Out with the old ... in with the flatpack

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IT WAS the furniture that filled the homes of Edinburgh's New Town: the elegant mahogany dining table, ideal for dinner party chat; the occasional tables with their Queen Anne legs; the imposing leather chesterfield couches.

In the past few years, however, this antique "brown furniture" has fallen out of fashion, with the result that prices have plummeted, leaving dealers with a lot of stock on their hands.

Experts blame the fall on the "IKEA effect", the modern taste for white interiors, clean lines and minimalist-style furniture which is cheap, light and easy to replace as fashions change. Large brown Georgian or Victorian pieces simply don't fit the look.

Prices have fallen sharply in the past five years for the kind of furniture commonly inherited from parents or grandparents. Antiques that might have sold for 3,000-4,000 a decade ago have fallen to half that value.

"Brown furniture" typically means large, plain pieces in dark wood, dating from the late-18th to early-20th century, covering the late Georgian period to the late Victorian or Edwardian.

Dealers stress that the price falls have been sharpest at the low end of the market, for the unadorned mass-produced Victorian pieces.

Mark Richards, the managing director of Bonhams Scotland, says the market is bound to come full circle as people realise that prices are low and there are bargains to be had. At a recent furniture sale, 85 per cent of the available lots sold, indicating a strong market.

"The art market tends to have a ten-year cycle. I think the brown furniture market was hit by people wanting modern white interiors: late Georgian and Edwardian material doesn't fit that. IKEA's influence on the market is pretty strong. Modern houses are smaller as well, and that's got to have a bearing on what we put inside them."

The IKEA effect is not to be underestimated. The Swedish company is the world's biggest furniture retailer, with more than 200 stores in over 30 countries. Known for its inexpensive self-assembly furniture, the family-owned business claims its hefty catalogue is the most widely read publication after the Bible. The chain, operational in Britain since 1987, opened its first Scottish branch at Straiton, outside Edinburgh, in 1999 and its second in Braehead, Glasgow two years later. With a range which includes fold-up chairs at 6.49, pine gate-leg dining tables at 69.90 and plastic and metal side-tables at 3.99, IKEA has succeeded in its stated mission of bringing affordable well-designed furniture to the masses. Since 1994, IKEA's turnover has more than tripled and last year stood at 15.2 million.

Jeremy Gow, an antiques restorer and dealer based in Forfar, says of the brown furniture market: "It has taken a downturn. [But] eventually, when people realise how well made it was, I think it'll come up again. Some of the stuff is fabulously made and can be very good value for what it is."

One of the main problems, he says, is a lack of knowledge among buyers.

"Because they can't look up a unique piece of furniture in a book, people are scared to buy. With a little knowledge, [they] can appreciate what they are looking at."

A good Georgian bureau might have cost 3,000-4,000 five years ago, he adds. "But suddenly no one wants bureaus, because you can't fit a computer on them." Today's price is about 1,000 or 1,500.

Anything unusual or unique is still very difficult to value, Gow points out. He himself has recently restored a table made by George Bullock, a furniture-maker who died in 1818, which could be worth 50,000 thanks to the quality of the craftmanship and the rarity of it.

Chests of drawers worth 1,000 at the height of the market, now worth about 500, were produced in their thousands by the Victorian sweatshops of the day.

"They are all fabulously made; they are just not particularly pretty," Gow says. "It would be better if people knew a little bit more about what they were actually looking at. A lot of people are looking for practical bits of furniture that are functional, useful, but you need a few nice-looking bits of furniture in the house, too."

John Love, an Edinburgh furniture dealer, says: "The [quality pieces] make money, and the horrors don't, but that's always been the case. Good antiques hold their value."

"Edinburgh was, and still is to some extent, a brown furniture city. That type of furniture was mass-produced in the 18th and 19th century, and when the Edinburgh New Town was built, that's exactly what they needed to furnish it."

But times have changed. "It's difficult, when somebody has bought something in the past ten years for a lot of money, and then tries to resell it.

"Either they must accept the new, lower price, or keep it to leave to the grandchildren."

Will the tables turn again? David Hansord, of Hansord antiques dealers in Lincoln, says: "It has started to pick up. It was the middle to low end of the market that was affected, but in the past six months it has started to show signs of improvement."

Several of the London antique shows he has visited in recent months have been more buoyant.

"The items still affected are the ordinary dining tables and chairs," he says, "but anything that's definitely got a little more style has definitely shown a turnaround."

The social commentator Peter York agrees that brown furniture can look forward to a renaissance, predicting that a backlash against the minimalist modern style is not far away.

"A decade ago there was a big rejection of the 1980s country house hotel look: all those swaggers and swirls, it was just too much," he says.

"Trendy people always react against the orthodoxy of the day, and the way to cut through all that was to go for this modern, minimalist look.

"So people rejected buying brown furniture and started buying modern 20th-century classics instead. IKEA was very quick to respond to that.

"But when this reaches the provincial high street there is no fun in these objects - and houses look like hell. I think things will go back the other way."

York believes that antiques, which by definition have the ability to endure, will continue to do so.

"There are several reasons why antiques will find their level again - they are a finite resource, they are interesting because of their history, they are made with materials and skills you could not afford these days and they add interest and character to any home."

John Dixon, a partner at Georgian Antiques, says the slump only affects a certain part of the market. "The top end is as buoyant as it's ever been. Good furniture sells itself."

But he blames the decline in American and continental dealers visiting Britain, particularly those from Italy.

US travel and trade was hit by the weak dollar and the invasion of Iraq, he says, and European buyers were caught by the shifting exchange rate between the pound and the euro.

"Because of these people moving out of our market, there's been a void left, and the furniture they once bought in large amounts is surplus to requirement - the market simply can't absorb it.

Recent figures from the British Antique Dealers Association (BADA), which has 365 members, showed a small increase in the export market, and in the proportion of sales to the US.

But while the Antiques Roadshow continues to draw a healthy television audience, BADA members' antique sales overall have been in decline - falling from 658 million in 2003-4 to 647 million in 2004-5.

One possible reason is the ageing population of buyers. Only 7 percent of BADA members' customers are under 35, their figures show, and many buyers tend to be "mature" (over 60). The antiques trade may need to find ways to attract a younger clientele.

The message is, he says, that "now is a good time to buy and I hope it will be for some time longer as it grows again.

"Everyone needs a chest of drawers in the bedroom, but why buy one from IKEA when you can get an original Victorian one for 150?"

The modern vs the classic


OLD: Three-seat Georgian sofa. An antique sofa can cost from 300 to 3,000, depending on its condition. A lemon damask three-seater with mahogany frame, below, in good condition recently sold at Bonhams in George Street, Edinburgh, for 1,000.

NEW: Utah sofa from Habitat. One of Habitat's most popular, the Utah sofa is available in charcoal and natural colours, with removable washable covers. It is priced 719 for a three-seater sofa or sofa-bed.

Dining table

OLD: Extendable Victorian 12-seater. Dining tables are priced on both age and size. A recent auction at Bonhams saw an extendable four-sectioned table fetch 5,000. Measuring 360cm and seating 12 comfortably at its largest, it was in good condition and dated from about 1830. The chairs would need to be bought separately, but a set of 12 upholstered chairs from the same period would cost around 3,000.

Smaller tables, seating eight comfortably, typically cost around 1,000.

NEW: Learoy and Calverley Dining Set by Debenhams. A reproduction five-piece Georgian dining set with upholstered chairs, available in either deep mahogany or teak finish. Priced 399.


OLD: George II Mahogany mirror. Giltwood mirrors can sell from 500 upwards. A 22x39in mahogany and gilt fret-cut wall mirror is priced by Summers Davis Antiques at 2,400.

NEW: Stave mirror from IKEA. Simple wooden frame, available in birch or beech, and measuring 40x140cm. Price: 19.99

Chest of drawers

OLD: Georgian chest. Chests vary in size, condition and decoration; a minimal Georgian piece with little ornate work can fetch upwards of 500 at auction.

NEW: Sherbourne chest from John Lewis. A flat-pack, five-drawer chest . Priced 200.

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