What is the State of the Victorian
by Bob Brooke
was formerly in the realm of the rich. But as Victorian furniture came
of antiques age—over 100 years old—back in the 1960s, middle class and
upper middle class people were able to afford to buy quality antique
furniture for not much more than new pieces.
Before looking at the
market for Victorian furniture, it’s important to distinguish between
several groups of buyers. First, there are the true collectors who buy
pieces for their style and who made them. Many of these people buy for
investment. Buyers in this group would want to own not just any old
parlor set but an elegant Rococo Revival one by John Henry Belter—the
type usually scene in brothels in movies about the Old West.
there’s the average person who likes old things. He or she prefers the
elegant charm of an Renaissance Revival bedroom chamber suite to the
stark modern mattress on a metal frame. These same people are also
frequent guests to Victorian bed and breakfasts where they can immerse
themselves in the romance of a bygone era.
Third, there are those to who live in new or relatively new “McMansions”
and want furniture that they can show off to their friends and
neighbors. These people often hire interior decorators to furnish their
homes. If they do buy pieces themselves, they often do so at auctions
where they bid up the price just because they can.
The market for Victorian furniture has a different effect for each of
The number of furniture styles and sub-styles that fall under the broad
category of Victoriana can seem endless. Also seemingly endless are the
offerings in antique malls, and at auctions and shows. But are all these
present, the market is mixed for Victorian furniture, depending on where
you live and shop. Out West, there’s a scarcity of Victorian pieces
while back East, where there’s a ready supply, collectors lean towards
the big names like the Herter Brothers and Pottier & Stymus of New Work,
and Kinibel Cabus, specialists in the Aesthetic style, and John Henry
Belter, known for his original Rococo Revival carving techniques, all of
which command high prices with traditional collectors. Middle-market
collectors, however, generally select pieces for their affordability no
matter where they live. People buying one to two pieces tend to buy what
As with most antiques and collectibles, the desirability of' Victorian
furniture is cyclical. What’s hot in one area of the country may be
quite cool in another. In 1982, most antiques collectors—many
of whom were bit antique themselves—looked unfavorably on Victorian
furniture. If a piece originated after 1820, they didn't care about it.
But today, serious collectors want the best.
collectors seek out the American Empire pieces by Anthony Querelle of
Philadelphia, the Rococo Revival work of John Belter, the Rococo Revival
furniture of Meeks Brothers, and the high-style Aesthetic pieces by
For most collectors, 18th and early 19th-century furniture is too
costly. Not many can afford to pay five and six figures for fine early
American pieces. But the antiques market still leans towards the high
end. Younger people have been slow to start collecting antiques. Many
caught in the upwardly mobile movement buy affordable furniture from
IKEA and Wayfair.com—furniture they can easily dispose of when moving.
In fact, they’d rather do that than settle for hand-me-downs from their
parents or grandparents.
Those just starting out in antiques are looking at furniture from the
1920s and 1930s. And while those pieces aren’t really antiques, they’re
simple and functional.
Belter was great, especially for his superior workmanship, in today’s
homes, even those of the wealthy, he’s a bit of a dinosaur. On the other
hand, the late Empire style has a certain minimalist look people are
gravitating to now. It blends with modern homes.
There are several reasons why the market for Victorian furniture has
suffered. First, there are demands on floor space in today’s homes.
Because of this, it’s important that furniture be multi-functional. And
while there’s still a market for ornate Victorian pieces, it has
lessened dramatically. More homeowners of today’s development homes are
hiring interior decorators because they don’t feel comfortable
decorating and want to get it right.
Second, people don’t readily purchase Victorian furniture, no matter
what its style, because they associate the Victorian design with
clutter, and clutter today has negative connotations.
the overwhelming number of styles and sub-styles that existed during
Queen Victoria’s reign, running from 1837 to 1901, tend to overwhelm
people. There were eight main styles, including Gothic Revival, Rococo
Revival, Renaissance Revival, Neoclassic Revival, Eastlake, Arts and
Crafts, Art Nouveau, Golden Oak, and Colonial Revival. And compared to
18th and early 19th-century American furniture, there's less information
available about them.
Dealers, especially middle-market ones who carry Victorian pieces, are
often unfamiliar with all the styles and frequently mislabel pieces.
They look for heavily carved bedroom sets because they’re so unusual and
so hard to find and for upholstered side chairs with carvings on the
front and back. The bedroom sets can sell for $3,000 or more, but the
number of buyers who can afford them and who have the space for them is
small in comparison to other periods. The side chairs can sell from $300
to $700. Finer pieces by big-name cabinetmakers can usually be found
only at auctions and in exclusive shops.
With the market in its present state, it’s the best time to buy
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