Auctions, as any collector will tell you, can be addictive. I am neither a collector nor an antiques expert, but I love the hunt, the adrenaline rush of a bidding war and the satisfaction of a flat decorated with (to my eye) interesting things.
I even relish those pieces I paid far too much for, like the painted Regency chiffonier with trompe l’oeil grille front too delicate to bear more than a couple of vases (though, I maintain, if we priced our furniture at cost-per-gaze, it’s working out a bargain).
I have never seriously endangered myself financially, but did — plug your ears, Claer Barrett (the FT’s personal finance guru) — recently consider emptying my US retirement account to buy a painting by Duncan Grant.
What is now a habit began with a search for second-hand furniture for my first flat a couple of years ago — I was motivated by environmental concerns, but affordability played into it too. Among my early triumphs was a beautifully carved Victorian whatnot that fits snugly in my conservatory-style extension, won for £20; post-Impressionist still lifes by Edward Wolfe and André Bicât; and a George III oak linen press, left in its original dry condition and bought for less than an Ikea wardrobe, which makes me feel very smug every time I look at it.
Not every acquisition has been a success. There’s the Victorian garden urn I had failed to note the size of and that proved to be miniature; a pine spice rack nearly as long as my sofa and far too large to put in my kitchen; and a quartet of Sussex-style dining chairs that came apart before I realised they were in need of regluing, but which have such pretty scroll backs I haven’t been able to part with them, and have instead repurposed them as supports for unhung paintings. (My partner is unhappy with this arrangement, and keeps suggesting we put them on the street.)
If you’re yet to try your hand at a furniture auction, I would say: tread with caution. It’s a sure-fire way to shred your bank balance, clutter your living space and test your relationships with those you hold dear. But if you’d like to get started, here’s some advice.
First, register for updates at your local auction house and set up keyword alerts on online auction aggregators — I use mainly The-Saleroom.com (for UK auctions), Auction.fr (France) and Auctionet (terrific for Swedish lighting and rugs), where I have set up notifications for my favourite artists, periods and details, such as “George III”, “ebonised” and “polychrome”.
Then, to ward off unwelcome surprises, check auction house fees, secure shipping quotes before bidding and attend previews when possible — colour and quality can be difficult to determine in photographs, especially when it comes to wood furniture. If you are bidding online, ask for condition reports and additional photos, and compare prices with what is already on the market — antiques-atlas.com, sellingantiques.co.uk, Vinterior and eBay are good sources.
Last — and I have learnt this the hard way — use a tape measure.
Now, where to start? After a slow summer, the autumn design and estate sales are in full flush. Of the many things I’d like to take home from the Sworders Design sale this week is a pair of original Pierre Jeanneret teak-and-cane “Low Easy” chairs, originally designed for his cousin Le Corbusier’s Modernist administrative buildings in Chandigarh, India, and estimated to go for £4,000-£6,000. They sit well with older antiques and look wonderful as desk or dining chairs — as fashion stylist Giovanna Battaglia’s Stockholm apartment can attest.
More within my budget is the vase from Longwy, which isn’t so much a vase as a fabulous sculpture in the shape of a fountain (est £200-£300).
For those who like their furniture brown, Bamfords Fine Art, Antiques and Country House Sale, starting October 26, is chock full of Georgian pieces with low reserves. I’m taken with the selection of well-aged lowboys, which would smarten up a landing or L-shaped entryway dressed with a lamp and a tray or potted fern.
Chaise longues can be found for very little at auction and are more comfortable for reading in than chairs. I’m taken with an Edwardian example on sale with Rogers Jones & Co in Wales (est £60-£80) which, if you don’t mind your furniture a touch shabby, doesn’t require immediate reupholstering.
I wish I had room for it. But until the scroll-back chairs are gone, I have been forbidden from buying any more large furniture, so I will need to content myself with something smaller. By the time this column appears, I hope to be the new owner of an Edward Wolfe drawing of an Omega Workshops screen, which surfaced in a Rogers Jones & Co sale of the contents of Machen House in Wales.
It has an estimate of £70-£100, but given how much Omega artefacts are selling for these days — and that a piece by Wolfe for Omega has never before surfaced — I suspect it will go for many times that. Wish me luck.
Lauren Indvik is the FT’s fashion editor