When I began restoring antiques many years ago, society remained aware of the importance and relevance of the trade. It was due to this awareness, that antiques were valued on their historical importance, the materials used in their construction, and the skill undertaken in their making.
As little as twenty years ago, antique furniture was still being passed down from generation to generation. Those lucky enough to inherit such items took great joy in knowing that their ancestors had once owned them. These pieces were treasured, and held a special place in people’s hearts.
Today, the awareness and celebration of antique furniture has dropped to an all-time low. Interest in antiques is now being solely held by those wishing to possess a piece of history. But these individuals are few in number. More concerning perhaps, is the notable absence of young collectors in the trade.
Ten years ago, a set of Regency Sabre leg chairs carved out of fine Cuban mahogany, would have made £4000 at auction. Now a set of these chairs can be bought for as little as £40. The set shown on the right is an example of Regency chairs which recently sold for £80 at auction, and are now cheaper than IKEA.
Why is this?
This is firstly due to the misuse of the term ‘brown furniture’ covering the complete spectrum of antique furniture. The term can now be used anywhere from the late Tudor period to the 1930s. The average person will often fail to identify the age of a particular piece, including the materials used in its making. If they had this knowledge then they would know that it is easy to date a piece from the timber alone.
When antique furniture is not being correctly identified, it should be of no surprise that estimates are given either greatly over, or under, the item’s true value.
A second issue is the lack of emphasis on historical subjects taught in schools.
When I attended school, we were encouraged to learn about history, geology and archaeology.
These subjects were not only considered as important at the time, but also useful to a society which appreciated its history.
Today such subjects can only be taken by choice at a higher level of education. The funding given to these schools is commonly reserved for other departments. Even if a school is lucky enough to receive additional funding, careers in restoration are rarely promoted. The importance of this craft is lost on the younger generation, resulting in missed opportunities in this field. Young people I have spoken to are completely unaware of the work that I do, and I find that to be a great shame on their behalf.
When an entire generation is unable to see the value in antique furniture, nor recognises the craftsmanship needed for its restoration, a tradition is lost. Ultimately, it is a piece of our collective history which is under threat when we fail to pass on this knowledge.
To be clear, I do not feel the younger generation is to blame. As they simply do not know of the opportunities in this field. I believe that if they were aware, they would thoroughly enjoy a craft, in a job market where advanced technology is increasingly replacing careers of the past.
If the younger generation are not to blame, then who is?
I feel that there are those who could be doing more to address these issues. Notable TV programmes that provide coverage of antiques and restoration work, could be providing more information about the age, merit, and making of the pieces that they showcase. The information regarding antique furniture provided is often glossed over, without any real care or depth. Those that work in the field behind the scenes, are constantly having to disappoint clients that believe the antiques trade is as healthy as it was twenty years ago. TV coverage and the media are to blame for this, by painting an unrealistic picture of the antiques trade for the benefit of their programme.
What I find distressing as a restorer, is a large part of my work is spent apologising to those that feel mislead and let down by the mistakes of the media. Their expectations are dashed once they learn that on-screen valuations are shockingly inaccurate. It has become such a common occurrence that at times I feel responsible. If individuals working in the media would take this more seriously then perhaps something could be done. Unfortunately, as someone who often works behind the scenes, I can only disappoint those who later learn of this reality.
Whilst I have participated in TV work in the past, I have since been approached with opportunities that I do not feel are motivated in solving these issues. As someone who not only works in restoration, but appreciates its history, I want to revive the antiques trade where possible, and I do not want to contribute to the problem.
The deterioration of the antiques trade also affects the valuation of items for insurance replacement and for restoration purposes.
Using another example, a fine Regency table purchased ten years ago was recently declined for restoration. The client had paid £6000 for the item during that time, and had expected its value to increase with age. It is with sadness that I had to tell her that the table was now worth around £500. These purchases are often an investment for our clients. One has to remember that collectors rely on their antiques not just because they are pleasing to have in the home, but because they also serve to support future relatives. They are a frequent safety net, should finances take a difficult turn.
Eight out of ten calls for restoration now have to be declined, as the item that they wish to have restored is not viable due to its drop in value.
It is now cheaper to buy Georgian sets of chairs and furniture, than it is to buy flat-pack furniture from IKEA.
Auction houses considering whether to decline the sale of ‘brown furniture’ altogether. This will mean that in the near future the value of these items will fall to below a quarter of what they are historically worth.
So which items are we now accepting for restoration and feel confident in their valuation?
If the value of the item has decreased we usually advise against the client having restoration undertaken. On occasion, we will restore an item if it has sentimental value to the client. As we recognise that family heirlooms are important.
We will always make sure to tell the client whether restoration will be beneficial to them. In most cases, we accept items that have not been affected by the general decrease in value. The majority of antique clocks, notable works of art, and historical items, have retained their value. Many I am glad to say have aged well and increased in value.
There are bargains to be made by the knowledgeable purchaser. And luckily, some ‘brown furniture’ is still worth collecting.
As well as restoring, and worthy of paying the valuation fee on. Particularly earlier Tudor, Jacobean and unusual or rare Georgian items. This of course includes the odd Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts items. Due to the issues I have raised, they too make it under the ‘brown furniture’ umbrella in auctions. You will be surprised with what you can find with a keen eye, as you are likely to win a bargain bid at auction.
As I have already mentioned, some items do age well. We noticed ten years ago, that long case clocks were often the only antique in a client’s home. Whilst most homes have modernised, the need for a charming grandfather clock has stood the test of time.
It is because of this that a large portion of the restoration we do today is on antique clocks. We receive clocks from all over the world, and their increasing value is attractive as a future investment. We are also happy to restore them!
It is also a perfect time to buy fine antiques that have evaded their accurate identification, and which have been placed under the ‘brown furniture’ umbrella. There has never been a better time to make a purchase for early Georgian furniture for example, as it is at an all-time low, and is cheaper than what can be found in IKEA.w can I help?
What are the risks?
On a more somber note, if this continues then the auction houses will lose interest in the sale of ‘brown furniture’ altogether. And unfortunately, collections which have taken decades to build will be at at risk. Perhaps even my work as a restorer will become another lost trade as a result of this. I would encourage anyone reading this blog to research the issue on antique furniture, and to let influencers know that you are concerned, and that you care about our national history.
If there are any production companies, or producers, that happen to read this piece, please contact us. You could help change these issues and save the antiques trade from destruction.
Our programme matter has been endorsed by Lord Julian Fellowes.
Please contact us at https://www.greenrestoration.co.uk/