4th generation Skipton based antiques dealer, Simon Myers sets the record straight on “brown furniture”
and opines on the long awaited come back
Apparently ‘Brown’ is back. I am sitting in my antique shop on a Saturday afternoon. Here in the North we have antique ‘shops’ not ‘galleries’ and ‘customers’ rather than ‘clients’. Two couples come in out of the rain to ‘browse’ (a long-departed dealer in this village famously had a sign in his window which read ‘if you want to browse, the village green is opposite’).
One of the bedraggled browsers asks me that often-asked question beloved by dealers: “Is it true that people don’t want brown furniture anymore?” I give my stock answer: “I’m afraid I really don’t know. You see, I don’t deal in brown furniture.” They look non-plussed. Let’s face it, they are standing in a room which is filled with furniture much of which would best be described in terms of colour as, well, brown; 50 shades of brown; from the golden hues of early 18th Century Walnut, the rich patination of 17th Century oak to the highly figured richness of Georgian mahogany. Perhaps 500 shades of brown. But still brown.
And yet I do not deal in “brown furniture”. Nor do many people who I know in this business. Some years ago, the press seized on this phrase, which it has continually trotted out every time it runs a story about the antique trade. As they seem to be unable to tell the difference between a rare untouched piece of early Georgian walnut furniture and a Victorian mahogany sideboard it is much easier for them. However, what they are really talking about is the plain rather dull though highly functional furniture made in considerable quantity for the emerging middle classes in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. This was the sort of furniture, which for years was shipped by the container load to the USA, Australia and even Japan. Now most of the shippers have gone and these pieces of furniture languish in salerooms all over the country, scarcely able to attract a bid. Anecdotally, I was recently at a sale in the south waiting patiently for the one lot in which I was interested, a good George II mahogany centre table. Lot after lot of Victorian and Edwardian furniture was called and scarcely got a bid. The auctioneer couldn’t get a bid of £200 for 8 rather dull but comfortable and useful Edwardian oak dining chairs. A mid Century Ercol dining suite then made £500. The auctioneer paused and said, “It just shows, no one wants antique furniture any more”. He didn’t retract his remark when my lot came up and I paid five times the top estimate for it.
The fact is that people do want antique furniture; they just want it to be good. They don’t want their homes to be bursting at the seams with it. They don’t want every surface to be covered in objects (well, some of us do) and they want a rather lighter style than their grandparents. They are overall more design conscious. They like all sorts of things; Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Mid Century, recycled industrial furniture and fittings.
For many years, antique furniture was seen to be a very solid investment. In the 70s, 80s and 90s the ‘Antique Furniture Index’ often outperformed the FTSE 100 and house prices in terms of capital growth. A lot of people were just ticking boxes. There were things you had to have: a two pillar dining table, a George III sideboard, and, according to dealer Max Rollitt “at least one thing commemorating the death of Nelson with black line inlay or handles with crocodiles celebrating his victory at the Battle of the Nile”. Rollitt, like me, was brought up in the business and combines dealing in Antiques with a very successful interior design consultancy and a range of bespoke furniture. “People want beautiful things, strong design and pieces with integrity”, he adds.
Edward Bulmer, one of the UK’s leading architectural historians and interior designers says he never stopped liking it. “The ultimate individual, practical and cost-effective choice. I wish I was buying for myself now and not 20 years ago.”
Bulmer identifies something, which must be obvious to all who watch the Antiques Roadshow or who have recently considered selling a dining table or sideboard, which they purchased 20 years ago. Some things are ridiculously cheap. In the 1950s our parents and grandparents bought antique furniture because much of it was far better quality and far cheaper than new. We seem to have reached that point again.
To give you some idea of current values of reasonable and useful furniture; a set of six Regency mahogany dining chairs, which 20 years ago would have cost £2,500 can be bought for less than £1,000. I see a set of eight, reasonable Regency chairs with nice old leather seats including a pair of armchairs on an antiques website for just under £1,600. Less than £200 per chair, less than it could possibly cost to make them, less than some people would pay to have them reupholstered.
A Georgian mahogany sideboard which would have cost you £4,500, 20 years ago might be picked up now for £1,500. A drop leaf dining table from the 1750’s to seat six; made from finely figured mahogany is now £1,200 and sometimes less. Hugely practical, designed to take up minimal room when not in use but now out of fashion. Try and buy that quality of figured Mahogany today. Ethically it might be a problem in any event as we probably all agree that the felling of our remaining hardwood forests should stop. But if you can stomach contributing to global warming and the extinction of species, you will find it expensive.
The bureau, which appeared in every antique shop in Britain 20 years ago is spectacularly out of fashion. Ridiculously, the antiques trade decided back then that as a bureau could not accommodate a desktop computer. No one would ever want one again. A good Mid-18th Century mahogany bureau which might have cost you £7,000 – £10,000 25 years ago could now be bought for perhaps a quarter of that and that most quintessential feature of every good collection of English furniture, the Queen Anne or George I walnut bureau, glowing with a honey colour that brings light into every room, is available for less than half the £15,000 – £20,000 it would have cost you back then.
Obviously, most people have laptops or tablets now, so why is the bureau still languishing in the doldrums? It is a hugely practical piece of furniture; the iPhone 8 of the chest of drawers’ world, a beautiful piece of furniture in which you can store everything from socks to love letters, cufflinks to cash. Usually with a few secret drawers in a finely conceived interior, it will take a laptop comfortably. Space saving and multi functionality were not something dreamed up in the 21st Century.
Try and buy a good 18th Century mahogany bureau. I have decided that the plight of the bureau is so ridiculous that I will buy every good one I see. Since making this decision I have realised that they aren’t about. People aren’t selling them. There is a real shortage of good things on the market and we dealers are having to battle it out, to buy what we want. Tell the vendor of a lovely mahogany bench in Bonham’s last furniture sale that “brown furniture” is out of fashion and they may smile at you. Estimated at £8,000 – £12,000 it sold for £140,000 plus the outrageous 25%, plus VAT that they charge you for the privilege of proving their estimates are incorrect. Record sums are also being paid for early furniture and oak from the 16th and 17th Centuries.
It has always struck me as strange that in an age where individualism is highly prized, so many people have decorated their houses to look like expensive hotels. Antique Collector recently ran a headline “Brown is Back”. Something of an overstatement perhaps but there are signs that tastes are changing. More young people are now seen at antiques fairs and even in my shop.
There is warmth, a groundedness in the mellow tones of old wood. A sense that the trials and tribulations of the 21st Century are not unique in the history of mankind; that there should be more to our surroundings than simple functionality. The ingenuity of the craftsman, the natural beauty of age-old timber, the history of trade, of learning, of taste and the survival of these beautiful and functional things long beyond the lifespan of their creators are all represented in things which we can live with and use every day. They enrich our lives and stimulate our imaginations. As I write this sitting at a Mid-18th Century Pollard, oak bureau that glows with amazing colour I am reminded of my small part in its long history. Have we lost sight of the romance of it all? I think not.
And of course, good things only remain cheap for so long.
Specialists in English Furniture from the 17th and 18th Centuries as well as Chinese and European Works of Art www.myersantiques.com was founded in 1890 by Simon’s Great Grandfather and still bears his name.