May 14, 2016

Antiques market showing good signs

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo

George Cushing, co-owner of Cushing Clutter Antiques in Plainfield, examines one of about 600 chairs in his inventory on Wednesday.

The antique business in Vermont has seen solid sales numbers in the past two to three years, as other sectors in the economy continue to rebound from the recession.

The region’s antiques market is seeing higher demand for more modern items among some customers, although some interest remains in items 100 years old or older.

Brian Lewis, owner of the Antique Center at Camelot in Bennington, has been in the business for 30 years.

“Our sales have been up over the past couple of years,” Lewis said.

Still, he noted the fluid nature of the antiques market.

“In this business, you never really know what niche is going to take off,” he said.

Lewis said the large, brown furniture pieces are not doing well, while “mid-century modern” furniture from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s is picking up.

He said the trend is definitely toward the smaller antique items, since people are buying smaller houses now.

“People are downsizing, and that’s where we get a lot of our consignment stuff,” Lewis said.

He added that the high-end market is doing well, along with high-end jewelry pieces.

Robert Somaini, owner of the East Barre Antique Mall, said he’s also seen good sales numbers over the past two to three years.

“I think there’s an interest, in some young kids, in buying old stuff because it’s better made and it’s cheaper than new stuff,” Somaini said.

He noted that antique furniture — which accounts for many of his sales — is more durable than items from large companies such as IKEA.

“Most of the stuff in an antique shop is 150 to 200 years old, and it’s still around,” Somaini said.

Of antique furniture, he added, “It was made with real wood.”

He said that even if an antique furniture piece has a veneer finish, underneath there is still real wood.

His shop has 14,000 square feet, three floors and a wide variety of items, including dishes, glassware, silver, artwork and others.

Eric Nesbitt, a 35-year veteran of the antique business, said last year was his best year since 2008. That good news continued into the first quarter of this year for his business, Eric Nesbitt Art & Antiques, when the Woodstock-based shop had its best first quarter since 2008.

“I attribute it to luck, in that I’ve found some really good things that people have wanted,” Nesbitt said. “Really good things still sell.”

He added that he just happened to find several very good items that sold in a three-week period during the holidays, in the “thousands of dollars.”

Nesbitt said art pieces have sold well in recent years.

“I’ve been selling more art than I have antiques,” he said.

Tina Miller, manager at Wigren-Barlow Art & Antiques in Woodstock, said the last few years have been good for business.

“It’s picked up quite a bit actually,” she said.

She’s seen a number of younger people interested in antiques as well.

“I see a lot of younger families (who) want nice things, things that can be handed down … definitely Americana, which was really struggling for years,” Miller said.

The art side of the business has also seen good sales in recent years. Wigren-Barlow sells contemporary and older art, Miller said.

Farther north in Plainfield, George Cushing, who has owned Cushing Clutter Antiques in Plainfield for more than 33 years, said the last couple of years have been slow.

“Overall, sales haven’t been great,” he said.

Cushing said factors include an economy that’s still hurting, and also a market where newer buyers of furniture don’t have antiques at the top of their lists.

When it comes to 30-somethings and younger, he said, “They’re buying newer furniture and plastic and IKEA, and pretty much that’s it.”

He noted a trend toward people getting ideas for furniture through Pinterest and Facebook and also, in some cases, painting over the older furniture they’ve bought.
Additionally, antique shops have had to exist in an especially deal-hungry market in recent years.

For example, Cushing said he’s reduced the prices on items he used to sell for $300, down to about half or a little higher.

“People call if they’re serious about stuff, but it’s not what it used to be, that’s for sure,” he said.

Brian Bittner, the vice president of membership with the Vermont Antiques Dealers Association, grew up around the antiques business — his late grandfather, Jack Bittner, owned an antiques store in Brattleboro for many years, and his father George and his brother Eric are each in the business now.

Brian Bittner, who has had his own Burlington-based antiques business since 2007, said he’s also seen good signs in the antiques business in Vermont over the past several years. He said it takes constant research to stay on top of current trends.

“From what I see, those that are investing time and the energy are doing well,” he said.

Bittner said very wealthy customers have consistently funded the antiques market in Vermont over the years, but he said the “middle market” — middle-class buyers buying high-quality smaller items to decorate their homes — is coming back. They often want Americana-type pieces, such as historic pottery or a hand-woven basket.
A common example of this is a “firkin,” a bucket-like container often used to store sugar — which needs to have its original coat of paint from 1850-1880 to hold the most value.

“I do feel like quality items now that would definitely have to be put in that middle-market category, are starting to be paid for,” Bittner said. “There’s more interest in them.”

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