Mid-century pieces fuel mania in collectibles market
If you've been raiding your great aunt's attic in search of treasure, set your sights on her vintage brooches rather than her fussy figurines. In an age when engaged couples prefer to register for barbecue grills than bone china, Sloans & Kenyon Auctioneers and Appraisers president Stephanie Kenyon has seen a wholesale change in collecting trends. Say goodbye to Grandma's rocking chairs and vitrine cabinets and hello to mid-century modern furniture of the late 1950s and 1960s.
“Blond and light-wood furniture is in; brown furniture is out,” Kenyon says. Terry Kovel, author with daughter Kim Kovel of the go-to “Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide” (the 2013 edition has just been published), sees a surge in popularity of anything 1950s as well as Scandinavian furniture from the 1960s and 1970s. Original pieces by major designers including Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and Finn Juhl are especially in demand. “Most people are buying it to live with it,” Terry Kovel says.
Big brooches in both vintage and new jewelry are in vogue, says Matthew Rosenheim, president of Washington's Tiny Jewel Box, known for both its antique and modern jewelry collections. Kenyon says there has been an uptick in big jewelry in general: cocktail rings, bold link bracelets and enamel bangles mix well with the Audrey and Jackie O.-era sleeveless sheaths that are in style. She sees a direct connection between today's collecting crazes and the much-watched and talked-about fashions and decor in the TV series “Mad Men.”
Here's what our experts say top their list of collectibles:
• Straight lines, minimal hardware and light wood are hallmarks of the mid-century modern aesthetic. A classic example of the style is the Hans Wegner Wishbone chair. Compact, lightweight and graceful, the chair was designed in 1949.
• Rosenheim says platinum and diamond jewelry from the 1920s and 1930s is hot, as are 1940s art moderne pieces. “There's lots of value to be had in vintage,” he says. A Van Cleef & Arpels or Tiffany mark ups the ante.
• Peter Voulkos is famous for his abstract expressionist ceramic sculptures; he was instrumental in moving ceramics from functional to artistic forms in the 1950s. A circa 1955 plate of his sold for $843.75 in June 2011 at Treadway/Toomey Auctions. Pieces made between the 1950s and 1980s by regional artists who haven't been similarly discovered could become valuable. Kovel suggests going to a local art school to learn what appeals to you.
• Lisanne Dickson of Treadway/Toomey Auctions notices buzz around classic art deco pieces, which share a “Mad Men” vibe and are becoming scarcer. A circa 1934 silver-plated/red-lacquered metal Lurelle Guild cocktail shaker by International Silver Co. sold for $40,000 in May.
• In election years, political buttons become coveted collectors' items, Kovel says. A Barack Obama for President button featuring Abraham Lincoln and commemorating Obama's February 2007 announcement in Springfield, Ill., that he would run for the highest office in the land sold for $500 in 2008.
•Vintage costume jewelry is frequently more affordable than the newer versions, and signed pieces bring more. A Lanvin medallion pendant on a snake chain, Miriam Haskell faux pearl necklaces, a Hattie Carnegie rhinestone pin and two Trifari rhinestone bracelets from the 1960s and 1970s sold for $600 at Sloans & Kenyon after the pieces were estimated at $75 to $125.
• First ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Laura Bush carried a Judith Leiber bag to their husband's inauguration. Some people, Kovel says, display rather than use the bags. A snake purse from the late 1980s with gold leather interior, hideaway strap and white rhinestones sold for $450 in October 2010. The original, from which copies were made for retail and collectors, is on exhibit with about 300 others at the Leiber Collection museum in East Hampton, N.Y.
• What's next? Kenyon thinks an increased interest in ‘80s Versace may signal that we're due for a revival of Reagan-era style.
Janet Bennett Kelly is a staff writer for The Washington Post.