction to realise their value instead of selling them to a dealer. Online marketplaces like eBay and Catawiki have encouraged this trend.
eBay is now a huge global marketplace, putting sellers in touch with buyers worldwide. Antique and bric-a-brac dealers in particular have embraced eBay as a means of reducing their costs and reaching a much wider market. eBay isn't without its downside for dealers though - more and more private buyers and sellers are choosing to use eBay, sometimes cutting out the dealer altogether. Other online marketplaces have emerged too, with Etsy being popular with buyers and sellers of 'retro', vintage and 'shabby chic' items in particular while Sellingantiques.co.uk is aimed specifically at the antiques trade. Most industry commentators consider that online sales will continue to grow, especially for lower value pieces.
Artist's resale rights laws - known as droit de suite - were introduced in the UK in 2006 and fully implemented in early 2012. Under the droit de suite rules, art dealers who buy and sell certain works of art worth over a certain amount have to pay a levy which goes to the original artist or their estate. The levy is collected by special collecting societies. The Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS) has more information about the droit de suite rules on its website. As well as extra costs, the rules mean extra paperwork and more administration too, so unsurprisingly they're not popular with everyone in the trade.
Following many years of campaigning by conservationists, the government announced in April 2018 that in the future sales of ivory items would be banned, with just a few exemptions. Many other countries have either already introduced ivory bans or are planning to do so.
Keeping up to date with developments
Joining a trade association is an excellent way of keeping up with developments in the industry. There are a number of trade associations which represent the interests of antique dealers and offer a range of services to their members. Some are local or regional and some national. For example, dealers may apply to join the British Antique Dealers' Association (BADA) or the London and Provincial Antique Dealers' Association (LAPADA), or one of a number of local and regional associations.
The British Antique Furniture Restorers' Association (BAFRA) represents the interests of those working in antique furniture restoration and conservation. You can find out more about BAFRA on their website.
Subscribing to a trade journal is another excellent way of staying up to date. The Antiques Trade Gazette is a weekly journal containing a wealth of articles of interest to the antique dealer. Antique Collecting journal tracks trends in demand for different types of antique and aims to provide a wealth of up to date information for collectors, dealers and specialists.