T. A. from Santa Barbara has an interesting quandary regarding the Art Deco sofa pictured. Is its antique value worth the cost to reupholster the piece? Or should T. A. buy something new, or donate it and take the tax write-off? Her new daughter-in-law plans to visit, and she is a designer….so T. A. wants to update the tired look of the retro fabrics she once loved.
Let’s look at the antique value in comparable sales of a 1930’s hardwood framed sofa with similar typical glamorous flaring arms and bulky, generous lines, which bespeak comfort. If this sofa sold at auction, buyers would undoubtedly take into consideration the necessity of replacing the ‘unique’ fabric T. A. chose in her 1960’s retro decade. At auction (which I regret to say, Santa Barbara has none: T.A. would have to ship her sofa to the San Francisco or the LA area to get into an auction) a sofa like hers will typically sell for $800-1,000, less 20% auction house commission. However, most auction houses will not take upholstered furniture unless it is rare: auction houses like the Bay Area’s Clar’s, or John Moran’s Discovery Auction (an entry-level auction for first timers), sometimes have a limit of $1000 potential earnings. The best way to find out if an auction house might be interested is to go to their website and send them a digital photo. Checking eBay, the asking prices for Art Deco era couches are around $800, and that does not include moving the beast. My clients have been discouraged by using Craigslist for selling large furniture, so she could always consider donating and taking the tax deduction, if she could use that deduction in her tax bracket. She would be advised to speak to her accountant about what I estimate to be a $1000 deduction.
On the side of keeping that sofa, consider the hardwood frame, the mahogany trim, the solidity of the seat, and the use of real screws and dowels in the construction, as opposed to the staples used on mid-market furniture today. This piece has lasted 80 years and there’s a reason.
Re-upholstery offers T.A. her choice of fabric, filling and trim. All those selections cost money. Average fabric will run $40, designer/better fabrics are $70 and up (per yard). An average sofa will need 16 yards; I wager T.A.’s will use 18-20. At $40 per yard, that’s $800. Labor will run an estimated $1,000, not to mention something extra for fabric if T.A. picks a repeating design, since patterns at seams should align. Looks like there’s fringe at the bottom of the sofa; that’s extra. She might need to pay a premium for the tufting around the arms.
Doing the math, her sofa re-upholstered will run $2,000, which is, coincidentally, the top price paid for such a sofa of that era (with no notable designer pedigree). That’s because the market today is not favorable to flamboyant lines, preferring cleaner geometry. She can buy a new sofa for less, but looking at affordable ($2000 or less) sofa options, she’s going to regret seeing her hardwood framed sofa leave her house for the softwood frames used in big box store’s furniture.
Being an old furniture Luddite myself, there’s some valuable provenance involved in her Art Deco sofa that she may not know of. Her sofa from the 1930’s reflects a period that gave birth to the dramatic lines of the Chrysler building in NYC. Art Deco was born from various design elements: Cubism, Fauvism, Louis XV & XVI Revival styles and Asian aesthetics, which blended into this unique style, associated with Paris, New York, and Hollywood (think Noel Coward). Her sofa partakes of the world’s first international style of design that influenced architecture and interior spaces in the tall 1930’s buildings of great cities. The luscious lines and outward embrace of the arms reflects the elegance and extravagance of the era that glorified in fine things after the Great Depression, screeching to an abrupt halt with the austerities of World War II. Style ever after was influenced by functionalism and the demands of industrialized mass production. Her sofa (with, perhaps, mohair fabric in a jewel tone) would have been at home when the Deco style was first seen by the world, at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter