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Investing in Antiques: Under the Radar and Under $10,000 by Nancy A. Ruhling
by Nancy A. Ruhling

With prices for major antiques reaching the stars, finding something worthwhile for a moderate price may seem increasingly unlikely. So, what -- if anything -- can you buy for under $10,000? If you are looking for high quality, there are still many options, some that may surprise and delight you.

Fig. 2: Lothrop Holmes (1824-1899), Merganser hen decoy, circa 1875. Private collection; Photograph courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.
(Detail) Jacquard Coverlet, woven by Michael Kaufman, 1840, Springfield Township, Bucks County, Pa. Courtesy of The Herrs, Lancaster, Pa. The coverlet features a center field of eagles and shields and has a bird and tree border. 94 x 84 inches. Wool and cotton. Condition is of utmost importance, and this one appears never to have been used. Cost $3,800.

Nineteenth-Century American Coverlets
While the recent opening of The National Museum of the American Coverlet in Bedford, Pa., has put this quintessential Americana icon in the spotlight, the finest examples in perfect condition can still be had for $5,000 or less. "Although there have been a few private sales that are close to $10,000, most [coverlets] are still $2,000 to $5,000," says Trish Herr of Herrs Antiques, Columbia, Pa, which sells textiles, quilts, coverlets, and American pewter.

Handwoven Jacquard bed coverlets were made between the 1830s and the 1860s, mostly in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Geometric patterns do not command as much attention as the prized pictorials, which include lions, horses, cows, houses, and even giraffes. The signed examples, which record the name of the weaver, the name of the client, and the date and the place where woven, are the most coveted. Herr suggests augmenting a collection with weavers' handwritten manuscripts documenting patterns. Rare, they have been known to bring $9,000 to $20,000.

Continuous Arm Windsor, ca. 1795-1800. Cost $5,800.  Courtesy of Jeffrey Tillou Antiques, Litchfield, Ct.
Continuous Arm Windsor, ca. 1795-1800. Cost $5,800. Courtesy of Jeffrey Tillou Antiques, Litchfield, Ct.

Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century American and European Paintings
By focusing on high-quality work in excellent condition by lesser-known artists it's still possible to find paintings from this period for between $5,000 and $10,000, says Brian Roughton of the eponymous Dallas, Texas, gallery. European works are more plentiful because there were more painters in Europe in the nineteenth century than in the United States. At the turn of the twentieth century there were more than 30,000 painters in Paris alone, Roughton says. French genre paintings and British landscapes from this period are solid bets, he advises, as are works by followers of "name" artists and those executed by art professors. "You may not be able to find much information on the artist, but why buy a lesser quality Picasso when, for a fraction of the cost, you can buy a painting by a relative unknown artist that will give you the same enjoyment?

Eighteenth- and Early-Nineteenth-Century American Furniture
For under $5,000 you can still find smaller, utilitarian candle stands, chairs, two-drawer work tables, card tables, and some tea tables; while some case pieces, tilt-top candle stands, pillar-and-scroll clocks, and work tables are still under $10,000, says Jeffrey Tillou of Litchfield, Connecticut, who has a lot of inventory from 1720 to 1820 in this price range. "Chairs that are not in sets are the best bargains," he says. "They take more time and skill to make than say, a four-drawer chest.& And you can combine a Queen Anne, Chippendale, and bannister-back in the same room, all from different periods but all looking great together."

For those who simply want the look but not the pure authenticity, Tillou suggests considering married pieces. "For $10,000, you can get a case piece like a highboy. Though it will always be a married piece (in which the top and bottom have been brought together from two separate pieces), it looks great. We sell a lot of them for use in second homes."

Aleutian Lidded Basket, circa 1900-1920. Rye grass and silk. H. 3-1/2 in. (to the top of the knob), Diam. 2-1/4 in. Courtesy of Marcy Burns American Indian Arts. Sold for approximately $6,000.
Aleutian Lidded Basket, circa 1900-1920. Rye grass and silk. H. 3-1/2 in. (to the top of the knob), Diam. 2-1/4 in. Courtesy of Marcy Burns American Indian Arts. Sold for approximately $6,000.

American Indian Arts
A wide selection of high-quality American Indian baskets, pottery, jewelry, and textiles falls in the $5,000 to $10,000 range. "In general, as a field, it is undervalued compared with other collecting areas," says Marcy Burns Schillay, whose Marcy Burns American Indian Arts is based in Manhattan. "Right now, I have twenty-five items that are $5,000 to $10,000, and they are important pieces."

Antique and Reproduction Picture Frames
In general, the smaller and simpler the picture frame, the lower the price. For $5,000 to $10,000 expect to find some plainer examples of seventeenth- to twentieth-century frames from various countries, as well as some folk art, tramp art, and grain-painted examples.
Some people collect picture frames as sculptural art, but most buy them to enhance a painting. For the latter, reproduction frames are a good alternative, suggests Larry Lowy, president of the century-old frame and restoring company that bears his name. His reproduction frames start at $5,000. "There are lots of choices that are lower in price.," he says.

Nancy Ruhling is a freelance writer and collector based in New York City, specializing in art, antiques, and interior design.

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