It is no secret that the antiques business is in trouble. A friend who should know tells me that American eighteenth-century furniture now sells for half of what it did a few years ago. A major silver dealer who formerly did a brisk business laments that there are no collectors anymore. Buyers stay away in droves while his stock grows dusty on his shelves. The last upscale antiques show I attended was embarrassingly under-peopled and “sold” signs were few in number. On eBay the cordial invitation to “buy it now” goes unheeded more often than not. What is going on here?
Some might say that it is simply that the antiques bubble has finally burst. The market had become over-heated and was due for a correction. Yes, there was a bubble and yes, it surely has burst but the continuing lack of energy in the market reflects something else. What might be the cause of the depressed state of the trade? According to one view, the economy is a likely suspect. Intensifying economic inequality between the haves and have-mores on one hand and the have-lesses and have-leasts on the other has not favored the antiques market. There are a few very rich collectors but their number is finite and they buy a small percentage of what is on offer. Once upon a time a vibrant middle market propelled the entire antiques system but tight finances have changed that. The loss of this once vigorous middle market, another sign of the declining cultural presence of America’s middle class, has been disastrous for the trade.
Or perhaps the culprit behind the declining appeal of antiques is creeping presentism, the notion that only the present counts and the past is irrelevant. There is ample evidence of this attitude within the academy, as we know too well. Entirely apart from the economy, presentism could account for declining interest in antiques, increasingly seen as irrelevant, obsolete, and unnecessary. The prevailing idea seems to be that as in the natural order so also in the artifactual order: new things come, old things must go.
An explanation for market changes that I find particularly intriguing revolves around the idea of postmaterialism. Students of material culture may wish to take notice. The sociological version of this concept, generated by Robert Inglehart and others, maintains that as societies become richer they tend to devalue material concerns. A recent (2009) study by Jan Delhey focuses on happiness across multiple societies and finds strong evidence that rich, post-industrialist societies are increasingly likely to locate happiness in post-materialistic rather than materialistic behaviors. As Delhey puts it, “happiness tends to be pretty materialist in poorer places, and more post-materialist in richer ones” (p. 50). In other words, happiness derives less from buying and having than from doing and being. Quality of life is paramount. Rendered in terms of Maslow’s famous scale of human needs, post-materialist happiness corresponds to self-actualization.
Whether the financial upheavals of 2008 will alter this situation is unclear. However, ample artifactual evidence in support of broad societal movement from materialism in the direction of postmaterialism can be found in the history of domestic interiors in this country. In general, density of household furnishings gradually rises through the eighteenth century, peaks during the 1880s, then gradually decreases. Although dense interiors may still be found, today’s affluent are far more likely to furnish according to the law of fewer but better.
But perhaps the real culprits in all of this are the baby boomers, now entering their own post-materialist phase. They are selling their big houses, moving to smaller quarters, and clearing out. If they visit antique dealers or auction houses it is more likely with thoughts of selling than of buying. Or maybe the ultimate problem is the Internet. Part of the fun of collecting antiques used to be in the hunt. You never knew where you might find something. But now you do know and much of the pleasure of the chase is gone. Whatever the cause, however, the effects on the antiques trade are the same. As in so many other lines of goods, supply far exceeds demand.
If this were only about the antiques business we might congratulate ourselves on not being in the trade and commiserate with those still trying to make a go of it. But there are wider ramifications. For instance, what will happen to the stuff? Where will it all go? And what of collectors and collections? Museums buy a few things but more often rely on collectors to augment their holdings. And then, what of scholarship? The simple act of collecting has long been the first building block of study in the decorative arts and material culture. We once thought that collecting antiques was a cultural constant in affluent societies. But perhaps antique collecting is actually a product of materialistic societies only. If that is so, it will be interesting to watch what happens to antiques collecting and to decorative arts and material culture scholarship in the coming age of postmaterialism.
Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.
 R. Inglehart, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); R. Inglehart and C. Welzel, Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
 J. Delhey, “From Materialist to Postmaterialist Happiness? National Affluence and Determinants of Life Satisfaction in Cross-National Perspective.” World Values Research 2:2 (2009):30-54.