“I just want to warn you: you may be surprised at what I tell you,” cautions the antiques dealer. I’ve called because my father has been admitted to an Alzheimer’s unit, and my mother is selling their house in Maine to move to a 900-square-foot condo.
Two days later, he appears on Mom’s doorstep. “My grandparents told my parents, and my parents told us, to invest in antiques,” I warn him. “It’s a family tradition.”
“Let’s see what you’ve got,” he sighs, and follows me in. Looking up at the rose-colored Victorian light in the entryway, he says, “Pretty. Two hundred dollars.”
Mom considers that lamp priceless.
He points to one of my father’s favorite acquisitions. “Five hundred dollars for that bureau.”
“But it’s a Philadelphia Chippendale,” Mom protests. “We paid ten times that amount.”
“Let me guess. In the early Eighties?”
When Mom nods, he says, “Times have changed.” Then he points to the copper lusterware on top of the bureau. “And you won’t even be able to give that away.”
The English grandfather clock, circa 1830, appraises for less than than my parents paid to ship it here. Their bow-back Windsor chairs? “A couple hundred dollars each.” A tilt-top dining table, seventeenth-century Massachusetts? Same price Mom paid thirty-five years earlier.
By the end of the day, the only things he’s appraised favorably are three paintings and family members’ Civil War and World War I military memorabilia–none of which we’d part with. Mom is tearful.
“When my husband and I were furnishing our homes in the Seventies and Eighties, we bought only antiques,” she tells him. “At the time, they were consistently increasing in value every year.”
“In most cases, you’ll get only a fraction of what you paid–and I’ll charge 40 percent,” the dealer informs her, snapping his notebook shut. “My advice? Give your kids anything they want, and be grateful you’ve found your treasures a good home.”
So, I offer furniture and glassware to family members and load a storage unit with family heirlooms for the time when grandchildren move into larger places. Then we hold a massive garage sale, donate nine SUV loads of collectibles, and drive a packed SUV and U-Haul trailer back to Michigan–several times.
“Mom, you know I don’t have room for antiques,” says my daughter Elizabeth as we unload the U-Haul. Her brothers live in Utah and South Carolina. “How are you going to get this stuff to them? And where will they put it?”
Elizabeth attends a graduate school halfway across the country. “Everyone I know either lives in a cramped rental with other students or in a tiny place of their own,” she says. “The last thing we’re thinking about is furniture–let alone antiques.”
According to social scientists, every year, 4-5 percent of people over sixty move to a smaller dwelling. My generation, the Baby Boom, is reaching retirement age and opting for a simpler life. But our kids don’t have room for all our stuff–if they even want it.
When Catherine Mermier’s daughter Alexandra Beattie landed a new job and moved into a house with two others, Mermier had just downsized her mother’s possessions and moved her into Glacier Hills. “I couldn’t say no to some things, so I found a place for her grand piano, traded my dining room table for one Mom’s ancestor had built, and upgraded my china and glassware,” Mermier says. And she offered her daughter anything she wanted from her grandmother’s collection.
Beattie passed. “I’m a minimalist,” the recent college grad explains. “If I can’t use what I have, I bag it up and donate it. I don’t like clutter. I didn’t turn down the stuff because it was old, but because I don’t have the space.
“But my grandparents had lovely things. One day, when I have a house, I’d love some of them–if my parents can store them for me until then.”
Julie Trombly and her husband Dave Fischer are downsizing in anticipation of selling their home sometime after their son graduates from U-M. “I like a lot of the colonial-style furniture my parents have–but not all,” their daughter Lindsey says. “I’ll probably decorate in a similar way when I get my own place. But Millennials really aren’t thinking about accumulating a lot of stuff.”
Which explains why so much of it ends up at the Treasure Mart. “I’m one of those Baby Boomers,” admits owner Elaine Johns. “I’ve seen the value of my own antiques drop. Yet my business is booming. A lot of my inventory comes from people who are downsizing–or downsizing for elderly parents. We buy and sell on consignment, and we price our things to move quickly.”
But what the Treasure Mart sells fastest are not antiques. “Mid-Century Modern is the only era that can be considered popular now–and they aren’t antiques,” she tells me when I ask her out to my house to look at my own antiques. “Baby Boomers are downsizing, but Millennials don’t collect–and they certainly don’t want antiques.”
After she studies the grandfather clock I’d hauled from Maine, she opens her laptop and googles the clockmaker. To my relief, she disagrees with the Maine dealer: “This is beautiful and classic. People still want grandfather clocks.”
But she sighs over my six rocking chairs. One is Shaker, one is Hitchcock, one belonged to my great-grandmother, one is an eighteenth-century primitive, and the last two were manufactured in my husband’s hometown in the 1910s. “No one wants them anymore,” she commiserates. “The best go for $300, but most are in the $75-to-$125 range.”
She picks up a Hummel figurine. “These were very desirable twenty and thirty years ago–they never lasted more than a day or two in the shop. Now what used to be snapped up at $100 is lucky to bring $19.”
“I hate to say it, but there are no true antiques–and very few antique collectors–in the state of Michigan,” Bob Strauss tells me, shaking his head. “The great majority of people here don’t understand, appreciate, or value antiques.”
Twenty-three years ago, when Strauss moved into his detached condo, he had more antiques than the place could hold, so a friend suggested, “Have a sale.” He did, and made a substantial profit. The high school counselor (“forty-two years in Taylor before I retired”) had discovered his avocation. Today, he and a partner buy and sell “only the best original-surface furnishings.” They call themselves the Country Gentlemen.
Strauss’s collections include ancient textiles, pipes, hats, flame-stitch upholstered pieces, William and Mary leather chairs, brooms, porringers, primitive portraits, horn cups, ancient bottles, candle molds and candle-drying apparatus, cutting boards, clothing, rugs, books, and lighting equipment–for starters. “As long as you have three of a kind, you’ve got a collection,” he says, winking.
He admits that antique prices fluctuate. “What once sold for $8,000 or $9,000 now sells for $5,000–if you’re lucky. People are more cautious in their purchases. And, after all, antiques are something nice to have, not necessities.” And the customers who buy them? “Our youngest is fifty, and our oldest is well into her eighties.”
The Country Gentlemen make four or five trips a year to New England to acquire their inventory and add to their own collections. “Many things have a person’s name, date, and even the name of the town carved or etched or woven into them,” Strauss says. “But I can’t say we do a lot of research. We’re impulsive. We know what we like, and we buy it when we find it. The quest is part of the fun.”
Customers visit their by-appointment showroom from all over the country, and they go outstate to sell eight or nine times a year. But though they attend the Ann Arbor Antiques Market, they no longer sell there. They abandoned their local audience after a two-day show in 2015 drew many admirers, but brought in sales of just $350. “We can go to rural Indiana, Illinois, and Tennessee for two-day shows and sell everything we bring–we make $10,000 or more,” Strauss says. “I don’t know why people in Michigan aren’t interested in antiques. Despite having the university here and a strong core of wealthy people, the locals don’t understand their intrinsic or aesthetic value.”
“I understand what Bob means,” admits Liz Miller, who bought the market from Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan in 2015. “Ann Arbor is one of the hardest markets for us to penetrate. We have customers coming from Farmington Hills, Ferndale, Royal Oak, downtown Detroit, Toledo, and Oakland County. But getting people in my backyard is tough.”
Her first event this year, on April 22-23 (see Events), marks the 49th anniversary of what was once the premier Midwestern antiques fair. Started by Margaret Brusher at the height of the Baby Boomers’ clamor for antiques, it once attracted 7,000 visitors per show. Miller is hoping for 3,500 this month–an increase from previous years.
Miller says interest in antiques is cyclical. She believes it hit its low point two years ago, when “the big granddaddy of shows”–the Opryland Antiques Show in Nashville–closed. Now she hopes the cycle is on the upswing again. “We’re working hard to attract young people,” she says. “To do that, we’ve expanded to vintage, industrial, and repurposed or ‘shabby-chic’ items.”
She loves seeing grandparents bring grandchildren to the market, to point out toys, telephones, and the things they used when they were young. “Young people who come for vintage or industrial may, we hope, get hooked on an antique silver corkscrew and start considering an antique or two.
“We make sure we have something for every interest, and I’ve seen a steady increase in visitors between twenty-five and thirty-five years of age,” Miller says. “Dealers are historians with a unique perspective on the past. It’s fun to see younger people learning from them.”
“These items are from a single estate here in Michigan,” Chuck Schmidt announces at his monthly Decorative Arts Auction, “A doctor from Iraq has decided to move to Dubai–and he is heading to the airport with just two suitcases.”
In addition to a crowd of thirty or so at Schmidt’s Antiques in Pittsfield Twp., men in the back of the room cling to telephone landlines and confer with distant customers. Eyes glued to computer screens, four people on the stage report Internet bids from Asia, London, Paris, Russia, and the Middle East.
Quickly, Schmidt moves through the collection, selling ancient Chinese and Japanese vases; Louis XV and Gothic Revival furniture; an Art Deco clock set; French Empire bronze tables; an Alexandre Renoir landscape; Persian rugs; Steuben glass; and much more. By the end of the day, 1,700 people from thirty-four countries have placed bids on the doctor’s collection.
Two days later, after he’s–literally–caught his breath, Schmidt explains that his family’s auction business began with his great-grandfather in 1911. He handled his first gavel at fourteen. “I studied some art history, but mostly I learned on the job,” he says.
“There’s no doubt that antiques in general aren’t the strong investments they were in the past, but the top level still does very well,” he says. “It’s in the midrange where you find the problems with dropping prices. When the economy started to crash in 2005, antiques started a downward trend. Everything is salable, but the price point has changed.”
He considers certain unpainted colonial pieces highly desirable, but buyers no longer want the primitive furniture with cracked and peeling paint so sought after in the 1980s. Clocks dropped in value, but are now rebounding. And Schmidt’s own business “is way up from twenty years ago.” Within the last decade or so, he says, Russian, Chinese, German, and French nationals have been avid customers for prestigious American dealers and auctions. “Everyone wants their ancestors’ stuff.”
His advice to buyers? “Antiques are like investments,” he says. “Buy the best you can afford. If you can get a medium-good table for $750 and an outstanding table for double that price, buy the best. Consider quality over quantity.”
Bob Strauss agrees, but adds: “Don’t worry about future value. Decide whether or not you like it enough to enjoy it every day. Fine antiques offer so much: a glimpse into the past, a sense of history, a connection to people who lived long before you.”
And even a connection to people who are still living. “When you have a family heritage that values antiques, you can’t turn your back on everything,” my daughter admits.
“Someday I’ll use some of these,” she tells me, with one parting look at the treasures in my garage. “But, really, Mom? Three sets of china?”