Why vintage furniture is getting more expensive and harder to find
The market for secondhand furniture has changed so quickly that some shops — and consumers — are having trouble keeping up
“When we pivoted to online-only sales, we started seeing more and more people,” says Mark Weschler, the auction house’s vice president. “Our sales have exponentially grown — close to 100 percent more than what they were before.”
Not only has the move online opened auctions up to more buyers, it has also expanded the pool of who’s doing the buying. While almost all the furniture used to make its way to brick-and-mortar vintage shops, more of it than ever before is heading directly to private residences or to an ever-growing population of vendors who sell exclusively on Instagram and Facebook Marketplace.
All that new competition is driving up prices: “Now we’re not just selling it to someone who’s going to buy it and resell it — we’re [selling] it to the guy that would have bought it from him,” explains Matt Hurley, founder of Hurley Auctions in Greencastle, Pa. In other words, auction bidders are now willing to pay full retail or higher, putting a squeeze on traditional sellers at a time of increased competition.
While the average customer looking for, say, a mid-century modern credenza probably isn’t plugged into the auction scene, she’ll still feel the effects of this changing vintage economy when she shows up at her local secondhand shop. There, she’s more likely to find fewer options at higher prices. Not helping matters: persistent supply chain problems steering more consumers away from buying new and toward vintage options. (That’s why upholstered pieces like couches are especially sought after — and generally fly out of vintage stores within 24 hours.)
Though it’s difficult to precisely track secondhand furniture sales, the data available reveals significant growth: A recent report from the online seller Chairish shows the furniture resale market reached $15 billion in 2021, a $1 billion jump from 2020. Chairish projects the market will climb another $1 billion by the end of this year.
Some shopkeepers have all but given up on auctions, not long ago their primary source of inventory. Suzanne Eblen, founder of the Old Lucketts Store in Leesburg, Va., says she no longer depends on them because the prices have become too unpredictable. Instead, she relies on leads from customers and other contacts liquidating estates or importing pieces from other countries. “It’s pushed people like me to try to find other directions where I can go,” she says.
The vintage market has changed so quickly, in fact, that even the early wave of social media sellers — not long ago, the new kids on the block — have begun to feel the same pressure they once put on old-school merchants.
Brent and Carly Holloway are the co-owners of BCH Furniture, which they launched in New York City, primarily on Facebook Marketplace, in 2019. Once the pandemic started, it “saturated the market,” says Brent. “People were stuck at home and it felt like the only kind of commerce that was open was Instagram, or at least online. So many people started to create their own stores and get out there with us, and it was a different game.”
Pat Tomasiello, who’s based in South Jersey, created the Instagram account Retrodelphia in 2018. He says the influx of new sellers on social media has made it “a little annoying sometimes when I’m trying to buy stuff.” His strategy now includes paying more for items he thinks will increase Retrodelphia’s visibility, even if he can’t ultimately profit from them.
“If I have a sought-after collectible piece and it’s worth, say, $1,500, maybe I’ll pay $1,250 or $1,300 or $1,400 just to have the piece,” he says. “I get it on Instagram, it gets a bunch of likes, it gets a bunch of followers, and it brings people to my page.”
Getting the good stuff also now requires earlier mornings. These days, Tomasiello prefers to pay pickers to wake up at the crack of dawn for estate sales and deliver furniture to his warehouse, rather than attend himself and risk coming up empty: “If you don’t show up at 4 a.m., 5 a.m. — the sale might not start till 9 or 10 — if you’re not waiting in line that early, you’re not going to get it.”
‘We’re just getting by’
As prices rise for sellers, they have to reckon with how much of the burden they’re willing to pass to consumers.
1830 Vintage, in D.C., opens only when co-owner Wendy Hauenstein and her husband have enough wares to sell, because it’s not their full-time gig. “We’re getting close to the point where we’re open less because we’re not able to find good-quality pieces at good auction prices,” she says. “We don’t want to be selling things for thousands of dollars.”
Hauenstein compares the struggle to keep her prices reasonable while still covering her overhead to doing the limbo. “We’re just getting by with a really deep backbend, and it’s getting so that the stick is tighter and we’re not able to bend that far,” she says. “Maybe [we] do this one more year, but probably we won’t do it much after that.”
Pixie Windsor, owner of Miss Pixie’s, also in D.C., explains the delicate balance she has to strike between pricing items high enough to eke out a profit, and moving enough volume to free up valuable space in her store. “I don’t want this desk to be here for four weeks. I want this desk to be gone,” she says. “Do I want to price it at $195 and it’ll definitely be gone by Monday? Or do I want to price it at $250 and see if everybody realizes what a good deal they’re still getting?”
Still, she says that Instagram has been an asset, as much as an added complication. Yes, Insta-sellers are competitors, and unlike brick-and-mortar businesses, they often don’t have to deal with sales taxes, or overhead costs such as payroll. But social media is now a necessary tool for old-school sellers, too. “My employees were begging me, ‘Please do Instagram,’ ” says Windsor, who was at first hesitant then ultimately “shocked” by the business it brought in, especially in the early months of the pandemic. “It really kind of saved the company.”
Others are rebalancing how they split their time between their physical and online stores. Wishbone Reserve, a vintage shop in Baltimore, has cut back on in-person hours because at least half its sales now happen digitally. It’s open only Friday through Sunday, and co-owners Athena Hoffberger and Julie Lilienfeld spend the rest of the week seeking out inventory and working on their website. “People can come in if they want to see the shop and experience it,” says Lilienfeld. “But our websites are always open.”