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Ye Olde Antique Business Taking On a New Look

February 14, 1988|JOHN O'DELL | Times Staff Writer

Stewart Roth loves antique furniture.

Roth and his wife live in an antique-filled home, built in 1901 in the historic French Park section of Santa Ana.

And, until about five years ago, the Roths made their living--a very good one--selling antiques from a large warehouse store in Orange County.

But nowadays, Roth mainly sells high-quality antique reproductions.

So does the Antique Guild. The chain, founded in 1972 in Culver City, was one of the first large-scale importers and retailers of European antiques on the West Coast.

It still sells a lot of antiques, but reproductions and new accessories now account for 70% of its more than $20 million in annual sales.

Visionaries such as Roth and Antique Guild founder Don Guild were part of a revolution in the antique business in the early 1970s, using volume buying and mass marketing to bring antique furniture to everyman.

Now, they are part of a second revolution that is changing the face of the industry they helped start.

It is a change, driven by the laws of supply and demand, that is moving the price of middle of the road antiques into the stratosphere, making reproductions as acceptable as the real thing in some quarters and driving some dealers out of business. At the same time, it is opening up the teeming Southern California market to a growing number of retailers willing and able to adopt modern selling methods and adapt to new conditions.

For much of the past two decades "antiques" to most people has meant antique furniture, mainly oak.

Age, while important, has not been a critical factor in determining just what is an antique. The U.S. Customs Service says that any piece more than 100 years old is an antique and thus exempt from import duties. But most dealers and collectors agree that an antique can be just about anything that is desirable and unique--or at least no longer manufactured or readily available. Chrome and Formica dinettes from the 1950s aren't antiques yet--although they are enjoying a boom both here and in Europe--but old televisions from 1950 are considered antiques in most areas.

The furniture that forms the backbone of the mainstream antique business is called shipping goods--functional, well-built pieces that graced middle-class parlors and bedrooms in Europe and the American East and Midwest in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"But mainly, it is just really used furniture," said John Atkinson, chief buyer for Lyman Drake Antiques, one of Southern California's largest wholesale importers of French and English antiques.

Fine art antiques, the one of a kind, museum-quality furnishings and collectables that grace the pages of upscale magazines like Architectural Digest and the selling floors of top-drawer auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby Parke Bernet, have not been much affected by changes in the industry--except that their prices have undergone quantum leaps.

But the middle of the road market has altered considerably.

- As decent-quality "everyday" antique furniture has become harder to find, particularly at middle-market prices, the number of dealers specializing in furniture has diminished while those offering small goods--glassware, jewelry, ceramics, folk art--and nostalgia items have increased dramatically. In Southern California, one of the nation's major antique markets, there are an estimated 1,000 dealers in antiques and collectibles. Some industry insiders estimate the volume of business in the Los Angeles-Orange-San Diego-Inland Empire region at $200 million a year or more.

- This huge concentration has given rise to the creation of antique malls--cooperatives or for-profit operations that lease small spaces to dozens or even hundreds of dealers under one roof. It also has prompted antique dealers to discover the crowd-increasing benefits of grouping together into clusters of shops. In Orange, Pomona and Yucaipa--the Southland's only true antique rows--major conglomerations of dealers have developed over the years.

- As shoppers' demand for instant heritage has grown, reproduction pieces have increased in quality and dropped in price, leading some antique dealers to mix the real and the reproductions on their showroom floors. Their aim is is to satisfy both the purist and the consumer looking to combine the flavor of a time gone by with the practicality of modern conveniences like metal drawer slides and no-mar finishes.

- At the same time, the Southland's growing population, its large pockets of high-income households and a growing sophistication among its antique aficionados has increased business for those traditional dealers who have weathered the changes of the past two decades, industry specialists say.

It is difficult to get an exact fix on the size and scope of the antique business in Southern California because most dealers are small and very, very private.

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