Thin veneer

Kiwi art and antiques are in demand—but we still like the offshore stuff

Kiwi art and antiques are in demand—but we still like the offshore stuff

Jason Smith


‘Money from ideas’ is the gilded central slogan of the creative economy. With the emphasis on generating new objects, new designs and new solutions, there is less focus on the trading of old-but-still-excellent design triumphs. The art and antiques market holds pride of place as a long-standing part of the creative economy, though it may be framed differently from the snap and zap of digital gaming, the portability of the music industry or the currency of moviemaking. Hang-ups about trading art and antiques being included among the creative industries should be left at the door.

Hallmarks of the art and antiques market in New Zealand make it distinctive. Most antiques in New Zealand remain in the country, and many are still with the same families that bought them in the first place. Significant private collections never see the light of day in auction houses and dealerships. Like sending the proverbial coals to Newcastle, shipping antiques from down under back to the old world is uncommon. For most antiques it’s a one-way trip.

But Kiwi-made antiques, based on unique timbers from our mostly-vanished forests, have a varnished sheen all their own. Timeless pieces in mint condition emerge in auction houses at home and abroad. They’re increasingly valuable in this modern decorative age, where warmth, richness and comfort are desirable, and originality fits with bragging rights and long-tail economics. It’s the same with paintings, sculptures and textiles, which are the newly-minted creative part of the arts sector. Art sells here and for export, and the market is small and vibrant.

Magazine layout

Sources: New Zealand Antique Dealers and Statisitics New Zealand

But in the figures showing trends in exports of New Zealand art, and imports of art and antiques from other places, a yawning hole is emerging. Simply put, we’re increasingly importing more art and antiques than we are exporting. Some reasons for this trade deficit might include:

  • The demand for art and antiques is growing but the local supply is not
  • Art and antiques from overseas satisfy in some way that Kiwi-made objets d’art can’t
  • We aren’t selling enough Kiwi art offshore

Whichever way you regard this miniature portrait, from an economic development perspective the trend tarnishes the lustre of New Zealand’s creative economy. Sometimes it can be disappointing to look behind the veneer.

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