This past June, I tried to rationalise driving nine hours north to the US state of Maine to buy a bed. There was a man there willing to part with an antique spindle double bed for a reasonable price, and I wanted one with a singular passion.
I’ve long coveted a spindle bed, also called a Jenny Lind bed. But in the past year, they’ve become chic. Spindle beds, spindle shelves and a whole host of early-American antique styles are now beloved by a new generation of designers and enthusiasts trying to bring a farmhouse energy to modern interiors.
Antiques dealers say that five years ago they couldn’t give these antiques away, and they were a bargain to buy. An old, turned wood bed would retail for about $150 on Craigslist, the classified ads website, because of irregular sizing and the tedious updates required to make it usable. Now a person cannot buy spindle furniture within 100 miles of New York City for love nor money. Or, at least, without a ton of money. If I drove to Maine, I reasoned, it would still be cheaper to pay for petrol and a hotel than to buy a bed in Brooklyn.
The cost of antiques has skyrocketed in the past few years as their popularity has grown. Nostalgia is in, and so are post-pandemic homes that feel cosy and comforting, mixing old furniture into modern design. Some call it an “old money aesthetic”, a national reaction, of sorts, to the easy, epidemic minimalist aesthetic seeded by premade-but-not-cheap design outfits such as West Elm and Crate & Barrel.
“Our family thinks we’re nuts for the stuff we buy [to sell],” says Timur Williford, an antiques dealer in the Netherlands who exports furniture to the US. “They think it’s garbage, it’s old-fashioned. They see no value in it, until they bring it [to the US market].”
Despite a decade of generational mythology that millennials are not interested in stuff so much as experiences, the rising prices of second-hand furnishings is driven by demand from environmentally and budget-conscious younger consumers.
“We have a lot of designers come in, and stylists,” says Lori Guyer, the owner and designer of White Flower Farmhouse, a shop on the North Fork of Long Island that stocks both new and vintage homewares. But recent business has been heaviest from “a whole new younger generation of customer, people in their late twenties and mid-thirties”.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and all of a sudden we can barely keep the vintage pieces in stock,” Guyer says.
When I moved to Brooklyn, New York, from London this summer, in my possession I had one mattress, one small area rug, two plant pots, a ladle and 41,362 books. After eight years of relative transience, I had done my time with cardboard Ikea dressers. The world didn’t need more flat-pack bookshelves destined for landfill.
I made a decision (part budgetary, part ethical, mostly aesthetic) to try to only buy second-hand furniture. Pinterest fed my vision with images of eclectic living rooms I never suspected my own might fall short of.
During a 72-hour window spent with a concerning addiction to Craigslist, I was able to procure a charming couch and free chintz chairs. But soon my search radius spread as wide as Maine to try and find furniture within my budget.
Chairs you would recognise from your middle-school classroom are apparently now collectibles in Brooklyn and resell for more than $1,500 for a set of four. Bentwood chairs, likely salvaged from out-of-luck bistros, retail on Brooklyn Craigslist for more than $150 per chair. Cheap plastic Formica diner tables — more than $500 for a four-seater — have gone from being disposable to retro and covetable.
Furniture resale websites such as Chairish and 1stDibs turned up the volume on the price surge, dealers say. While before it took an experienced eye to value an item, curated resale websites have made it simple for anyone to check what something could sell for. Craigslist postings frequently feature screenshots of comparable items on Chairish listed for staggering sums, to emphasise the discount you are getting on someone’s still-overpriced castaways.
Second-hand furniture has always been defined by a seductive mythology of the possibility of stumbling upon treasure. Websites that make it easy to check the maximum sale price make it more difficult for both dealers and buyers to find diamonds in the junk heap.
Intent on my goal to furnish my apartment without bankruptcy, I decided to go to the source.
The Brimfield Antique Flea Market in Massachusetts was shuttered for almost two years due to the pandemic. America’s “oldest outdoor flea market”, it is a week-long event held three times a year and attracts thousands of antiques dealers from all over the world.
Antique shows, auctions and flea markets are crucial for the wholesale dealers that supply second-hand shops and designers. Lockdowns meant many disappeared overnight. The supply of antiques ran low as demand from homebound shoppers and designers increased. Dealers turned to Instagram and Etsy to stay afloat.
The return of the Brimfield Antique Flea Market in earnest this July is an important touchstone for the tight-knit community of dealers who make their living through antiques.
“It was like a family reunion,” says Josh Zollinhofer of dealer Junk Merchant. “People gathered again. Finally, it was a bit of normalcy.”
The mornings at Brimfield start at 5:30am, though for some intrepid shoppers with headlamps, it is even earlier. The market sprawls out over numerous farm fields larger than football pitches, along a single stretch of road in rural New England. Lanes of vendors wind and meander. It is rumoured dealers make a chunk of their profit from purchased items that disoriented customers cannot find their way back to at the end of the day.
I arrived at the market with my mother and a shopping list that included a dining room table, chinoiserie plant pots, end tables and “general wonders”.
Despite its pastoral feel, Brimfield is also sensory overload of the highest order. Fields open at different hours of the day, to keep the offerings fresh and the crowds moving. I walked through the fields taking in an unfathomable variety of stuff. Casting an eye over tent after tent, I tried to separate the gems from the junk at speed.
Flea-market hunting requires a laser focus for spotting needed items, while trying to remain open-minded to amazing things it was impossible to know existed. I thought I was doing this well until pictures from the day showed how many awesome finds were right in front of my face that I never noticed.
Making hundreds of mini mental assessments per minute is exhausting work. It is important to bring someone with you. Someone to act as another set of eyes, to show discoveries off to and to remind you to measure the old Quaker meeting house table you’re suddenly overcome with desire for.
Researching (obsessively searching for) vintage pieces before the market helped identify when a price felt like a bargain on the day. It also meant that I frequently whispered to my mom, “Do you know how much that would resell for back in Brooklyn?!” The temptation of becoming a dealer myself was great, but spare boot space was not.
I tried to listen to my gut. If I felt I would be in physical pain to walk away and risk loss to someone else, such as in the case of an exuberant toleware chandelier of a daisy bouquet, and an old portrait repainted as a “secret mermaid”, I bought it. If I could wait, I tried to walk away.
Trends come and go in antiques; that is the game. Dealers must source items cheaply that they anticipate will heat up. They then price popular items to meet demand, while trying not to price them so high that they will be unable to shift their wares before the trend passes.
At Brimfield, green Depression-era jadeite glassware was everywhere, commanding top dollar from shoppers. Coloured Pyrex glass, basically free a decade ago, is so expensive as a hip collectible that a co-ordinating set of mixing bowls cost more than $100.
The crowd this July was both much larger than the summer market usually attracts, and much younger, dealers say. “The antiques revival, it’s a lot of fun stuff,” says Pearl, a Brimfield dealer who was selling Pyrex and mid-century glassware, suddenly hugely popular with younger customers. “And it’s really thanks to your generation.”
I couldn’t help myself. I found a bright pink Pyrex casserole dish for a semi-reasonable price and got right on the bandwagon.
Price is a delicate balance for dealers. Pyrex has almost priced itself out of its own customer base, dealers say, hitting the upper threshold of what young customers are willing and able to pay, and risking the end of the vibrant trend. Social media has amplified this cycle for dealers. The speed of trends “is absolutely crazy,” says Zollinhofer from Junk Merchant. Images of interiors spread widely online and create dominant aesthetics in record time. Design-conscious consumers pay top dollar to stay on trend, driving up prices.
While longtime dealers say trends used to ebb and flow slowly, over the course of maybe 15 years, “now a trend lasts a third of that, if that,” according to Zollinhofer.
Humans are predisposed to covet thy neighbour’s spindle bookshelves and rattan coffee tables. “Happy for antiques dealers, sad for myself,” one interior designer says.
“Antiques are a quicksand path straight to the bottom,” one dealer said to a friend. He was talking about the lifestyle, but I felt in that moment he was talking to me.
By the second day and second 5am wake-up, I had not found a table for my fantasy of hosting dinner parties, and I was bereft. There had been a few, but they had either been wildly out of my price range or wildly out of proportion to my little apartment.
But then, as if by magic, there one was. It was rougher and darker than I had been hoping for. It had been an oyster shucking table, the dealer told me, in the same family for generations. It had history. Someone else was interested in it, too.
I had reservations. It wasn’t basically free, which was the price I had been hoping for. But not daring to walk out of eyesight of the table lest it be snatched away, I realised it was the one. There was romance, I thought, in being able to tell all its future admirers that it had been an oyster shucking table.
After a polite, painful negotiation, it was mine. My mom and I got fancy french fries for lunch, split a beer and celebrated our victory to the tune of the live folk band.
The soaring highs of a flea-market score are matched only by the crushing lows of having to schlep that item to its eventual home.
I think it was the moment, 10 hours and a long drive later, sweaty and crying with frustration in the staircase of my fourth-floor walk-up because my romantic farmhouse table wouldn’t fit through the apartment door, that it really hit me: Ikea has a point.
There is a specific joy in buying new furniture delivered to your door — the colour options, fixed prices and mud-less showrooms. I understand why people buy it. Wayfair, matching sets from Pottery Barn — all of it.
By the fourth time I tried to hang my daisy bouquet chandelier and get all the bulbs to work, I was at the end of my rope. The dealer had told me it would be easy. Not all stories dealers tell you are God’s honest truth, it turns out.
Why can’t my apartment just be done, I lamented to my father-cum-handyman as he left for the third time, intending to return a week later with yet another rare lamp part for my blasted chandelier. Why had I been so foolish as to think I could do all of this second-hand? I had run out of the will to go on.
“Ah. That’s just life,” my dad said, turning around. “If everything is done, you’re dead.”
It has been painful to learn to live in the incompleteness of it. To accept that my apartment does not look exactly like my Pinterest vision. Second-hand furniture by definition doesn’t always match, and the line between cosy and cacophonous is a fine one.
Making mistakes is part of the process. I spent too much money on things I should have walked away from. I got into a competitive bidding war on eBay and bought a wood lamp with two galloping horses that I determined was the hokiest lamp in the world.
But successes have a way of softening your memory. With the right burlap shade, the lamp feels chic and unique. It is now the focal point of my living room.
Second-hand furniture can be addictive not just because of the thrill of the now hard-to-find bargain, but because of the story. I love my home and its slightly granny-chic vibe. It feels like me. I found each of these items one by one, and loved them enough to drag them here.
When friends come over and admire my weathered old table, I can tell them about its oyster shucking history. And then I will tell them about how I will grow old in this apartment because I can never face moving it ever again.
Madison Darbyshire is the FT’s US investment reporter
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