Well it looks like this week is going to be an interesting one for the antiques diary. I’m off out to Bonham’s in London (I’m actually not sure which branch…) for a book launch and lecture on early C19th Welsh Pottery. Jonathan Gray, a colleague of my wife’s, is an expert on Swansea pots and is launching his new book, “The Cambrian Company, Swansea Pottery in London 1806-1808″ and we have an invitation to the event. He recently launched the book in the US market at Christie’s in New York, which was very well-received.
I have to admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about Welsh Pottery. It’s quite a specialist area of expertise and seemingly very collectible. I have a copy of the book on order, which I will be interested to have a look at. If you’re interested in getting hold of a copy, you will be able to get it online from http://www.cabrianpottery.com at some point in the near future. The website isn’t up and running just yet, so if you’d like a copy, you can always send me a request and I will pass it on to the author… In the meantime, I’ll post a review of the book launch and lecture soon.
Saturday the 4th of February sees another auction at one of my nearby auction houses, P.F. Windibank. I have a couple of pieces of silver in the auction this time, which I’m hoping will do well: a hallmarked George III Silver creamer, which I think is a fine piece of work, and two pieces of Richard Comyns hallmarked silver – an oval tea caddy and a round salt. I’ve been to this auction house quite a few times but only as a buyer. This is really my first proper foray into selling at auction. I say “proper” as I have sold at auction before, but it was only a small piece of pottery which didn’t cost much (and equally didn’t make much!). This is the first time I’ve properly sought to sell something with the express intention of making a profit, so it is my first foray into trading at auction.
Of course, this all sounds very charming and along the lines of the BBC’s Bargain Hunt programme. I think the reality of antique trading at auction is something quite different. For a start, you need to take into account auction fees, which seem to only rarely be mentioned. When buying, you have to account for anywhere between 12.5% and 25% buyers’ premium on top of the hammer price. There is then VAT (currently charged at 20%) charged on the buyer’s premium. When selling, you also pay commission (plus VAT) on the hammer price and there may be a few other costs involved as well. Most auction houses will value your items free of charge, so that needn’t necessarily be something to account for. At Windibank’s there is also a charge for including photos and description of the items on the online catalogue (just a small, flat fee) and a 1% fee of the hammer price to cover for insurance.
Once you include fees, you’ll see that it can be quite difficult to make any profit by buying and selling at auction. I suspect that dealers source their items elsewhere (for example, house clearances) and make their profits by selling directly to their clients, or perhaps retailing to the public. I simply don’t see how you’d be able to make enough profit otherwise. The other issue with selling at auction is that there’s no guarantee what price you’ll receive. The estimates for the two lots which I have put into the auction are realistic, but a lot lower than the price at which I bought them. Having a bit of knowledge about the auction market, I’m confident that they’ll exceed their estimates by quite some way, but there’s no guarantee of that. There’s always a degree of guesswork involved in selling at auction. This being the first auction of the new year, it could go either way; there are fewer silver lots in the auction which could mean that they stand out a little better than usual. Equally, that could mean that fewer buyers are drawn to the auction. Buyers might just be recovering from the financial hangover of Christmas and may be willing to bid, but there may be a few buyers who are still paying off the costs of the holiday season. There are so many variables that it’s difficult to gauge how it’s going to go. I must be bloody insane to be putting my neck out like this!
Furniture is something that most of us will buy at some point throughout our lives. As we use furniture, it becomes, well… used I suppose. Article of furniture are not something that we tend to replace every year, but perhaps every few years. with the need to be more flexible in the employment market, we sometimes find that we’ll move a bit more often than our parents might have done. This habit of moving house frequently saw a high point in the property boom with families and individuals moving up the property ladder. These moving points create opportunities for refreshing interior design and buying furniture. What worked in the old house may not necessarily work in the new house. All this leads me to champion the case for buying furniture at auction, over new furniture from a retailer.
There is a perception that antique furniture is elite and expensive but this need not necessarily be the case. Some high-end antiques are always going to cost more than new high-street furniture, but I’m not comparing like with like in that case. Modern reproduction furniture can often be found at auction houses for a fraction of its original cost. I remember one of the first auction I attended in Yorkshire. I could have bought an elegant regency reproduction extending dining table in mahogany veneer for £60. Add six matching reproduction dining chairs with a pair of carver chairs for another £60. With the buyer’s premium and VAT, that’s a dining table and eight chairs for well under £200. No-one bid on either of these items and they left the auction house unsold. I would have bid on them, had I had the space in my own house to accommodate them. As it is, my own house is almost entirely furnished with antique and vintage pieces of furniture, gathered from auction houses, antique shops and even eBay sellers over the last ten years or so.
As with most interior designs, antique furniture goes through trends and buying the right pieces at the right time can save an enormous amount of money, as well as giving your interior a unique and personal appearance. That doesn’t mean that you have to settle for an interior inspired by the bilge spouted by that Grand Dame of hypocrisy and shabby chic tat, Kirsty Allsop (I cite her hypocrisy in that, after years of espousing bland beige identikit interiors and modern “clean” furniture, she now completely decries her past and is advising those bereft of any inspiration (or ability to think on their own) how to give their homes an individual look). There is absolutely no reason why antique (or even modern reproduction) furniture couldn’t work with ultra-modern interior designs. This is the age of post-modern bricolage and pastiche. The inclusion of one or two choice pieces of antique furniture in a modern loft conversion, for example, would emphasise both the antique nature of the furniture and the contemporary milieu in which is it placed.
As I write, in early 2012, the fashion for heavy Victorian “brown” furniture is in the middle of a slump which has lasted maybe four or five years already. Interiors just aren’t happy with the heavy and dark woods and imposing forms of Victorian pieces. I should insert a caveat at this point, as some high-end pieces are still in demand and have held their prices well. This means that you can pick up many useful and decorative pieces of furniture for very little indeed, and for significantly less than the price of a new piece of furniture. Need a desk for the laptop, which needs to be useful and not take up too much space? What about a writing bureau? Or a Victorian Davenport? Or an Edwardian writing table? This is just one example of how antique furniture can fulfil the needs of modern life. The less austere Edwardian period produced elegant furniture which was smaller, lighter and softer than the high Victorian period and perhaps more suitable for modern life. Why settle for that hideous piece of soulless flatpack furniture from the land of interior furnishings and Swedish meatballs?
Another point to consider is the resale value of antique versus the resale value of new. The moment you take delivery of that new piece of furniture, it will lose probably ⅔ of its value. In the short-medium term, an antique piece will mostly hold its resale value or even increase in value (unless you are unfortunate to buy just before a market slump hits). Most people don’t even consider the idea of resale value when buying furniture, but its something that I try to take into account.
The major sticking point that I think people have with antique furniture is knowledge. There are so many periods and styles of antique furniture that the whole idea of buying antique can seem impenetrably complicated. This needn’t be the case. I’m by no means an antique furniture expert (I know a furniture restorer and I’m constantly befuddled by what pieces belong to what periods), but I can see what works visually and functionally. If you can see something having a use and fitting in with your interior decor, and have the time to browse the auction houses’ online catalogues, you’re probably about 90% there. Take the plunge and go to an auction.