When Virginia native Ken Farmer first got into the antiques business in the 1970s, golden oak Victorian furniture, glassware and pocket watches were popular purchases for collectors. “This was around the time of the country’s Bicentennial,” he says. “There was a love affair with everything American.” He and his wife, Jane, became interested in Virginia and Southern culture and objects. “We were naturally drawn to folk art and things made in southwest Virginia and West Virginia,” he says.
Forty years have given them perspective on the business, and they now put that knowledge to work as advisors, appraisers and auctioneers. Farmer can be seen on the popular PBS television show “Antiques Roadshow,” where he appraises antique furniture, folk art, decorative arts and musical instruments, and he just joined Freeman's Richmond office as a consultant. He’ll share his expertise when he speaks at the RSOL Designer House on Sept. 29. We talked to him about a few aspects of collecting.
R•Home: What advice do you have for those just starting to look at antiques?
Ken Farmer: Collecting 101 rule: If you want to collect, buy the very best you can afford. Great collections are not built on bargains. … You want to get your money’s worth and try not to overpay. Unless you have an advisor standing right there with you, you’ve got to go with your gut and your pocketbook. Become your own expert or find someone you trust who can advise you.
R•Home: What’s popular now?
Farmer: Great paintings like 20th-century Impressionist, Old Masters, Hudson River … Asian items, particularly Chinese … and jewelry. Great art in general is always going to be in demand.
R•Home: Are there bargains out there?
Farmer: There are bargains everywhere … you just have to know what you’re looking at. You can find them most anywhere that is not a well-advertised event using competitive Internet buying where remote bids are made live during the auction.
R•Home: What categories have decreased in value and interest in recent years?
Farmer: Sterling silver and crystal glassware. Kids don’t want anything they can’t put in the dishwasher. The things that have held their value or increased are those top 1 percent objects — the very best examples of each category — or the items that have become more fashionable like 20th-century, modern, Asian, etc. Everything else has dropped in price. The good news is that everything still has some value; the bad news is that the average-quality items continue to decline due to demographics and demand.
R•Home: What does the future hold?
Farmer: In the next 10 years there will be more stuff than people to buy it. Baby boomers and their parents are downsizing/dying, and the younger generations have different lifestyles and tastes. It will still change hands but trend downward as Boomers age. … As a dealer, your challenge is to find things that your customers will buy from you.
R•Home: How should people approach downsizing and letting go of belongings?
Farmer: I tell people, you never have another chance to keep things in the family. Don’t get rid of things you’re still in love with. Have a realistic expectation of what your things are worth. … The psychological aspect of letting go of things is the most difficult, and if you agonize over things it becomes a miserable process. I tell people to think about keeping the things that when you walk by them every day, they fire up memories of your grandparents or parents. If they do this process while they’re still in good health, it can be positive. I find that it empowers them and frees them to travel lighter.
R•Home: What about items that your children don’t want, like brown furniture?
Farmer: Guilt is the worst reason to hold onto things. I tell people that it’s important to let go of things you don’t love … and you don’t want to be a storage repository for your children.