The AFI, first compiled by John Andrews in 1968, is now in its 40th year. The number crunching is based on a blend of retail and auction prices for 1400 typical (rather than exceptional) pieces of furniture from seven different periods pictured in Mr Andrews’ book, British Antique Furniture.
In 1968 the index stood at 100 and reached a historic high of 3492 points in 2003. Today it stands at 2942, down one per cent on 2007.
Historically, the AFI has tended to track, and even better, the fortunes of the stock market or house prices in the South of England. But since 2002, when the AFI registered the first of four consecutive years of decline, the two lines on the graph have begun to diverge. While predicting little in the way of recovery, this year’s largely static index figure contrasts with a more dramatic dip in the housing index and a plummeting FT250 Share Index.
It adds weight to the belief that traditional antiques – which have undergone substantial price revisions in the past five years – will survive the downturn better than most. Mr Andrews believes that while lower-quality antique furniture is still being given away at auction, Georgian mahogany furniture in particular is “much overdue for a readjustment”.
Closer analysis of the figures suggests that by the end of 2008 there were small improvements for good walnut (+1%) and oak (+1%), while mahogany was largely static. However, these were offset by another fall of six per cent in the Early Victorian index, something that reflects the giveaway pricing of much routine 19th century furniture at auction. Last year this category sank seven per cent and in 2006 had nosedived 13 per cent. Regency and Country furniture also fell by three per cent each in 2008.
The Index does not reflect the volume of items traded, which, to the detriment of many furniture dealers, remains low in a cautious market. Three principal English furniture dealers – Hotspur, Jeremy and Norman Adams – have recently shut up shop.
But nor does it include spectacular sales such as the £2.4m padouk cabinet-on-stand attributed to Chippendale sold for £2.4m at Christie’s in June, a new record for English furniture.
As Mr Andrews comments: “The gap at the top has opened wide.”
The separate Victorian and Edwardian Price Index, started by Mr Andrews in 1973, also continues to fall. This was the area that showed spectacular gains in the 1980s but fell by a further two per cent in 2008, following falls of two per cent in 2007 and seven per cent in 2006.
As always, a fuller analysis of the numbers is published in the February edition of Antique Collectors’ Club magazine Antique Collecting.
By Roland Arkell