Decorative art refers to a wide variety of objects, including ceramics and pottery, porcelain and china, and carved wood. Although field experts still argue over what is included in the category, in general the label extends to tangible objects and decorations that have both practical and aesthetic value.
Historically, there is little difference between an artist and a craftsman, but today’s collectors have identified separations between the two categories. One distinct divergence between decorative art and fine art is the work’s purpose. While paintings and sculptures were most often designed to be strictly ornamental, furniture, silver, and other decorative objects served a function in the spaces for which they were created. This distinction results in specific issues of condition and value for decorative arts, as collectors must treat signs of wear from previous owners and decide whether they can use the object as it was originally intended.
In general, the decorative arts market is subject to the same forces that drive the market for fine art, including supply and demand, speculation, and cyclicality. Despite their similarity, the market for most decorative arts is marginally more stable because the fine art world attracts more media attention and riskier bidders.
Condition, provenance, and scarcity are even more important to decorative arts collectors. Because these are not as likely as other market factors to change substantially over time, speculative collecting is minimized in the decorative arts market.
Types of Decorative Art
The decorative arts are closely aligned with applied arts and crafts. Applied art seeks to make functional objects beautiful and includes disciplines such as architecture, interior design, graphic design, fashion design, and industrial or commercial design.
The popularity of an item often runs in tandem with its origin. The most consistently in-demand items on the market include jewelry and rare objects from Asia and Persia. Other popular areas of origin include Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and American Indian. In addition, certain categories of decorative arts are perennially popular with collectors. Some of the market’s biggest categories are outlined below.
Investing in furniture and home decor is a popular choice among buyers both because of their historically successful performance at auction and the unique interactive experience of enjoying antique pieces of furniture in one’s home. Asian, European, and American furniture are all highly sought after and distinguished by maker or time period. Popular items in this category include:
Before mechanized manufacturing processes were developed for most materials during the Industrial Revolution, glass was a luxury item. Glass continues to be crafted into a variety of beautiful forms using processes that result in unique textures and vibrant colors, including cut glass or crystal and stained glass.
Widely celebrated designers include Louis Comfort Tiffany, Thomas Webb and Wedgwood, Loetz, and Emile Gallé. The glassware category includes any decorative piece made primarily of glass, including:
Antique ceramics collectors are often drawn to a particular style. For example, collectors interested in the folk art style seek out redware and stoneware, while Asian art collectors focus on blue and white porcelain or Raku ware. Other buyers may be more more interested in the scenes depicted as decoration, which vary depending on the time period of the work. Others might collect around certain regions or makers, like Staffordshire or Meissen. Popular ceramic objects include:
Silver & Vertu
Most every country has a history of silversmithing, from Russian enameled silver, English Georgian, Chinese export silver, and Colonial American silverware. Silver has often been used to craft objects of vertu, or small, practical objects made from precious materials. Popular objects in silver and other precious materials include:
Building Your Collection
The breadth of styles and objects in the decorative art market makes it fertile ground for both novice and experienced collectors. No matter your taste, you’re bound to find a niche area you enjoy and can afford.
“I always say to collect what you love and are personally drawn to. Visit as many museums and galleries to get a sense of what types of art you like. Visiting auction previews is another way to view art and ask questions to specialists directly,” says Celine Rebago, former Art Director at Pacific Galleries.
When initially assembling or adding to a collection, consider the follow suggestions to ensure you choose the right pieces.
Do Your Research
Historical and cultural significance play a role in the value of decorative objects. Therefore, it’s crucial that you become familiar with the maker’s breadth of work and insist on receiving a full account of condition and provenance for the work before you purchase it. This is the first opportunity you will have to learn of any details that may impact the object’s value, and to ensure the description and images accurately represent the object.
Choose a Focus
A new collector has an almost overwhelming range of options. Some choose to collect by focusing on objects from a particular period, like French Rococo, from a specific style, like Art Deco, or from a geographic region, like East Asia. What genres you choose are up to you and should reflect your personal style regardless of their potential value.
Examine Your Space
Given that decorative art is made to be used, ask yourself how each individual piece fits into your collection. Questions to ask include:
- How do you style your home now?
- What styles do you naturally gravitate towards? Is your furniture minimalist or extravagant?
- Is your home in need of a particular piece that will complete a room?
- Is the piece functional or strictly decorative?
Establishing & Maintaining Value
Because of the extensive range of objects and forms considered to be decorative art, it is more difficult to generalize determinants of value. However, as with most art and antiques, provenance, condition, and authenticity play an important role.
More specifically, the decorative art market thrives on connoisseurship and personal interest, both of which are driven by rarity, historical value, and uniqueness within a category.
Craftsmen designed decorative objects to be functional for daily use; however, using an older piece for its original intended purpose may compromise the value of your pieces as an investment. Putting flowers in a ceramic vase or allowing guests to sit on antique dining chairs will bring your objects to life, but the pieces will require more consistent upkeep and restoration. Consider modifying your use of a piece depending on its condition, age, and importance.
Impressive provenance and academic references support the credibility and importance of an object. As with any antique, provenance can drastically affect the value of decorative arts. Who owned the piece and their historical significance will greatly influence prices at auction.
In some cases, like with Chinese decorative art objects, collectors who want to see cultural property return to its native country drive up the value of works at auction.
Both an object’s overall rarity and status as a unique creation will determine value. For example, Asian furniture made from Huanghuali wood during the Qing and Ming dynasties is now highly sought after because the material is nearly extinct. In some European furniture, collectors can find certain types of mahogany, oak, and walnut woods whose trees were last seen more than a century ago. If the material can no longer be found, or the maker only created a small number of the objects, the value of the antique may increase.
The most valuable pieces are those that have been maintained in pristine condition through the years. Some level of quality restoration may be acceptable without heavily impacting its value, given that decorative art has likely been used rather than simply put on display.
Many people find signs of wear on antiques charming or consider them proof of authenticity. On the other hand, the better condition a piece is in the more it will be worth.
Authenticity is always critical, and each type of artwork has specific processes to date and qualify works. Certain categories like modern furniture are especially susceptible to false reproductions. Specific characteristics, like type of wood or chemical composition, can be used by experts to ensure you’re getting an authentic piece.
“Don’t speculate that it ‘may’ be from the Song or Ming period,” says Pacific Galleries‘ Decorative Arts Specialist, Mimi Evans. “Employ the old adage, ‘If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.'”
Tips for Buying Online
You can now easily buy decorative art online from an art and antiques marketplace like Invaluable. Be aware, however, that sales are often final and you will likely not have an opportunity to inspect the item in person. To ensure you’re making a quality purchase, consider following these guidelines:
1. Request a Condition Report & Other Identifying Documents
What does the documentation say?
- What does it prove? Are the sources credible?
- Who has paid for the authentication, and what warranty is extended to you in the case that the attribution is later determined to be false?
- What is the history of the item, and who has owned it?
- Has it been altered, or is it fully intact?
- What damages or restorations exist?
2. Register to bid several days in advance.
Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid and be approved by the specific auction house you are interested in bidding with. The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.
3. Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of online auctions or galleries.
- How does the auction house handle taxes?
- Will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer or retail price?
- How will the item be shipped?
- How long do you have to pay for the item?
- How do you contact the auction house, dealer or gallery with questions?
4. Ask Follow Up Questions
If you have a question, ask it, and if the answer is not satisfactory to you, do not bid or buy.
5. Research Past Prices
Make sure your bid is competitive, but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying.
6. Don’t Bid Unless You’re Sure
All sales at an auction are final. Once you have successfully bid and won your object, the auction house or gallery can provide you with a list of good art handling or shipping companies to ship your item.