When a close relative is approaching death it’s tempting to think of wills and legacies. How much am I going to get? What’s it worth? Immediately you think of the relative’s house, the mainstay of most legacies. Then bank and savings accounts, then jewelry… and then the furniture. And that’s a problem. I am looking at furniture that has been with me since my first memories. I am writing this blog on a bureau that was always in my father’s study. The furniture is old. Supposedly the most valuable item in the house is something called a tallboy. It is massive chest of draws, over six feet high, which was possibly made in the reign of George II (1727-1760). Some time ago the tallboy was insured for eight thousand pounds, which doesn’t strike me as being much money for something knocked together when Britain still ruled the Thirteen Colonies.
Unfortunately the market for brown furniture has collapsed. One might now struggle to sell the tallboy for a quarter of its peak value. There are a number of reasons for this collapse. People are living in smaller homes. IKEA have helped change the world’s tastes in furniture. TV programs, focused on the selling of antiques, have given the impression that brown furniture is stuffy and old fashioned. Furthermore, the programs might have encouraged millions of viewers to make a quick buck out of their furniture, at a time of growing household debt. This means that whatever demand there is in the market, it is overwhelmed by supply.
So what do we do when the brown furniture finally comes our way? The obvious answer is that we flog it at the first opportunity. The market is the market, and if we have to take five thousands pounds for a collection of furniture that used to be worth fifty thousand, that’s too bad. And there isn’t just a financial pressure to sell – the stuff takes up a lot of room, which is another reason no-one wants it.
However there are problems with such an approach. There is sentiment. Some of the furniture has been in the family for several generations, and selling it for a pittance is a great way of disrespecting our ancestors. There is also a question of timing. Furniture is an asset, like property and shares, and assets go in and out of fashion.
When you own a share in a company, you’re not supposed to sell at the bottom of the market. Over the course of the Twentieth Century, there have been times when the antiques market has been smashed. For example, the 1930s and the 1940s. Just because everyone is focused on small homes, modernity and IKEA doesn’t mean that the situation will stay like that forever, especially if you can find a way of getting the furniture to a location where antique furniture has greater scarcity, such as China or the US.
When my mother does finally go, I am still not sure what will happen to her furniture. It will be a family decision, of course, and it might all get sold to the highest bidder. Yet the logical thing to do is keep it in storage, and hope that one day us or our heirs sell the Georgian tallboy to a Chinese billionaire for a hundred times its current value.