Hardwood, Hard Sell

Pete Prunkl’s feature articles on Warren McArthur’s amazing furniture (December and January issues of Antiques Roadshow Insider) really got inside my head. I tend to gravitate to the look of industrial design, and McArthur’s 1930s and 1940s products blend that kind of visual with art deco in a way that makes me want to re-outfit my office with his creations. Then I see that the price of one piece would break my budget, so I keep dreaming.

In terms of wood, when it comes to antique furniture, oak is probably my favorite. Mahogany and pine occasionally get on my radar screen (usually at outdoor shows when the sun is shining), but I grew up with oak, so maybe it’s in my DNA. My parents pursued, purchased, refinished, and loved oak furniture, and we’ve kept a number of those pieces in our family. (See my September 2014 post, “A Legacy,” for more on that part of our family’s history.)

But it seems oak has fallen out of favor, at least compared to its popularity 25 to 30 years ago. When we were helping my parents move to a smaller, more manageable home 7 or 8 years ago, my (now former) brother-in-law told us that oak was no longer in demand in the antiques world, and that, if my parents wanted to sell any of their oak pieces, they would find it slow going.

Naturally, I didn’t see things that way, and I wondered where my brother-in-law was getting his information. We talked about it once or twice, but I had the impression he was just repeating something he might have read or been told by an antiques person.

Turns out, he was right. This undoubtedly is old news to furniture dealers and collectors, but, according to my thoroughly unscientific research–meaning, based on what I see and hear at shows and auctions–oak has indeed experienced a slide in popularity, to the point where pieces that I would have thought were easy sells often sit and sit and sit. My mom and dad and I experienced this first-hand a few years back when we took a space at an antiques mall, to sell some of their collection. Despite having very good traffic and owners who talked up the items for sale, the oak pieces went begging.

Could it have been the recession? Maybe. But as far as I can tell, the trend has continued as the economy has recovered.

This distresses me. I love these tables and dressers and china cabinets and chairs. They have a look that’s just “right,” with that distinctive grain for which oak is known. My mom still enjoys oak (I think…maybe I should ask her), and, in some sense, these pieces keep my dad close to us. Living with (and using) the dressers and cabinets he worked on is a little like having him next to me, joking around and telling me about his next project and how he can’t wait to get to that flea market to see what turns up.

Late last year, we found homes for a couple of oak pieces that were gathering dust in our garage. One was a basic, but still nice kitchen table that saw daily service in our home for a number of years. The other was a beautiful, more decorative oak table Broken oak tablethat my parents had had in their home, and which, sadly, had been damaged while being moved from one storage facility to another. In fact, it looked as though a piano had been dropped on it: about a quarter of the main surface had been broken off along with the rim underneath. Strangely, the break wasn’t on a seam or existing crack; whatever had done the damage must have hit like a ton of bricks.

We didn’t bother hauling these to an antiques mall or putting them on Craigslist. We just wanted them to go to a good home, to someone who would enjoy them as much as we had. I contacted a local antique dealer (a couple of times) with whom we had done business in the past, and told her we simply wanted to give the tables to a good home, knowing that the more decorative one could be repaired and given a new lease on life. But the dealer never responded.

Intact oak tableThen I remembered a fellow who had repaired one of my parents’ oak cabinets a couple of years earlier, and we contacted him. He said he’d be happy to take them off our hands and scheduled a time to pick them up.

When he arrived, we talked for a bit. He agreed that the more decorative table could be repaired, and he told us he liked the tables very much. We loaded them into his van and watched him drive away, and I hoped my dad would be pleased that they would be getting back into circulation.

Douglas R. Kelly hopes that oak will make a comeback before Cabbage Patch Kids.


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