The past decade has seen a significant rise in the value of 20th-century design, with vintage furniture pieces achieving record prices at auctions. Buying design objects and furniture at auction has become an event on par with a Modern and Contemporary Art auction in London or New York, etc. Today, all main auction houses around the world such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, Bonhams, RAGO and Wright have design departments and design auction sessions. The market has also seen a rapidly growing number of websites selling vintage furniture online. Beware of knock-off’s and attributions!
Another factor that has affected the market is the increasing interest of museums all around the world to develop a 20th century decorative arts department. There are some museums as well which have been interested in 20th century decorative arts for many years, in some cases predating the 1950’s. But there is only one goal for all of them: display the masterpieces of designers from as many countries as possible, so, when you visit the museum, you are able to enjoy the ultimate of elegance created by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the Brutalism of Paul Evans, and world record price setter like Eileen Gray, etc. It is obvious that with big players like museums, 20th century design auctions have become an arena where top prices are paid for furniture pieces.
The trend of investing in mid-century furniture started some years ago when collectors realized that the furniture in their residences were clearly below the level of what was hanging on their walls. It´s like to see a 10 carat flawless diamond mounted in a pull tab! What comes first to your mind is that the gemstone is definitively a fake. And that is exactly the same feeling that you have about the artwork when it is displayed on ordinary furniture. It is shocking to see that you are surrounded of artwork ranging from the US$100,000’s to many US$millions and that to enjoy the view, you are seated in a basic and commercial US$1000 mass-produced sofa or that their US$100 mass-produced coffee tables, credenzas, etc. is the place where they displayed from Henry Moore small sculptures to Alexander Calder mobiles or Gabriel Orozco sculptured stones. You just have to check out the pictures available on the web of celebrities and collector´s homes, and you will see that the boring white or brown mass-produced 3-seater or 4-seaters are the standard furniture at their houses.
Furthermore, the people in the design and art industry began taking an interest in mid-century designers. An important factor is that the shapes of the pieces and the materials used are totally adaptable to today’s way of life; timeless, clean lines and modern, using wood and metal and they also fit perfectly well with modern and contemporary art. The rise in prices for 20th century vintage furniture can be attributed to the change in tastes of affluent individuals that started displaying vintage design furniture pieces along with their collections of Modern and Contemporary Art. Nowadays, the decision to buy a collectible mid-century furniture piece is similar to buying artwork.
And then comes the question: what should you buy? Well, as with stocks, there is no magic list…. American mid-20th century furniture designs are keenly sought after by collectors. Handmade pieces are outpacing the mass produced easily knocked-off early production. Collectors have finally realized that there are millions of Eames chairs, and now they are looking for custom designed pieces by the likes of Vladimir Kagan, just as an example. Sure, some “fatigue” is seen in the George Nakashima market, probably indicating a leveling-off after years of being in very high demand; but Nakashima will remain a “blue-chip” name in American furniture in the future, regardless of the vagaries of the market.
Of course, a Charles and Ray Eames Lounge Chair with ottoman can qualify – even if it is mass-produced – as long as it’s the right example. There’s been a trend away from mass-produced pieces. But, with the Eames chair, first made in 1956, YOU WANT ROSEWOOD, the way the designers intended it, black leather, and down fill, as before 1988.
20th century furniture is a good investment as there is a growing global taste for furniture designed during that period. My top American designers are Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima, Paul Evans, Wendell Castle and Vladimir Kagan.
If you’re looking for an investment-worthy work of art that you can actually use, mid-century modern furniture is a promising choice. As the market for vintage design and furniture grows, collectors are increasingly seeking out special pieces, limited editions and designs made in rosewood and other high quality hardwoods; pay special attention on designers of this last category. There are many extinct woods that they used and of course, following the economics principle of scarcity, this furniture is the one that will increase its value and desirability via its rarity and irreplaceability.
to be continued in Part #2
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