Why Should I Buy Antiques Instead of Contemporary Furniture?

Blog: Why should I buy antiques instead of contemporary furniture?
-written by Peter Schleifenbaum


In a previous blog I set out the reasons why antiques are “green”, i.e ecologically sound, while contemporary furniture pieces are often not. In that comparison I dwelled more on the harmful, ecological life-cycle of contemporary furniture and décor items, than the virtues of antiques themselves. 

I want to focus on the latter in the following paragraphs.

Apart from the ecological argument, antiques have one very revealing advantage on their side. When a piece of contemporary furniture is purchased today and taken home, within days, that piece of furniture has turned from a brand-new, high value purchase into a used item worth a fraction of its retail value. An antique purchased that same day will retain, if purchased at market value, that market value for days, weeks, and even months after. Going forward a year or two, or three, while the used furniture continues to depreciate in value, the antique will most likely increase in worth. How is this possible ?

Modern furniture, unless looking at the luxury segment of the market, is predominantly made of composite materials, mostly wood-component mixes with glues and additives. Their durability is limited; with moisture, temperature and use taking a toll on their life expectancy every day.

Antiques on the other hand are commonly made of single materials, in the case of furniture- full wood, where moisture and temperature have little impact and regular, daily use only contributes to the generation of value building patina. 

Modern seating furniture combines frames of wood, metal or various hydrocarbons with fabric. At best, and in the high value segment, leather is the fabric of choice. But already inside, the purchaser will find synthetic fillers. The low to medium price segment of the seating market relies exclusively on synthetic fabrics based on hydro-carbons. From faux-leather to  poly-carbon and any synthetic material in between, modern seating is always an oil derivative. Accordingy, the caron footprint of the respective piece is high. And this is not to speak of the process, which has used a multiple of the product based carbon in energy and processing. I talked about this in a previous blog.

So let us return to the question of value. Used furniture, at the end of their physical life, i.e. after 5, 10 or 20 years,  are just that, used furniture with little, if any residual value. And that is regardless of initial purchase price. Which means that a table purchased for $ 3,000 in March of 1990 has the same value of 0 in March of 2010 or 2020 as the table purchased at the same time for $ 250. At that time the purchasers also had the option of purchasing a an antique table: a 1920’s oak table or a Victorian, 1880’s mahogany one. Both would have cost, depending on size and condition, around $ 200 to 250. The early years of the new millennium were not kind to “brown” furniture, which fell out of fashion with the general public. Still the market value for these antique tables would not have declined and the $ 200 or $250 invested  would still have been returned, possibly even with a small increase of $ 50 or $ 100. 

However, had our furniture purchaser in March of 1990 chosen a more exclusive, rare and older table, let’s say a 17th century refectory table for $ 800 or an American fruitwood table from the 1800’s for a similar price, he or she would have doubled their initial investment had they sold these tables in 2010 or 2020. The essence of this story, which is universally applicable and only affected – some times to the positive and sometimes to the negative – by fashion and colour trends, is that when faced by a choice of old or new, chose the old and if furthermore the additional choice exists for even older or more unusual, go that route, since the market is sure to reward this in a decade or two’s time. 

But as is always, there is one exception to this rule: designer furniture. The right designer furniture, purchased new will offer the purchaser a good opportunity to protect this investment and possibly even gain a little. But the opportunity is far from certain and never as assured as in the case of antiques. And with designer furniture there are a few caveats: Firstly, be sure to choose furniture from a recognised and well known designer. Unfortunately who the upcoming design stars will be is anybody’s educated guess. So there is a degree of gambling. Secondly, pieces from designers – possibly even signed like a piece of art - versus run-of-the-mill production furniture, command their price, which is easily a 5 or 10-fold in value. So there is an additional aspect of gambling.

And finally, once you have “invested” in a piece of designer furniture, apart from being a piece of furniture which becomes a part of daily life, it is an investment that requires special care and protection. A wet glass forgotten on a teak table top overnight will leave nasty stains, which will reduce the table’s future value, as will cuts, scrapes, tears or blotches. A 17th or 18th century table or chair on the other hand will have so many scratches, stains or chips acquired over the centuries that they have morphed into what we now consider “patina”, the colour and shading which make a piece even more appreciated. So when faced with the quandary of introducing a piece of valuable furniture into the day to day operation of a household, the antique with its ease of use and maintenance will always win out, even or especially over a designer piece of furniture.

So, why should an antique be preferred over a contemporary piece of furniture? If the ecological life-cycle and footprint does not convince the buyer, the retention of value certainly should. And if that certain buyer has deep pockets and an eclectic taste, that would commonly steer her or him towards modern designer furniture. Even here, exquisite antiques from times gone past can not only shine but outshine any modern piece of houseware. Not only in quality, ease of use and retention of its value, but also in its esthetic appearance since there are few styles we admire as “modern” today, that have not yet found their historic example somewhere sometime in the past.