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Providing unwelcome statistical support to the visible and deepening crisis in the middle market, the figures for 2004 saw the Antique Furniture Index register a record fall of six per cent, compared with modest declines of three per cent in 2003 and two per cent in 2001. Furniture from the Regency, Victorian and Edwardian periods suffered most.

Historically, the AFI (started from a base of 100 in 1968) has tended to track and better the fortunes of house prices in the South of England, but since 2002 the two lines on the graph have begun to diverge – with the furniture index declining.

Last year, the basket of more than 1000 typical pieces of antique furniture sold at shop, fair and auction that is used in compiling the statistics, declined overall from 3386 to 3184.

The index for property prices rose again to tip 4500, while shares tracked by the FT250 Index, that were judged to havefallen by 30 per cent in 2002, continued their recovery.

“For those bold enough to bid ‘wholesale’ at auction rather than rely on the judgment and security of retail dealers there have been remarkable bargains in 2004,” commented John Andrews, who compiles the Index for the ACC.

“Had the Index been based on auctions only, the declines would have been more substantially marked.”

By the end of 2004 only two of the seven periods of furniture (Oak and Early Walnut) held steady. Although it still holds third place in relative growth over the period covered by the Index, Regency furniture registered a 12 per cent decline, while the separate Victorian and Edwardian Index fared even worse,dropping a record 15 per cent back to 1998 levels. The usually dependable Country furniture category registered its first decline for almost a decade (down four per cent) although it remains the best performing of all categories over time. Theoretically, £100 invested in country furniture in 1968 would now be worth £3857.

Mr Andrews did, however, predict a turnaround in fortunes for the furniture market in the longer term as prices begin to bottom out. “We may [soon] be back to a situation comparable to 1965, when a furnishing public will suddenly perceive that some antiques are fantastic value for money. There is a limit to which fashion can continue to prevail over price.”