The market in 19th-century English furniture is in decline, with prices dropping back to late-1980s levels. While this presents an opportunity for collectors, the finest pieces are holding their value, and interest in 18th-century furniture is burgeoning.
Emma Crichton-Miller, Friday, 1st June 2012
At the beginning of this year the news was bleak for 19th-century English furniture. The Antique Collectors’ Club’s Annual Furniture Index (AFI), compiled since 1968 from auction and retail prices, reported that the market for Regency items had fallen, by a further three per cent, from a position at the end of 2010 already significantly lower than in 2002. Early Victorian furniture had dropped another eight per cent, and later Victorian and Edwardian furniture combined had fallen by 11 per cent.
Until recently the auction record for a piece of English furniture was held by the brass-inlaid ebony and mahogany Anglesey Desk, supplied to the Marquess of Anglesey in 1815 and attributed to the Regency firm of cabinetmakers Marsh & Tatham. It achieved £1.8m at Christie’s London in 1993. But taste has now swung back to the 18th century, and this record was trumped at Christie’s London in December 2010 when the Harrington Commode, almost certainly made by Thomas Chippendale in around 1770, sold for £3.8m. Peter Horwood, a furniture specialist at Christie’s London, explains: ‘The 18th century is a collectors’ market; the 19th century more of a furnishing market.’
While the bottom and middle of the market are in the severe doldrums, prices for outstanding pieces have held up well. This is demonstrated by a Regency japanned chinoiserie side cabinet, from a design attributed to George IV’s favourite interior decorator, Frederick Crace. Dated to around 1810, it achieved £127,250 on an estimate of £20,000–£30,000 at Sotheby’s Attic Sale at Chatsworth House in October 2010 (Fig. 1). ‘The furniture market has become a trophy market,’ states Mr Horwood. ‘People are more inclined to have one really good piece as a talking point than a 19th-century dining room.’
As ever, when only the very top end of a market is performing well there remain good opportunities at a secondary level for collectors: the 19th century was a period in which cabinetmaking was at its peak and the availability of fine woods at its height.
The market falls into at least three categories: Regency up to 1840; Pugin and Victorian Gothic; the Aesthetic Movement and Arts and Crafts. The more traditional antiques market is the Regency market. ‘This is a very expressive, very strong period, with boldly executed compositions, ornament, gilding and carving, stripey and coloured timbers,’ states Jonathan Coulborn of the West Midlands-based antique furniture and fine art dealer Thomas Coulborn & Sons. ‘You have identifiable designers – Thomas Hope, George Bullock and George Smith, with well-known manufacturers like Gillows and excellent documentation. The amazing thing about the Regency period is its variety – you also get wonderful pre-Puginesque oak Gothic pieces.’
Richard Coles of Godson & Coles comments: ‘Clients are looking for an element of the spirit in which the furniture was conceived. The period was very influenced by the Grand Tour, so you get a lot of Egyptian, Roman and Greek motifs. A high Regency piece which has its original colour and water gilding has a wonderful atmosphere. The individual quality of the piece is of paramount importance. In the last 10 years, however, the market has changed beyond any recognition. The number of exceptional examples coming on to the market has shrunk dramatically, though the values have not dropped.’ Two years ago, Mr Coles sold a magnificent Regency mahogany, crossbanded and ebony-inlaid four-sided partners desk. Once owned by Lord Palmerston and attributed to Marsh & Tatham, the same makers as the Anglesey Desk, it sold for £240,000.
Henry House, Head of Furniture and Decorative Arts at Sotheby’s London, has noticed over the last few years a resurgence of interest in what he describes as ‘quite masculine, lively furniture – not dining furniture.’ In addition, if pieces are directly related to the great patrons William Beckford or George IV the value increases. Mr House observes: ‘Patterns of collecting in this sector have changed. In the past you had connoisseur collectors; now you get collectors who are furnishing houses, and who recognise the value of these pieces.’ The value of provenance to the market is indicated by two Regency ormolu-mounted mahogany side cabinets, available at the Mayfair gallery Ronald Phillips Ltd. Attributed to manufacturers Tatham, Bailey & Sanders, and dated to around 1825 and with tags from Windsor Castle, the pair are priced at £550,000.
Manhattan dealer Carlton Hobbs confirms the general interest among American collectors for ‘neoclassical Regency furniture designed by the likes of Thomas Hope and George Smith.’ Mr Hobbs also offers antiquarian pieces, whether Boulle items created for George IV in the Piccadilly workshop of Thomas Parker, or ebony furniture inspired by late 17th-century French and Continental designs. Kentshire in New York has an elaborately decorated English chinoiserie cabinet dated to around 1820.
Martin Levy of H. Blairman & Sons Ltd is especially dedicated to the later period, and identifies ‘progressive design’ as important to the 19th-century furniture market, ‘whether that is Hope, Pugin or [E.W.] Godwin.’ He cites a sale at Sworders in April this year, where he purchased a pair of brass candlesticks designed and owned by Pugin (Fig. 3). They came directly from the family, and had never been on the market: ‘For the best pieces, there is competition. These are Holy Grail objects.’ Mr Levy finally secured the candlesticks for £68,000 against an estimate of £7,000–£10,000.
Besides Pugin, other key names include William Burges and the Glasgow-born Christopher Dresser. The latter was prolific, working for many manufact-urers. ‘Most [of Dresser’s] pieces fetch low £1,000s,’ states Mr Levy, ‘with the rare example in six figures.’ Burges’ pieces, on the other hand, tend to be one of a kind. His fantastical zodiac settle inlaid with glass, crystal and slips of vellum, dated 1865, was installed in his own home, the Tower House in Holland Park, London (Fig. 2). Later owned by John Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh, the settle was sold through Blairman & Sons by the Waugh family for £800,000. Denied an export licence, it is now in the collection of the Higgins Art Gallery & Museum in Bedford.
As for other parts of the British Isles, Fergus Lyons, head of furniture at Bonhams, explains that Scottish furniture is ‘on the whole too monumental to fit into contemporary homes.’ And though the work of Regency cabinetmaker William Trotter is much admired, it is scarcely documented, and therefore hard to authenticate. The heat in the Scottish market is at the end of the century, and is focused on the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The market for Irish furniture, meanwhile, has boomed over the last 20 years. Prices rocketed along with the Celtic economy, and, according to Harry Apter of Apter-Fredericks, remain strong owing to American collectors. ‘It is part of their heritage,’ states Mr Apter.
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