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Check those attics and the cupboard under the stairs

Brown furniture is out, so they say, but I disagree. While the heavy and imposing presence of mahogany – once that most desired of woods – may have fallen away in popularity, plenty of pieces crafted by the hands of the most consummate designers down the ages still attract a keen following.

For me, the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th century provided one of the most creative and enduring periods, giving us William Morris, Charles Rennie Macintosh, Ernest Gimson and Gordon Russell, among others.

The art critic Nikolaus Pevsner described Gimson as “the greatest of the English architect-designers”, a worthy title, but one earned not without competition from the other greats. Macintosh, of course, was Scottish.

Russell, who lived until 1982, put down his saw and plane at the end of the 1920s to manage what became a furniture factory, putting out beautiful cabinets, tables, chairs and other pieces that are treasured to this day. But it is his own hand-crafted pieces that are most sought after.

Just east of Petersfield, you can still visit the active workshop of the late Edward Barnsley, though you will need deep pockets to commission something special.

To the north of England, the modest but no less accomplished hands of Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson added his signature carved mouse to every piece from 1919, creating not just an avid fan base inspired by the honest solidity and supreme craftsmanship of his oak cupboards, bread boards and chairs, and by the captivating rippled surfaces of his chests of drawers and tables, a feature created using an adze to catch the light in the most enchanting way.

Look them all up on the internet and then tell me brown furniture has had its day. Alternatively, bring your examples to me on one of our valuation days.

Check those attics and the cupboard under the stairs

Every time I stage a valuation day at our Fernhurst rooms I’m reminded of that classic episode of Only Fools and Horses where the Trotter family’s heirloom, a discarded pocket watch, turns out to be a lost Harrison worth millions. The image of their battered Reliant Robin parked on double yellow lines outside Sotheby’s in Bond Street is priceless. Finally Del Boy and Rodney became the millionaires they’d always dreamed of being.

It’s just as exciting for the valuer when something special is handed across the table at one of these valuation days. It’s surprising just how many people really do have something of value in the attic or in the cupboard under the stairs.

Headline-grabbing finds of recent years have included a rather battered looking box used as a TV stand that turned out to be the Mazarin Chest, an extremely rare Japanese antique valued at £6.3 million.

Another was the portrait of a man in a ruff picked up at a Cheshire antique shop for £400 in 2004. Ten years later it was spotted as a genuine Van Dyck on the Antiques Roadshow and valued at £400,000.

One of my favourite stories is of the New York family who bought a fairly plain looking white bowl at a garage sale for $3 only to find out later that it was an ancient Chinese treasure over 1,000 years old and worth $2.2 million.

Now I’m looking to make a discovery. What have you got for me? You can bring in an item or photo any time. Check in your attic and see what you find!

Evidence of the versatile winning formula of auctions

I was delighted to read that auctions have been providing a little light in the darkness recently.

Among all the gloomy articles about impending disaster arriving from one corner or another was the latest news from the Office for National Statistics, which reveal that auction houses and clothes shoppers have made a significant contribution to the recovery of retail sales in October. Economists had expected an uptick of 0.5%, but these two sectors helped that rise to 0.8%

That may seem small beer, but when you’re looking at an economy worth trillions, this is actually a very important piece of news in boosting confidence.

So why have auctions become so important? As discussed in this column more than once, they were already set up to handle the pandemic well, with sophisticated, user-friendly systems for bidding online. With many people sitting at home finally having the time to test this out, auctions attracted a whole new audience of bidders, while existing clients also found more time to take part in this convenient method of acquiring goods.

Not only that, the experience of bidding online is entertaining and exciting too, so who wouldn’t want to give it a go. I envy anybody who enjoys the thrill of that first successful bid at auction.

I would argue that it’s also the key to attracting the next generation of buyers, who are already sold into the idea of trading in second-hand goods as they recycle clothes, shoes and tech.

Auctions have already succeeded for millennia; now they are proving just how adaptable they remain.


The continuing promise of Victorian watercolours

In my view, one of the most under-priced areas of the fine art and collectables market is Victorian watercolours. Some artists’ work can fetch a pretty penny, but for the most part landscapes, genre scenes, figural studies and the rest can be had for little more than a hundred pounds or two; sometimes considerably less.

Why is this?

One explanation is that tastes have simply moved on and buyers today can’t relate to the subjects depicted. Another is that people expect their art to ‘perform’ more. A nicely mounted and framed riverside view or idyllic cottage scene may be well executed but perhaps does not leap from the wall in the way a bit of brashly coloured Street art does.

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to believe that the spirit of nature and humanity captured in these views has no place among the collections of the future. I see many of them as a tonic, a perfect means to gently attract the attention of the viewer and make them ponder awhile, stepping off the conveyor belt of modern life to contemplate and drink in the serenity of a time gone by, when life was a simpler – if sometimes tougher – affair.

A plentiful supply of notable compositions comes to auction on a regular basis. Why not see if you can find one you like for the wall. We can all do with an occasional bit of slowing down, and gazing on an accomplished work by one of these masters of times gone by is an effective way of doing that.