AS THE 1980's begin, people, frightened by the present international crises and inflation and rumors of disasters yet to come, are putting their money into objects they can use -- and run with. The art and antique market, according to the Gray Letter, an investment newsletter, is at least $6 billion this year, and still growing.
Historically, gold, silver, diamonds, postage stamps and other objects with established international value have been hedges in times of uncertainty. Europeans, long accustomed to buying objects easy to take over the border in times of war, have always preferred antiques and arts as investments.
Washington is just now becoming an auction and art center. C. G. Sloan's here, with sales of more than $3 million this fall, a 33 1/3 percent increase over last year, is trying now to buy the old Lansburgh's building, just off F Street, to enlarge its auction business.
Donald Webster, president of Solan's, says his company has offered $850,000 cash for the landmark building and would plan to restore it to its former turn of the century glories. "We would like to have many more catalogue actuions as well as our weekly ones," Webster said. "And we think with the Lansburgh building, we could have a facility far more elegant than either Sotheby Park Bernet or Christie's." So far Webster said, he has not received a reply to his offer from the Dominic [Nick] Antonelli company, the current owner.
Sotheby Parke Bernet has recently opened a Washington office, both to accept consignments for auction in New York and for its fast-moving realestate business. Webster said, "Washington as a world capital is long overdue for a big fine arts and auction business. Sotheby's coming in will stir up the pot."
Both Sotheby Park Bernet and Christie's, the international auction giants, report a New York fall season jump this year of more than 60 percent over last year's sales.
In our era, all kinds of objects, from Art Nouveau lamps to comic books, have the appeal of things you can, miser-like, hold in your hand, caress and count.
Today there are people who every month or so, take out their silver tray and their teapot, and weigh it on the bathroom scales and gloat over how much more it's worth now than it was then. Even a silver fork, bought in 1965 for $3 is now worth almost $40, since silver has reached a record high of $27.90.
Antique auctions are at an all-time high. Silver is hovering around $27.90 an ounce. Antique dealers are collecting record prices. Locally, the Washington Antiques Show, Wednesday through Sunday at the Shoreham Americana, expects to have the best year yet. Now in its 25th year, it's the grand dame of shows here, and one of the handful of the most important shows in the country.
Auction house figures for this fall season, September to Christmas, are nothing short of astounding. The North American sales for Sotheby's were $91.4 million, 65 percent over the same period last year. In New York alone, the turnover was $82.8 million, 64 percent over last year. Its net international sales for the fall season were $207.5 million, an increase of 31.5 percent over the same period of 1978.
Sotheby reports that the dramatic growth categories were: photography, up 370 percent; prints, up 178 percent; contemporary paintings, up 157 percent; American paintings, up 142 percent; Chinese works of art, up 127 percent; impressionist and modern paintings, up 124 percent; silver, up 80 percent; Art Nouveau, up 63 percent; jewelry, up 62 percent, and tapestries, up 50 percent. Interesting enough, some of these catagories, such as photography and Art Nouveau hardly existed as investments 15 years ago. You could have bought the best for very little money.
Probably Soatheby's most important record set during the fall season was the $2.5 million paid for Frederic Edwin Church's "Icebergs" (1861), discovered by Sotheby hanging at a home for boys in Manchester, England.
Phillips auction house in New York reports a 17.5 percent increase for the entire 12 month period, a record turnover of $67,764,105.
Christie's did a $35 million auction business in New Ork this fall season, 62 percent over last year. The worldwide Christie's total was $122 million for the same period, a 31 percent increase, the largest ever. Jewelry was one of Christie's biggest growth areas, led by $665,000 for three lots of Nelson Rockefeller jewelry. Christie's also sold a Picasso pastel drawing for a record $210,000.
Auctions in Washington have been notable, as well. C. G. Sloan & Co.'s September auction brought in sales over $1.5 million. A Salomon van Ruysdael painting alone brought in $185,000. The Nov. 29-Dec. 2 auction sales were $1,271,635.
Weschler's also have had a good season with a fall total of $1,708,209.60. Its catalogue auction in December brought $742,865, including a a reverse serpentine bureau, $6,500; a Jacob Hurd porringer, $3,500; a silver teaservice by Schofield of Baltimore, $8,000. An antique friendship quilt by Elizabeth Parnell of New York brought $5,800, possibly a record for an American quilt.
Sloan's next catalogue auction will be Feb. 14-17. Weschler's next catalogue auction, including twenty 19th Russian paintings, will be feb 22-24.
All the foregoing auction figures do not include the 10 percent buyer's surcharge, a new charge instituted this past year. The seller's charge was reduced by the same amount in order to encourage people to sell their treasures.
It's easy to see why at this year's Washington Anatiques Show, one of the biggest attractions will be the verbal appraisals, by dealers: jewelry on Wednesday, silver on Thursday and porcelain on Friday. The fee is $5 for the first item, $2.50 for the second.
Silver from Revolutionary and federal silversmiths who worked in Maryland and Virginia will also be on exhibit. The dealers concentrate on antiques before 1830, one of the most expensive periods. Forty-four of the country's most important dealers offer their wares: William Blair of Bethesda with antique furniture; Elinor Gordon, the Chinese Export porcelain queen of the country; and Hobart House of Haddam, Conn., with old silver, to name a few.
The Washington Antiques Show is notable because it also is an antiques seminar. Charles F. Hummel, deputy director for collections at Winterthur Museum, will speak Thursday on "Wintherthur: Its Collections." David Warren, associate director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will speak on Masterpieces of Americana in the Bayou Bend Collection. At the Friday antiques forum of well-known exhibitors, John Newcomber will talk about painted early American country furniture, and Gery Stradling, English porcelain. Malcolm Stern, a silver collector, will talk about English and American silver at the antiques forum. Tickets ($10-$22) for some of the events are still available.
The catalogue (also available by mail for $5 from The Washington Antiques Show, 5043 Lowell Street, NW, Washington, 20016) has a number of illustrated articles on silver. And, of course, all through the show, you can invest -- or just look at much American and English silver.
Gary Boone, who speaks Saturday at Young Collectors Night, is almost an antique conglomerate. She publishes Antiques Monthly, the Gray Newsletter on antiques, writes an antiques column, runs a January antiques forum in New York, and conducts international antiques tours, not to mention founding the Decorative Arts Trust -- all from a handsome landmark building in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Boone is speaking on trends in investing in antiques.
Boone, who usually flashes a huge late 19th-century diamond ring, said by phone that she believes Victorian jewelry, both English and American, is still a good buy. Though she's given up thinking bargains exist anymore, she notes 19th-century American prints are well-priced. Last year she suggested buying Victorian silver, especially the large centerpieces, "but the silver market has gone so high this year, you have to pay for what you get. Still, 1890s' reproductions of earlier silver styles are priced below what you'd pay for a similar new piece in retail stores."
For years the Washington Antiques Show was the only major antiques show in town. In the last year, however, two more have become regulars, both of them with prices considerably below what you'd expect. The Armory show, held both spring and fall, is notable for the collections of 19th-century silver, furniture, clothes and objects. One of the best kept secrets was the recent Washington Hilton Antiques Show, the preview, a benefit for the American Cancer Society. The Wooton desk exhibited there was worth the price of admission.
The Washington Antiques Show benefits the Thrift Shop charities. Mrs. Malcolm Matheson III and Mrs. Charles Edward Mochwart are co-chairmen this year. The founders of the show, Mrs. Richard Price Dunn and Mrs. James Hanson Leon, are the honorary chairmen. The $4 show admission tickets will be on sale at the show. Hours are from non to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. For more information call 229-8262 or 966-8055.