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Who’s Buying Glass These Days?

Every year when we start work on our Annual Glass Issue we challenge ourselves to find topics, makers, and glass types not previously explored in past issues. What we have found over the years is the more we look the more we find, which is why the subject of glass never gets old or out of style, although what we collect and value does, in some instances.
When it comes to holding and increasing in value, glass has seemingly fallen into the same category as brown furniture and china. Walk the fields and floors of antique collectibles shows and flea markets and you see vendor booths filled with beautiful and noted glassware selling for a fraction of previous values only a decade or so go.
In our February 2020 Americana issue we published the “2019 Survey Results for the Antiques & Decorative Arts” conducted by Asheford Institute of Antiques. The results are based on an informal survey they conduct each year within the antiques community reflecting their sales and requests for particular items/genre/periods. The survey is insightful because it not only looks at what is selling but also who is buying by age groups: 20-40, 40-60, and 60-80.  When it comes to “glass,” the results suggest a story and opportunity contrary to the current narrative that collecting traditional antique and vintage glassware today is being passed over in favor of more contemporary forms of art glass and items for decorative display.
It is true that among buyers 60-80, “Glass” is no longer on their active buying list, which is reinforced by the Survey results. Ironically, these were the collectors that at the turn of the millennia were driving the market for antique glass. As a generation of ardent collectors, they did the foundation research, shared their knowledge with fellow collectors, and wrote the resource books on the history of 19th to mid-20th century glass making and manufacturing companies in America. They formed collector clubs across the country, put on shows and sales, documented their finds and preserved provenance. Among their collections reside rare, complete, and best examples of their subjects of interest for the benefit of future generations of collectors.
In the bigger context of the changing antiques marketplace, I would suggest that the primary reason for this decline in “Glass” buying among 60-80 year old buyers of antiques has less to do with their waning interest in collecting then the physical down-sizing of their lives, and the amount of space a glassware collection can take up. Collectors in this age category tend to be ready to thin out their collections to accommodate a change in living space, or sell off items to fund their retirement after typically decades of active collecting. Most long-time collectors will tell you that only something elusive, rare, or highly desirable brings them to market these days.
As these buyers withdraw from collecting they leave behind often impressive and sizable collections, which have flooded a market made up of younger buyers who, until now, have shown little interest in collecting antique glassware. While this has led to a general devaluing of 19th and early 20th century American cut glass, pressed glass, carnival glass, elegant glass, milk glass and Depression glass, it has also introduced into auction and museum collections rare and unique examples previously unknown and unseen, which keeps this segment of the glass market still desirable and fascinating to watch, with auction houses still setting auction records.
So who is buying all the other glassware for sale at flea markets, antique shows, and at auction these days?  The Asheford study seems to suggest it is younger buyers, ages 20-40; “Glass” rates 12 out of 14 among their requested/purchased category segments. While this label encompasses antique art glass objects as well as traditional glassware, it also shows an appreciation among younger collectors for the beauty and craft of hand-blown glass from another era. It also means that new collectors can now build strong collections, affordably, ahead of a hopeful resurgence in interest and value down the road.
This survey also shows 20-40 year old buyers connect with eras. Among their Top 14 at No. 3 is Mid-Century Modern. Also on the list is Art Nouveau at No. 13 and Art Deco at No. 14. This interest in glass and specific periods will also inevitably introduce collectors to some of the lesser-known or collected artists and glass manufacturers of their era, raising their visibility, and eventually the value of their items.
If I look at the glass market as half full, I would say an interest in era-based collecting among younger buyers, and an excessive inventory that makes building a new collection, affordable, only bodes well for the future of antique and vintage glass.
While what and who is collected may change, the resilience of glass will stand the test of time, and continue to be valued as a material expression and reflection of the era in which it was made. For collectors and glass lovers, we celebrate, once again, the never-ending stories, history, objects and makers behind the allure of American antique and vintage glass.