How to buy antiques like a pro
Is watching Antiques Roadshow the extent of your expertise? Us too. But local dealer Ed Foster has some great tips on nabbing unique interiors buys.
It’s always such a pleasure to interview someone who’s passionate about their work and antiques dealer Ed Foster of Foster & Gane, a supercool treasure trove in Milton Common (read more about it here), is certainly that. He’s also reassuringly non-snooty when faced with an antiques div like me – and totally gets that buying old, expensive furniture can be an intimidating experience for civilians.
If you’ve never bought an antique in your life, now is a great time to start – as Ed points out, they’re the ultimate eco-friendly, sustainable gift as you’re buying secondhand and giving something pre-loved a new lease of life. Something to consider this Christmas, I reckon? It’s also not as expensive a hobby as you might think (although if you fancy dropping £5k on a chair, you can do that too).
OK, Ed, give us all your best tips.
Let’s do the bluffer’s guide to buying antiques – do you just go with gut instinct? Or are there other considerations?
The main criteria when buying something for your home is to ask yourself, Do I love it? If you love something and you’re going to be happy to see it in your house every day, you’re not going to make a mistake. And as you need your heart and your head to be speaking the same language then it’s time to think about the practicalities: does it fit in the space you have in mind and work with the other pieces around it? Check its condition – are you going to have to spend lots more money fixing a broken leg or reupholstering? Does it have woodworm? Have a really close look before you buy.
Where do people go wrong?
The danger comes when you try to copy a look you’ve seen on an interior designer’s Instagram. You can end up with something you don’t actually love later down the line. It’s best to concentrate on developing your own taste and style. As you start building up a collection of pieces, you become more confident and your own unique style emerges, rather than a pastiche of someone else’s.
How do you know when to walk away from a piece?
If you adore an item but something is niggling you, walk away. It can be easy to persuade yourself that it’s right if it’s got a fashionable designer’s name attached to it or if the dimensions work for your space. And if the condition means you’re going to blow your budget getting it restored, think hard about that.
How do you create a cohesive look in a home with antiques? Is it ok to mix periods, designers and styles?
Absolutely. That’s what I do as a dealer – I buy things I like. So in the shop we have things from the 16th century through to the 1970s. Every piece goes through the same filtration process: is it good design? Good quality? Is it interesting? Is it a bit different? If you focus on just one era, say mid-century modern, there’s a danger the room could look like a Mad Men set. But if you add an 18th century lamp into the mix, that adds layers, depth and texture. I love mixing up periods.
That takes a bit of confidence though, doesn’t it?
Yes, it does. There’s a real hesitation with younger people in particular with buying antiques. You’re choosing to buy something that there might only be one of and so it exposes your taste. People come round to your house and say, Oh what’s that? and that can make you nervous. Which is why you have to really love it. But it’s so worth buying antiques – they really build character into a home.
Do you ever make a sneaky trip to Ikea? I won’t tell anyone…
I’m not an IKEA hater! It’s an amazing business but ultimately I’m drawn like a moth to things I haven’t seen before. Interestingly some early IKEA furniture that’s been discontinued for decades is starting to gain value. They did commission some pretty fantastic designs.
What’s your most brilliant antique bargain?
I’ve got a lovely small alabaster light that I found in a textile shop for £50. It’s an Indian early 20th century piece and it’s so unexpected in my 1950s Buckinghamshire house. There’s a sense of “What the hell’s that doing there?!” which I love. It’s in my hallway so I see it every day, it’s one of those little objects that bring you joy. I also have an incredible mirror which I found in Sweden which was probably commissioned for a palace around 300 years ago. I had that in the bedroom for a while and would always wonder about its history and the places it’d previously been hung. It’s a privilege to own something like that. The brilliant thing about antiques is that every piece has a story – it hasn’t been mass-produced in a factory – and you’ll remember when and where you bought it and the conversation you had at the time.
Which designers are really collectable at the moment?
Look out for mid-century Brazilian designers such as Oscar Neimeyer, Sergio Rodrigues, Joaquim Tenreiro, and Jorge Zalszupin, who helped design and furnish the new capital, Brasilia, in 1955. They created a new native style informed by contemporary Danish and North American design but it had something completely different about it.
Also keep an eye out for Finnish design which is slightly different to the more recognisable Swedish and Danish designs and a good place to look for emerging trends. There are fantastic Finnish glass makers, textile designers and furniture makers to be found. Notable designers are Tapio Wirkkala, Carl-Gustaf Hiort af Ornas and Kaj Franck but it’s a case of finding good design from designers that you may not have heard of to get ahead of the curve.
If Muddy readers want to treat their partner/themselves to something this Xmas, what would you suggest?
Come into the shop and have a chat – I know some people find antiques intimidating but there’s never an obligation to buy and we’ve got loads of small things at lower price points that make really interesting, unique gifts. You’re never going to give a rubbish gift if you get it from us! With antiques, sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for, but you’ll just see something and know it’s perfect.
Where do you recommend for antiques hunters?
Sunbury Antiques Market at Kempton Park Racecourse is a good mix of dealers, young interior designers on low budgets, hipsters and, well, normal people! France is always a great place – around every corner there’s a brocante or fleamarket. And things in France that are relatively common might be worth a lot more to you. Just make sure you can get any purchases home. And stroll around your local antique and charity shops as often as you can – the more you see, the more you’ll be aware of and you’ll start building up your knowledge. You’ll start ruling out things because you’ve already seen 10 of them.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I have young kids so I can’t get out as much as I used to but I go to as many museums, galleries and shops as possible. I’d recommend people go to an auction if they’re in London – have a look around, touch the furniture, learn about how it is made.
I also like to look in less obvious places. I recently went to my restorer in Surrey and stopped off at Guildford cathedral which was massively inspiring – I got a sense of why and how it was built and how it was furnished. Don’t limit yourself to the periods and genres you’re interested in – seek to increase the breadth of your knowledge. I have no interest in shoes, for example, but I follow a brilliant Spanish shoe designer on Instagram because he uses the same principles as a furniture designer and I can see the love he’s putting into his work. I also like Cereal, the interiors magazine and Architectural Digest.
Foster & Gane at Three Pigeons, London Road, Milton Common, Oxfordshire, OX9 2JN. Tel: 01494 269829 or 07714 269 719.
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