Antique? Vintage? Modern Classic? Why Labels Are Increasingly Unhelpful

Antique? Vintage? Modern Classic? Why Labels Are Increasingly Unhelpful

27/01/2023     General News

Despite the fact that by definition it deals in things from the past, the antiques business is certainly not one that stands still.  It is subject to the same vicissitudes of public taste, fashion and trends as any other consumer-facing sector, which is one of the reasons that the auction room is such a fascinating place – it mirrors the changing nature of our society.

Britain is a country which values its past and cherishes its heritage, but it is certainly not stuck in its ways and resistant to change.  And the great thing about auctions is that here it is not big business, nor some trend-setting futurologist, which is dictating what is popular and what is not.  It is the general public, voting with their feet and putting their money where their collective mouths are.

January is a good time to predict what those buyer-driven trends will be during the year, and there are several up-and-coming areas of interest which will really find their moment in 2023.

Perhaps the over-arching theme will be sustainability.  Both because of an increasing awareness of the impact that the constant manufacturing of new ‘stuff’ has on our planet and the ongoing cost of living crisis are resulting in more and more people looking to renew and recycle. 

Antiques are one of the very best ways to do this; everything which comes through the auction room is by its nature being given a new life.  We are increasingly seeing younger bidders rejecting ‘fast furniture’, and instead looking to fill their homes with beautiful things which have already proven their longevity, and the purchase of which will not add to the damage being done to our planet.

Perhaps because of that new generation discovering the saleroom, there is a whole new period of antiques coming to the fore, from an era which not so long ago wouldn’t even have been regarded as antique at all.

One of the biggest growth areas in the auction business is items from the second half of the 20th century.  Contemporary and modern art is now equally sought after as the big names from the past, and the clamour for pop art and pop culture is such that for 2023, we are holding regular sales on this theme for the first time.

It seems unbelievable that is was a recently as 2018 that Keys held our first 20th Century Design and Modern Art Sale, dipping a tentative toe into a market which nationwide was very much in its infancy.  Just five years later these sales are a regular part of our programme, and continue to attract a different, and generally younger, set of bidders than some of our more traditional antiques auctions.

This brings into question the very definition of an antique.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an antique is ‘a collectable object such as a piece of furniture or work of art that has a high value because of its age and quality’. 

There is no question that there are many quality items coming onto the market from the second half of the 20th century.  And at the risk of making those of us with a few grey hairs feel long in the tooth, I should point out that the 1970s are now as far away from the present day as the 1920s were in the 1970s.

The lines between ‘Antique’, Vintage’ and ‘Modern Classic’ are increasingly blurred, and decreasingly relevant to a new generation of buyers who simply want to own quality items which are different from the mass-produced, here-today-gone-tomorrow things which are sadly increasingly the norm today. 

Who cares how such items are labelled?  The world of ‘antiques’ is a dynamic one, which is why it has survived so long – and why it is still very much relevant in the modern world.

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