Design & Interiors

Inside a booming antiques business

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Rose Karimi, founder of Niche Vintage Furniture. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Summary

  • With airlines now back in operations, Rose says import business is back on course. 
  • The biggest challenge in this business is the paperwork.
  • As an affinity for antiques grows, Rose says Kenyans must stop purchasing cliché items.

At Niche Décor, an antique shop near Kabarnet Gardens in Nairobi, Rose Karimi saunters into the showroom, answering queries from curious clients.

From the jammed parking lot, it is clear that it is a time of abundance for the city antique collector. “I’ve barely had a break today,” Rose says as she ushers us into the newly stocked shop. “I thought I’d break for tea but that hasn’t been possible.”

This is how Rose spends her day these days: attending to tens of clients who stream into her shop for more than eight hours every day.

The Covid-19 season has witnessed a spike in furniture sales, as most Kenyans sought to spruce up their spaces. It has not been any different for lovers of vintage items. The footfall at her shop increased by 50 percent during the lockdown, she says.

From Chippendale sofas to chests and medieval-style dinner sets from Eastern Europe and the Far East, the demand for classic homeware has risen sharply in the last seven months.

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Niche Vintage Furniture, store off Kabarnet Gardens. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

But what specific items have antique enthusiasts been buying during this time?

“The demand for classic furniture has been higher during this time than before,” Rose explains. “People have been buying sofas and chests because they had more time to look around and to shop for items that could enhance their homes.”

Even she could not resist the urge to redecorate her home. Rather than go for specific items, she made an overhaul.

“My bed, which I’d used for many years, was the first thing to go. I got a new one. I also changed my furniture in the dining room by going for cozier and more chic pieces,” she says, adding that whenever she finds extremely rare pieces, she reserves them for her own home.

Somehow, Kenyans’ preferences changed too. “Most people coming are now asking for different pieces than what they’ve bought before,” she notes.

With Covid-19 rules now relaxed and Kenyans back to their workplaces, Rose observes that demand has now shifted to décor.

“Paintings, vases, and other decorative items are moving faster.”

Unlike most goods, the business model for antiquities is predominantly referral-based. Although it constitutes a small segment of the market, Rose admits that dealership in classics is a lucrative venture.

“Classic items of décor are not for the general market. They're for people who love unique and elegant things, and can afford them,” Rose says.

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Antiques for sale on display at Niche Decors Furniture. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Most sofa sets at Niche Décor are priced between Sh250,000 and Sh300,000. A dining set goes for Sh150,000.

There are many dealers of classic items in the country. As such, this market is not controlled entirely by demand and supply factors. “Pricing depends on the cost of every individual consignment.”

Between April and May, Rose had to shut down after her stock was depleted, as shipping was disrupted by Covid-19.

“I couldn’t bring any consignment into the country for six months, to the disappointment of my clients. I spent this time in Germany collecting different pieces and preparing them for shipment,” she says.

With airlines now back in operations, Rose says import business is back on course. “Already, I have a team on the ground collecting others.”

The biggest challenge in this business is the paperwork. “It takes roughly three months to import the items. Valuation is difficult because these are old items.”

Collector pieces

As an affinity for antiques grows, Rose says Kenyans must stop purchasing cliché items.

“You’re likely to find the same type of sofa in most Kenyan households. When you buy a classic sofa, you’re sure no one else in the country has a similar one.”

Buyers of vintage furniture are driven by more than the need for exclusivity, Rose clarifies.

“This type of furniture is durable and outlasts modern designs. It could be passed down generations.”

The design for most antique furniture types has long phased out.

“The market of collector pieces is hard to predict. I can’t tell you what I'll find during an outing. It depends on what the collectors I buy from have found,” she says.