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Home & Design It’s a buyers’ market for antiques, thanks to millennials

Changing demographics have driven down the cost of antiques like this Biedermeier tea caddy.

Ernest Johnson

Amy Valm, 31, is like many millennials. She lives in a rental apartment in the middle of a city (in her case, Toronto), works freelance as a journalist and loves vintage clothing. “Fast fashion is not something I want to support,” she says.

But she also loves another aspect of vintage that many in her cohort routinely eschew: furniture and decor. Some of her pieces have been handed down through the family – “I have a tapestry from my late grandmother,” she says, “it’s hand-woven” – while others have been her own hard-won finds.

“I have an old phrenology bust that I traded for a six-pack of Budweiser on [online trading site] Bunz,” she says, adding that she “once found a Franco Albini ottoman for $25 at a thrift shop, which was a score.” The popular rattan piece, dating to the early 1950s, often sells for $800 or more, even for reproductions.

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Valm loves well-aged objects because of the way she was brought up. “My dad used to brake for every yard sale,” she says. “My family is from Estonia. I was raised with the idea to keep what you have.” She’s also drawn to the eco aspects of antiques. “It’s sustainable. In order for something to last decades, it has to be well-made, usually from quality woods. I’m not into particle board. I would never step foot in Walmart. … I’d rather be gagged than go to HomeSense. You can quote me on that.”

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Ottawa antiques dealer Ernest Johnson says 'there’s an aging population putting more material on the market, and somewhat of a lessening of demand.'

Ernest Johnson

All of which puts her in step with the positive, save-the-world ethos of her generation. What makes most millennials resistant to antiques, though, is that their lifestyles aren’t compatible with the encumbrance of a lot of stuff. The majority of millennials either rent (44 per cent) or live at home (21 per cent), according to a 2018 CIBC poll. And those who are mobile move often. A 2018 article in Inc. magazine says that only 11 per cent of people between the ages of 21 and 37 describe their homes as “permanent.” A bulky, Victorian china hutch becomes a challenge, then, when someone not only lives in their parents’ basement, but envisions a life thereafter of hopping between tiny rentals.

None of which has been good for the antiques market – especially premodern pieces that tend to be larger and heavier. According to Art Market Research, which analyzes data from major auction houses, the price of English antiques dropped almost 40 per cent between 2007 and 2017, while 2018 reports in both The New York Times and The Ottawa Citizen found sales withering by as much as 80 per cent.

“The industry has seen a great deal of change in the last 10 or 15 years,” says Ernest Johnson, an Ottawa-based dealer with more than three decades of experience. “There’s an aging population putting more material on the market, and somewhat of a lessening of demand. We’re seeing fewer stores, and more competition online. It’s really separating the wheat from the chaff.”

The upside is that the price of yesteryear’s finery is lower than ever, which has created an opportunity for interested millennials to buy in cheaply – something that savvy dealers are leveraging to boost their businesses.

“With younger buyers, it’s important to be able to explain and support the price of each piece,” says Scott Landon. He’s had an eponymous shop in Vancouver since 1998, but is also increasingly selling through Instagram, where he has more than 4,400, mainly Gen Y, followers. “[Millennials] will pull out their phone and research prices really quickly if they think something is too expensive. But I’ve done well communicating with the younger generation. They like pieces that have an interesting story. It’s cool when I get to tell that story.”

The lower prices for items like this Regency rosewood side cabinet have created an opportunity for interested millennials looking to buy in cheaply.

Ernest Johnson

As with Valm, Philippe Halbert is in his early 30s and loves antiques, in part because of the stories they tell. “Whether it’s something that I’ve found online, scored in a flea market or won at auction,” he says, “it’s fun to think about who might have designed, made, owned or used a given object.”

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But Halbert doesn’t just enjoy acquiring antiques, although he has a long history of that: “The first thing that I ever collected was a coloured English etching of three deer from about 1830,” he says. “I was about 10 years old, and rummaging through a print dealer’s 'Under $10′ bin when I found it.” He also studies the way we interact with them. As a doctoral student at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., his research focuses on material culture, which according to him, is “fancy wording for stuff and our innate, often complicated relationships to things.”

Although Halbert says it’s important to keep perspective on the importance of antiques – “I have no problem admitting that, ultimately, we’re talking about material things,” he says, adding that “owning or investing in antiques is not exactly a priority compared to say, a home or a car” – he confirms that the current distaste for old things is more circumstantial than a bigger culture shift. “Given most millennials’ living situations and the realities of our professional stability,” he says, “what might appear to be an aversion to antiques is often less about taste, although that does figure into the equation.”

In fact, of his peers who have the means and ability, many collect, he says, “although mid-century [modern] is more apt to catch many of my peers’ attention than earlier things.” There’s a practicality in that preference: The streamlined shapes make pieces from the fifties and sixties “easier to clean,” he says.

His own furniture largely dates to the 1830s, from both the United States and Europe, with some omissions reflecting the realities of his lifestyle as a grad student. “I’m not using porcelain and silver for every meal,” he says. “I don’t even have a dining room.

“That said, I do live in the 21st century,” he adds. “I even own some Ikea. The four Billy bookshelves that I bought over the last three years have really served me well.” The particle-board pieces are economical, efficiently filling a temporary need. As they fall to wrack and warp as they so often do, typically after being disassembled and reassembled during a move, he will no doubt find something more enduring, maybe even something that lasts for several generations.

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