One of our Superb Large Antique Partners Desks

Friday, 3 February 2017

Antique Furniture - what sells?

The cynical view of many antique dealers might be that not much is "hot" in the world of antique furniture at the moment.

Things have been quiet for a number of years and don't seem, at face value, to be getting much better for many dealers in antique ("brown") furniture.

The rows and rows of antique Victorian and Edwardian mahogany and walnut furniture in many provincial auction rooms in the UK tells its own story for many in the "trade"

However, a closer inspection of the market tells a slightly different story - not always one that the "trade" may want to acknowledge but nonetheless there is a story to tell and it is not all bad news.  It just requires an adjustment of perspective, a recognition of what (younger) buyers want and a reassessment of values. 

Putting aside the top end of the antique market frequented by Oligarchs, collectors with deep pockets and museums, all of whom seek out exceptional pieces by famous craftsmen (Chippendale et al) or pieces with exceptional provenance and celebrity owners, what we are really talking about is what is selling in the mid to lower reaches of the antique furniture trade.

So what is selling.  Here are three examples

Large Oak and Pine Farmhouse Tables.  The larger the better.  The trend toward large open plan "kitchen diners" directs the need for a large table to fit the space.  A small table just doesn't work.  Tables must be absolutely sound but have lots of character and patina and ready for hard use.  And don't forget the chairs - sets or 4, 6 or 8 are nice - but "odd" chairs also work well - especially if they have a bit of character.  There are some good UK Victorian tables around but rural France can also yield some gems.


Practical Furniture that can be Painted.  I can hear the shouts of dismay from traditionalists.  But the reality is that nobody wants "average" dark brown Victorian and Edwardian mahogany and walnut furniture - at any price.  The trick here is to buy items that have a real use in todays world.  Chests of drawers, dressing tables, sideboards, bookcases.  The key point is that they must be of a size that suits modern homes (no 3m high bookcases please) and they must be structurally sound.  Not a difficult point since much of this furniture was incredibly well made by modern standards

There are many sources that tell your how to paint such furniture (we'll cover it ourselves in a later blog) but it is the sort of project that you can certainly tackled without specialist knowledge or equipment.  One of the fashionable trends at the moment is to leave certain elements of the furniture unpainted - handles, legs or tops to give a good contrast of the "old" and "new" and to also leave some appreciation of the fantastic timbers used to make this furniture.

Note: We draw the line at painting "Regency" and "Georgian" furniture.  This is starting to get scarce and values are starting to rise.   Just like all the ordinary family cars from the 1950's and 1960's that were scrapped in the 1970's and 1980's have now become rare classics, and very valuable, so we guess will certain types of furniture - eventually.

Antique and Vintage Desks and Office Furniture.  Following on from the remarks above about "practical" furniture more and more people are working from home and want to have a nice working environment.  Antique office furniture from the Victorian or Edwardian periods is robust, stylish and comes in a range of sizes suitable for the small home office as well as the large corporate work space.  Leather tops add a touch of class but a polished wood work surface also works well for many people.   More recently Vintage or mid 20thC century desks and work tables have become extremely sought after - especially if they can be attributed to one of the more well know Continental designers.

Desk Chairs - there are plenty of Edwardian and Victorian desk chairs around - some are plain wood others are upholstered in leather or fabric.  They look great - see below - but for us, at least, they all have one thing in common - they are pretty uncomfortable!  So - if you are looking to do some serious work at your antique desk we would advise investing in the best modern adjustable desk chair that you can afford.

It is clear that the old rules regarding buying and selling antique furniture no longer apply i.e. anything old must be sought after and valuable.  Modern furniture is cheaper than ever and designed to fit modern homes and uses.  When looking at antique furniture it is therefore important to recognise this and work out what will work in the modern world and why. 
There is also no escaping the fact that much antique furniture is cheap, even ridiculously cheap, at the current time. 
There are two sides to this.  As a buyer there is much to chose from and some incredible bargains to be had.  From a sellers perspective the three examples above all have potential for good margins. 
As always we would recommend buying and selling based on condition (since restoration is expensive) and practicality - in this way you really can't go too far wrong.

Antiques - does size matter?

Is there a premium for the smaller versions of classic antiques?

In many instances the answer is a resounding - YES

We trade in classic antique furniture and decorative antiques via our websites and we invariably find that smaller, high quality pieces find a new home quicker and at a relatively higher price

Why is this?

There are probably several reasons.

Firstly smaller pieces - especially furniture - fit much better into modern homes.  It is possible to mix modern and antique items into many room settings if the antique piece doesn't dominate the space - hence the appeal to someone who just wants an occasional antique and not a room full (very few people actually want to decorate their homes exclusively in antiques).

A second reason may be that smaller pieces are often very well made and a true tribute to the craftsmen and women of yesteryear.  The tactile nature of many small pieces is extremely attractive and pleasing to the eye.  In many pieces the proportions of a small piece just work better at that scale.

Of course if you are a collector you can also fit a lot more small items into a given space than if you collect large things - again very few people have a barn big enough to accumulate lots of large things - just for the sake of collecting them.  Hence small pieces of silver, jewellery, portrait miniatures etc all remain very popular,  as do many varieties of ceramics.

So, our hypothesis is that small antiques are more popular than large pieces.

From a dealers point of view they sell faster and when you line a large piece up against an equivalent smaller piece,  the smaller one often has a proportionately higher value.

Here is an examples of a smaller equivalent that sold very well for us recently

This is a beautiful small Antique Victorian Partners Desk in mahogany made by Fitch of London.  Measuring only 137cm(w) x 91cm(d) x 77cm(h).  It has a total of 18 drawers - 9 to each side - fantastic proportions and symmetry.  Sold for approx 30% premium over an equivalent 183cm wide larger partners desk.  See more at


Buying and Selling Antiques? The devil is in the details!

A message to buyers and sellers of antiques alike.

The details really do matter.

Take two very similar antique writing desks.  Same size. Same style. Both mahogany. Both are said to date date from the mid Victorian Period.  Both have leather writing surfaces.  Superficially both look great in the internet photos and are described as being in excellent condition.

But in reality they are different animals and have very different values.

Look more closely.  Even without worrying about the "condition" the details tell the story. 

Simple things.  Quality brass fittings, brass lever locks stamped with the makers mark - with a set of original keys.  Brass wheeled castors - again with matching makers mark.  All the handles are original and match. The screws mounting the fittings are original and have never been moved since new. Beautiful hand cut dovetail joints to the drawer fronts.  Oak lined drawers.  The leather top is original with great patina and a hand tooled border, nicely rubbed and faded.  The veneers match and are symmetrical in all the right places.  Just the right amount of fading to the top and front of the desk to show that this is an original item that has been lovingly cared for. Even marks and scratches all speak to the originality of the desk.

And - the icing on the cake - the original makers mark and address stamped on several of the drawer fronts.  Excellent!  All of these details speak to an original desk of the highest quality and highly desirable in todays world.

The contrast becomes more obvious with the other item.  The "brass" fittings are modern replacement replica's - they are just too shiny.  The colour of the desk is too bright - the wax is fresh.  The leather top is unmarked and straight "out of the box" - the gilded tooling is of a "standard" pattern and is almost blindingly bright.  The drawer bottoms are flimsy and not lined.  The locks are brass but have very simple brand new keys.  And so on.......... Most tellingly the underside of the desk top and the pedestals is CLEAN! 

Real antiques, of real age,  are DIRTY in all those hidden areas - years of real dirt that describe years of history

So it doesn't matter whether you are looking at a piece of antique furniture like the desk above, or a piece of jewellery, or ceramics or silver - it really pays to look closely at the details.  Do your homework on what  the details of a top quality piece should look like and beware anything that just doesn't fit with that picture.

There are fakes around.  Some will be very obvious.  Some will be declared up front as "replicas" or "reproduction".  But others will be much harder to spot. If in doubt consult an expert in the field.  Someone who has handled dozens, even hundreds, of the original items and know what details are "right" and which are "wrong".  Even down to what is original "dirt" and what has been applied last week to make the piece look a hundred years old.

Buyers - be prepared to pay a premium for originality and correctness. 

Sellers - make sure you get full value for your original antique - and make sure that you stress that all the details are present and correct to make sure you get full value for your genuine antique.

Here is an example of a genuine example of a  Childs Metamorphic High Chair c1905.  All original fittings and mechanism.  Original seating material - undamaged.  Original label in place (Farmer Lane, London).  All original screws.  Dirty in all the right places around the mechanism but in full working order.  All that is required for retail sale is cleaning and a gentle waxing and oiling.

A wide range of genuine antique items can be viewed in the archives of our website - lots of photos so you can check all those "devilish details" !