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Do You Believe the Myths?

Antique furnishings are much more than “old” — they’re affordable, useful, sturdy, and stylish.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “antique”? Expensive? Old? Fragile? Stuffy? As a specialist at Skinner auction house, I know that these stereotypes are often undeserved. Not all antiques are unfashionable, pricey, or breakable collectors of dust. There is a secret underbelly to this world of old things that is surprisingly affordable, useful, sturdy, and stylish.

Let’s take a look at two similar pieces: one antique from a recent Skinner auction, and one brand new item from a nationally recognized catalog retailer.  Here we go.

First up, a solid oak 2-door book cabinet from the early twentieth century, offered by Skinner at a recent Discovery Auction. Skinner Discovery auctions are a great shopping opportunity for those interested in affordable antiques and home furnishings.

Early 20th Century carved oak two-door book cabinet, with two short drawers above cabinet doors, the interior with four adjustable shelves, approx. ht. 57 3/4, wd. 40 1/4, dp. 14 in., Sold for $456

I rather like this cabinet, especially with the shelf space on top.  I can picture this in any room, from the dining room (extra platter storage) to the bedroom (linen closet for small apartment dwellers) to the living room (books and media).  The form is very practical, which is probably why Crate and Barrel makes a similar version:

Crate and Barrel Westmore two door cabinet $1,199

This one is just a little shorter than the oak cabinet at Skinner, and the drawers are reversed from top to bottom.  Otherwise, there are definite similarities.  I recognize that the styles are a little different, primarily in wood color and edging details; however, the basic form and elements are similar enough to warrant comparison.  The Crate and Barrel cabinet is made of a mixture of hardwood, veneer, and manufactured wood.  It’s also a little shorter than the cabinet from Skinner.

The main area of difference that jumps out to me, though, is the value.  When I first saw the oak version in the Skinner catalog, I was surprised and delighted.  My husband and I recently moved into a new, slightly larger apartment, and we have been shopping around for a few new pieces of furniture.  I have noticed, to my chagrin, how terribly hard it is to find a bed, an armoire, or anything built out of solid hard wood… unless you happen to be able to afford extremely high prices.

For our budget, we couldn’t find anything that wasn’t mostly particle board or manufactured wood.  While I know that the latter has become pretty reliable over the years, I couldn’t bring myself to spend what feels like big bucks to us on something that might or might not last to become my childrens’ hand-me-downs some day.

Seeing the price estimate on that oak cabinet, then, made me wish very hard that I had need for another bookcase.

So is it true that antiques can be affordable, useful, sturdy, and stylish?  Well, the affordability is certainly apparent, and cabinets are always useful. There are so many creative possibilities for shelving units beyond housing books. You could turn it into a shoe cabinet, or a place to show off a shell collection. The antique cabinet is definitely sturdy, too — that heavy oak isn’t going anywhere.

What about stylish?  To be honest, I resisted oak for a long time until a friend gave us some lovely pieces, including our dining table.  When I began to play with the caramel tones, I realized that they mixed easily with the espresso and white finishes of my more modern pieces, rather like mixing neutrals in your wardrobe.  You’ll want to be careful, arranging a careful mix to either balance or accent the oak, but I found that the warm tones added a lot of visual depth to a room that was looking very much like the dregs of my coffee pot (all espresso stain, all the time).

This is just one example where antique seems to win out over a new purchase, but hopefully it gets the wheels turning.  What do you think?  Do you believe the myths about antiques, or do you happily decorate with a mix of new and old?

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