“Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it,” wrote Publilius Syrus in the 1st century BC.
Not much has changed. In the world of antiques the value of items is influenced by their age, rarity and quality – but fashion plays an important role too.
Trends fluctuate, and pieces once considered highly desirable can be relegated to junk status, while others are destined to be sought after by future generations.
Changes in taste and lifestyle account for why the value of furniture made in the 18th and 19th Century has dropped by around 80% over the past couple of decades.
Mid-century modern furniture, on the other hand, has exploded in popularity and in value.
The long-established Winter Antiques Show in New York changed their rules of entry to accommodate this change. Pieces used to have to be at least 100 years old, but in 2009 this was adjusted to allow for mid-century items. Two years ago the age bar was removed entirely.
Sandrine Zhang Ferron founded the online vintage marketplace Vinterior in 2015 after finding it difficult to furnish her home with beautifully designed affordable furniture.
Mass-produced IKEA-style flatpacks did not make the cut and traditional antique pieces felt outmoded.
A few years on and Vinterior now lists over 100,000 curated products from 1,500 dealers.
There are a few theories to explain this change. Many of us now prefer open and informal living spaces unsuited to dark and brooding antique furniture.
Another is that the market is now flooded with pieces since it became easy to clear an attic and list all the pieces on an online marketplace. Supply now outstrips demand.
But perhaps something else is going on.
“Our attitude toward the past may have changed in some fundamental way, with items before a certain date just not existing in most people’s aesthetic universes,” Tyler Cowen recently wrote on excellent blog, Marginal Revolution.
“The aesthetic of the internet itself has pushed people away from ‘old and musty.’ Just look at the kind of images you see on Instagram.”
In the words of another ancient philosopher: “Change is the only constant.”