by Jerry Cohen
The Arts & Crafts market, like any collectible market, has buyers at low, middle, and upper price ranges. At the peak of interest during the second half of the 1990s, every price range of Arts & Crafts material was repeatedly climbing to new highs, thanks to both the exceptional wealth being created during this period and the popularity of the style among baby-boomers who were in their peak earning and collecting years. Moving forward to 2016, the state of the Arts & Crafts market has changed substantially. At the top of the high-end, we now see museums building early 20th century collections and competing aggressively against wealthy collectors for the best and most iconic items produced during this period. Many of these items are setting records on a regular basis. At the middle and upper middle end of the market, the story is quite different, with prices dropping as much as 70% from peak levels. Finally, at the more modest end of the market, we see prices about the same or a little lower than they were fifteen years ago. Let’s take a look at some recent auction sales to see how they compare against earlier prices.
Charles Rohlfs is an iconic figure in the Arts & Crafts world, having run a small furniture workshop in Buffalo, making Arts & Crafts furniture that comes across as a unique blend of Gothic and Art Nouveau styles. Fiercely unique and highly sculptural, his furniture and accessories were produced in small quantities. His best pieces tend to be very curvy with dreamlike carving, cut-outs, and copper accents. One of his most desirable designs is a rotating desk, (estimated 1999 value $75,000). This desk sold for $255,750 (lot 77, October 18th, 2014) after fierce competition between several museums and top collectors, against a pre-sale estimate of $45,000-65,000.
The Blacker House in Pasadena is one of their most famous commissions, a table lamp (estimated 1999 value $100,000) from that home which was auctioned for $502,000 (Lot 554, October 17, 2015) against a pre-sale estimate of $40,000-60,000.
Frederick Hurten Rhead is considered one of the most important potters of the Arts & Crafts period. Originally from England, he worked at many potteries, including Weller, Roseville, University City, Arequipa, Rhead Pottery, and was even the creator of Fiesta Ware pottery in the 1930’s. A four-tile Peacock panel designed and executed by Rhead at University City, MO, circa 1910, that achieved a price of $637,500 (Lot 542, Oct. 27, 2012) against a pre-sale estimate of $35,000-45,000 (estimated 1999 value, $40,000).
The three items detailed above, along with other unique and best-of-class pieces from the Arts & Crafts period have recently brought record prices, often well into six-figures and selling for many times their pre-sale estimates. Much like other areas of collecting, with greater and greater wealth accumulating among a limited number of collectors (many of whom are now either building their own museums or planning to donate their collections to established ‚museums), and with more and more academic research being done on the premier artisans, the demand for the limited number of “best of” examples is growing, along with the budgets to buy these pieces at record-breaking prices.
The same can not be said for the broad middle and upper-middle swath of the market. The aging of long-time collectors, combined with a shrinking middle class, has put a squeeze on the prices of most of the items selling in the $4,000 to $40,000 range fifteen years ago.
Gustav Stickley is credited as popularizing Arts & Crafts philosophy and design in America. From 1901 to 1917 he published The Craftsman Magazine and likely produced upwards of a quarter-million pieces of furniture at his factory in Syracuse, NY. Forgotten and out of style for decades after World War I, the Princeton Arts & Crafts Exhibition in 1972 marked the academic rediscovery of Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement, and Stickley’s quarter-sawn oak furniture slowly climbed to mainstream popularity, peaking in popularity and value around 2000 on the 100th anniversary of his first Arts & Crafts designs. Museum exhibitions, use in movies and TV shows, and articles in architectural and home magazines, combined with an influx of famous collectors and marketing by major metropolitan galleries, all increased Stickley’s popularity among collectors. Combined with a booming economy and the peak earning years of baby boomers, surviving objects from the Arts & Crafts Movement, led by Stickley’s Craftsman Furniture, saw enormous price appreciation.
By 2000, as the economy weakened, the Arts & Crafts market peaked and major galleries began to shift into Mid-Century Modern Design, which they viewed as a new, different, and exciting market for the up and coming generation of younger collectors. With a large supply of quality Mid-Century material entering the market as the original owners of these pieces began downsizing, conditions were right for the galleries, museums, and design magazines to promote this as a new trend in collecting. While great for the values of Mid-Century items, the effect of this shift was to reduce demand for good Arts & Crafts pieces that were too expensive to compete against reproductions, yet not rare enough to be sought out by museums and the wealthiest collectors.
To round out this discussion on current pricing, let’s look at a couple of more moderately valued L&JG Stickley pieces. A chafing dish stand sold for $1,750 (Lot 599, October 17, 2015) and a sideboard sold for $3,500 (Lot 699, October 17, 2015). These prices are about the same as they were in 1999. Although desirable and moderately hard to find items, their prices never went higher than what today’s collectors can still afford, and their prices have held relatively steady.
In many ways, the Arts & Crafts market has mimicked the changes that have taken place in our economy. The wealthiest buyers have far more money to spend than they did in 2000, and are therefore able to compete more aggressively on the best of the best pieces. At the same time the middle class has lost a lot of buying power, driving most of the market into pieces under $4,000 and resulting in price decreases for most pieces that had brought $10,000 to $40,000 at the market peak. With the economic and demographic shifts that started in 2000 and escalated after 2008, most Arts & Crafts objects can now be purchased at or near prices that existed twenty-five years ago. For buyers, that is nothing but good news, although the reverse is true for sellers.
For myself, I have never advocated buying antiques or collectibles as an investment, as their value will ride up or down depending on constantly changing preferences in collecting and the economy. I see antiques as something to buy because you are attracted to them, whether for their beauty, design, quality, or history. Having come of age in the sixties, when reform was in the air, much as it was during the heyday of the Arts & Crafts movement, I fell in love with the style because of both the philosophy behind it and the serenity I experienced being surrounded by it. My suggestion to the collectors who read this is to educate and familiarize yourself as much as possible with all the styles of furniture and design out there, and to collect the pieces that resonate with you, whether in or out of style, and with regard only to the value it brings to your own life.
Jerry Cohen is the specialist in charge of Arts and Crafts furniture at Rago Auctions (www.ragoarts.com) in Lambertville, NJ. He has specialized in the Arts and Crafts period since 1977, when his original business, The Mission Oak Shop, was in Oakland, CA. In addition to his auction work he is also owner of The Antiques Marketplace, a 20,000 square foot, 100+ dealer group shop in Putnam, CT. He can be contacted at email@example.com and is always happy to answer questions or provide free evaluations of your items.