Cheaper than Ikea? Some antiques are. Here’s what to buy
Brown furniture is unfashionable but a good punt, while oak, rosewood and mid-century modern are a buy
Ted Hegarty, antiques auctioneer, Bandon, Co Cork
With interest rates for bank deposits at historic – and dismal – lows, many savers and investors are seeking alternative investments. Property, the stock market and gold are the most popular choices but, for some, antiques are alluring. Unlike, say a share certificate, buyers get to live with, and enjoy, their purchase and, with luck, will see it appreciate in value over time.
However, as with shares, prices for antiques depend on the market and can fluctuate sharply – depending on economic circumstances and fashion. Is investing in antiques a good idea? Period furniture has been going out of fashion due to changing lifestyles and the desire for a cleaner, modern look in many Irish houses. Indeed, according to James O’Halloran, managing director of Ireland’s longest-established fine art auctioneers, Adam’s on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, “the estimates on some items make Ikea look expensive”. He has a point. In May, Lucy Kellaway wrote in her column that appeared in The Irish Times: “The market for brown furniture is due a bounce, if for no other reason than prices are so low that there is no further space to fall.”
When asked for advice, antiques dealers and auctioneers almost always say that while good-quality pieces will hold their value and appreciate over time, the prime motivation for collectors and investors should be pleasure rather than profit. Their advice invariably is “buy what you like and can afford”. But, when pushed, and asked to be more specific, here’s what a selection of experts from around Ireland had to say.
Niall Mullen, antiques dealer, Francis St, Dublin
“My advice to collectors is ‘love the object and buy quality’. Good furniture represents value currently and that will soon change. Antique Irish furniture deserves to get more recognition. Many many of the best items have left the country and we should try to save what is part of our heritage. Pieces by makers of the calibre of Hicks, Strahan, Jones, Williams & Gibton among others are getting harder and harder to find.”
Robert Collins, The Store Yard, Architectural Salvage & Antiques, Portlaoise, Co Laois
“I’d recommend considering rosewood instead of mahogany. Rosewood is selling well and is a more vibrant and interesting wood than mahogany – the grain is more pronounced. Victorian armchairs and Chesterfield sofas upholstered in tan leather are also very much in demand. Painted continental furniture is a good buy, particularly Italian or French marble-topped cabinets. A good mirror will never go out of style. Georgian and Victorian gilt mirrors will stand the test of time. Items of architectural salvage such as Georgian doors and shutters are increasingly fashionable for reuse in commercial or domestic settings as people mix old and new. Demand for taxidermy continues to be very strong. Go for good-quality bigger pieces with ‘the wow factor’ such as bears, lions, leopards, wildebeest, stags, antelope and zebra, especially if you have a large hall with a high ceiling.”
Martin Fennelly, antiques dealer, 60 Francis Street, Dublin.
“Irish antiques, such as Killarney-ware [furniture] and Irish carved bog-oak made by our ancestors 150 years ago, are always a good buy and with the Irish diaspora growing at a constant pace it is likely that there will be a growing demand in to the future. I love having antiques from Ireland in my shop in trying times. They are wonderful creations, little memory capsules and often evoke an elegiac response from the viewer. When tourists visit the shop they love to hear the history of these pieces and it never ceases to amaze my customers – and myself – the talent we had in Ireland and still do.”
Robin O’Donnell, chief executive of Hibernian Antique Fairs which hold regular fairs at hotel venues throughout Ireland
“The market for brown furniture is on its knees and there are bargains to be had at every antiques fair we run countrywide. For someone financially well-off, I would advise them to find a warehouse, stick in a dehumidifier and some heat and come to the fairs and buy antique furniture. The value for money is there right now and an investor with foresight will make a huge killing within the next five or six years. Guaranteed. This end of the business is just waiting for the right spark to make it sexy again.”
Roxane Moorhead, course director, school of fine & decorative arts at the Institute of Professional Auctioneers & Valuers (IPAV)
“Buy furniture in the best condition you can because restoration and repair can cost a fortune. So-called brown furniture is a bargain now. Also, some 20th-century furniture is becoming collectable”.
George Williams, antiques dealer, Newcastle House, near Kells, Co Meath
“I love early oak furniture which I think is very under-valued. I’m sad that so many younger people don’t appreciate old furniture, it has so much to tell us and offer us. Early Georgian mahogany furniture is still undervalued but you have to be careful as what is on the market is sometimes not what it seems, often restored or altered, one must be aware that this will affect the value greatly.”
Martina Noonan, Thomas P Adams & Co, Blackrock, Co Dublin
“Buy the best you can afford and only what you like. Georgian furniture, made in Ireland and England in the 18th century, is undervalued because it has gone somewhat out of fashion. But I think it’s incredibly good value – such good quality and the timber is so beautiful. Just look at the grain of an 18th-century piece of Cuban mahogany furniture.”
Sheppard’s Irish Auction House, Durrow, Co Laois
“If you really want something at auction, go to the salesroom in person or register to bid by phone or online instead of leaving an absentee bid. I’ve seen people lose something they really wanted because they were outbid by just €1. If you have something that you think might be of interest that you want to sell, get it valued. There’s no charge for valuations. You might just have a hidden gem in your attic that you knew nothing about.”
Rody Keighery, Keighery Auctions, Waterford
“Antique Waterford Crystal is very collectable and scarce. But Waterford glass from the 1950s and 1960s is also very popular with collectors and is really well-made. We sell it at auction and also in our antiques shop. We often get collectors – especially American visitors – looking to replace a missing or broken piece in a suite of glass from ranges such as Lismore or Tramore. ”
Ted Hegarty, antiques auctioneer, Bandon, Co Cork
“Know your subject, plain and simple. There is no end to learning about antiques. But, ultimately, there’s no substitute to looking at as many pieces as possible. Auction viewings, dealers’ shops and antiques fairs are the training grounds for the tyro collector. Museums exhibit the very finest of the genre but you can’t touch the items unlike at an auction viewing and [in a museum] there is rarely anybody around to talk to about the displays. Purchase the best your budget will allow. An investor will see a better return from one good piece for €10,000 than 10 ordinary pieces for €1,000 each.”
Joan Murray, runs Antiques Fairs Ireland
“Young people are looking for practical things that they can use and experience – not to put on display in a china cabinet. Also, I’d say vintage furniture is better made and better value than modern, new furniture in the shops. People look for small pieces of light, well-made furniture, especially Scandinavian 20th-century design”.
Next week: Thinking of investing in art? Tips from the experts