Monday, 30 January 2006

Antique furniture has never been so cheap, so buy, buy, buy

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Liberty sideboard

I'm no stock market investor but I do know one thing: if you want to make money, buy at the bottom of the market, not at its peak. Whether or not prices of antique furniture will fall further is open to speculation (and I ain't predicting) but the annual survey by the respected Antique Collectors' Club shows that values last year fell by a further 7%.

Note " further". Falls of 6% in 2004, 3% in 2003 and 2% in 2002 have prompted ACC furniture specialist and compiler of the survey John Andrews to be bullish about the future. He says: "There has not been a better time for collectors to buy since the late 70s and the mid 90s when similar falls took place. Some prosperous people are realising this and that may affect prices over the next 12 months."

He for one can see an end to the slump. "The last decline, in the mid 90s, lasted some four to five years before recovery took place. This one started after September 2001 and in late 2006 will have endured for five years," he says.

So, if he's right, what should we buy? Apparently not unfashionable Victorian furniture for a start. According to the survey, values have dropped by a scary 35% since late 2001. Well I'm not so sure, particularly if you're fortunate enough to live in the right house with room to spare - 19th century furniture can hardly be called compact.

From a later era, the minimalist design of Arts and Crafts furniture from the London workshop of Liberty & Co is still fresh and appropriate for the modern home and in my view remains undervalued. Pieces linked to Leonard F Wyburd, the designer who ran Arthur Liberty’s Furnishing and Decoration Studio, like the oak sideboard illustrated, are the cream of the crop and yet are still readily affordable.

The sideboard was made in about 1900 and has the signature Liberty hand-wrought iron ring handles and hinges and outswept legs with bracket feet.

Attributable directly to Wyburd and retaining the Liberty trade label attached to it when it left the Regent Street store, it was estimated at £1,200-1,800 in a recent sale. It sold on the top estimate for £1,800. Imagine the price of a comparable new piece in the shops today.

Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) was born in the market town of Chesham, Buckinghamshire, the son of a draper. At 16, the boy began working in his uncle’s warehouse and was subsequently apprenticed to draper John Weeks in Baker Street, London, before taking a position with the prestigious Farmer & Rogers Great Shawl and Clock Emporium in Regent Street.

Partnership in the firm

At the close of the 1862 London International Exhibition, the firm bought a large consignment of important Japanese exhibits to stock their new oriental warehouse, which they opened next door to their main premises. In 1864, at the age of 21, Liberty was appointed manager and subsequently offered a partnership in the firm.

However, Liberty had grander ideas and financed by his fiancée’s father, he purchased the lease of 218A Regent Street. Liberty’s East India House opened its doors to the public on May 15, 1875, selling oriental goods from silks to all manner of decorative items from the East including a small range of furniture, all of which helped to promote the Aesthetic Movement.

Liberty’s is perhaps best known for sturdy oak pieces with elaborate metal fittings and even mottoes in hammered copper panels set into the furniture, much of it supplied by wholesale companies such as William Birch and J.S. Henry, who made designs by George Walton. The firm also stocked chairs designed by the German Richard Riemerschmid (1868-1857).

In 1883, Liberty opened its own Furnishing and Decoration Studio under the direction of Leonard Wyburd (dates unknown, but he retired in 1903) whose designs made Liberty style the toast of Europe at the end of the 19th century. The studio produced furniture in a broad range of designs from Tudor, Jacobean, Flemish, Gothic, and 18th English country style.

Although Wyburd specialised in Moorish designs, he also produced oak furniture in bold designs including sideboards, bookcases, tables, chairs and bedroom suites. These designs were usually given Saxon or Scottish names such as the Athelstan chair, which dates from around 1899. These were illustrated in Liberty’s Yule-Tide Gifts catalogue priced at £3 7s 6d.Today the chairs are worth £300-400.

Pictures show, top: The splendid Liberty sideboard designed by Leonard F Wyburd. It sold for an affordable £1,800

Below: A watercolour design for a living room of a grand house, painted by Leonard F Wyburd, the founder of Liberty’s Furnishing and Decoration Studio in 1883


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