Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware)

When surrounding oneself with things from the past either as a collector concentrating on a particular subject or in general terms furnishing a home with antique furniture or simply an interest in just a few decorative items to add to a home, creating a pleasant environment, discrimination when making a purchase is all important.

Originality as near as possible and good condition coupled with a richness of feel and colour which cannot be imitated associated with years of careful use and handling should be the aim.

All this of course has to be tempered in value by what can be afforded but in my view it is far better to buy a more modest item that meets the criteria than a more aged piece of similar price that has been badly restored, repaired, or has had an important part replaced.

But beware, because in the effort to strive for originality the pitfalls are endless and with varying degrees of difficulty to discover. With antique furniture the older the item the more problems there are identifying alterations and modifications which may have taken place perhaps 200 years or more ago! What might at first appear to be a truly ancient and interesting monastic coffer or court cupboard may well have been reconstructed in the 19th Century using panels and pieces of timber from the 17th Century.

It was also commonplace when the fashion for carved oak was revived in Victorian times that previously made, plain and simple pieces from earlier periods were ‘improved’ by carving.

Changes in fashion have a lot to answer for, it’s not unusual to see evidence on a chest of drawers of three or more different sets of handles and knobs. Bracket feet having been replaced by bun feet then back to brackets again!

Surely everyone is familiar with the stories of the five dining chairs being dismembered so that by adding a piece here and a piece there, presto! A much more expensive, complete set of six!

Then there are the ‘period’ bureaux created from not very commercial enormous chests of drawers, the desirable small chest cut down from a large one, not a dishonest practice if declared openly but today’s clever conversions may well pose problems for successive generations.

Look hard at two part pieces of cabinet furniture, confirm a good fit between the two, no spare or filled holes and mouldings and bandings should be repeated in both sections.

But don’t let these warnings deter you, time is well spent reading about the subject from a wealth of good books. Also look at and study as many pieces of furniture as possible before making an important purchase to develop your own sense of what is correct in terms of proportion and design relating to the particular period which interests you. Good hunting.

John Martin

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