Buying antiques is big business
PUBLISHED: 16:10 01 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:38 20 February 2013
Antiques are the ideal way to add a special touch to your home's interior style
Intelligent people, people with an eye for a long term investment who appreciate real quality and craftsmanship, are buying antiques again, says Tony Bush.
Okay, so hes an antiques dealer with probably the largest stock in Hertfordshire filling more than 25,000ft of farm buildings in a former indoor equestrian centre so you might expect him to say that.
However his view is backed up by a survey published last December by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
The report stated: Anecdotal evidence from survey respondents suggests that record low interest rates are pushing those with savings into alternative asset classes such as the arts and antiques market.
As further evidence of a revival, a spokesman for Bonhams said last summer the auction house was having a phenomenal year with strength across the market. Recent aristocratic sales had shown that investors were willing to pay large sums for museum quality items as a way of holding wealth against tax rises and inflation.
Although the greatest demand currently is for silver and jewellery and Chinese art and ceramics, Tony Bush believes the recent Cinderella of the antiques trade whats known as brown furniture (solid wood tables, chairs, wardrobes, dressers, anything from a bygone age hand-built to last) is beginning to be recognised once more as timeless treasure that can more than hold its own beside mass produced on-trend furniture that like as not will be here today and dumped at the council tip tomorrow.
Tony should know what hes talking about. Hes been in the antiques business 42 years, having grown up in north London. As he points out, he was an early learner.
Ive been buying and selling since I was six or seven years old. No one else in my family knew anything about antiques. For me, it was a way of making money because I didnt have any. I bought bits of pottery, brass and copper at jumble sales and sold them on to dealers. My main interest was arms and armoury but I couldnt find much of a market for that.
I left school at 14 with very little education and joined a legal practice in W1 as a junior.
Even though he was going to night classes after work to study English and Law, he still kept up with his contacts in the antiques trade, buying and selling in his lunch-hour at the local antiques centres.
Eventually, after four-and-a-half years, he decided life stuck behind a desk wasnt for him so quit his job and went back to his first love.
With 200 capital and a van which cost him sixty quid, he set himself up as an antiques dealer.
At first I traded out of my mothers garden shed in Edgware, he remembers. I had all sorts of premises in the early years, I rented a garage at one stage, I had a store behind the barbers shop in Edgware, I rented a warehouse in Kings Road, Chelsea.
My first showroom was in a former Victorian art college in Victoria Street, St Albans. I stayed there seven or eight years dealing exclusively with trade customers and then moved to Upper Street, Islington.
Over the next 22 years Bushwood Antiques became one of the best known wholesalers in the UK. Much of the business was generated by the huge demand for English antiques overseas.
I was working eight days a week, loading and unloading lorries, travelling all over the world I didnt have time for a social life. In the end I thought this is crazy and that's what brought me out here. I came out here because I wanted a change of lifestyle, time to build up a social life.
Here is a Georgian stable yard Georgian sets the tone perfectly at Stags End Equestrian Centre in Gaddesden Lane, a quiet rural spot with far ranging views over rolling countryside near Gaddesden Row a few miles from Redbourn.
The move from London with 2m worth of stock worked well at first.
Tony had more time for leisure and the demand for Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian furniture and artefacts from some of the great houses of England made Bushwood Antiques the first port of call for interior designers and decorators the world over.
But then came a series of blows, beginning with 9/11 followed by the banking crisis, which for a while all but wiped out the export market, particularly to the States.
Many of the larger dealers in London went to the wall. Tony in Hertfordshire was one of the survivors chiefly because he reduced his staff, didnt have the overheads of his counterparts in London and for the first time opened his showrooms and warehouses at Stags End to the public as well as trade.
Private buyers and browsers now have a choice of something like 8,500 antiques of all shapes and sizes in one spot plus a team of skilled craftsmen based in workshops housed in the old stables who can restore and adapt whatever a customer fancies to their own requirements. One of his restorers has worked for him for 30 years.
Despite the large dent in the overseas market, Bushwood Antiques still ships out containers full of beautiful pieces of English furniture to add lustre to homes of the wealthy abroad.
Tonys trade customers in the UK include embassies, department stores and hotels. Hes helped to furnish the homes of the rich and famous since his days in St Albans and Islington and still does pop stars, musicians, celebsyou never know who you might bump into in a distant corner of Tonys emporium.
Much of the stuff comes in from private sellers who send an email with photos in jpeg form showing what they want to sell. I can value almost anything from a photograph. I buy whole estates if Im offered them. I try to avoid auction houses the buyers premium and other costs can work out to as much as 27 per cent. You buy something at the hammer price and then you can pay as much as 27 per cent above that.
Tony claims his own prices are a fraction of London prices. I buy for 10 and sell for 12.
The thing is, we deliberately leave things unrestored. We do a bespoke service in restoration and give an after sales service. If a customer cant decide between four or five tables or chairs or wardrobes well deliver up to five and take them into the house and they can choose which one fits best. Having said that, he gets pretty cross if it turns out to be a time waster. It does happen.
Pretty well anything anyone asks for we will have here and we can polish the wood to a colour that will blend with their other furniture in the room.
I recently sold a beautiful Regency library table for nearly 4,000. It came in from an estate in Aberdeen. At the buyers request we cut down the legs to make it a coffee table. She loved the table but wanted it as a coffee table. They didnt make coffee tables in the Regency era.
His stock includes more than 1,000 chairs alone. Everything has a history. He once had a hand-carved double bed modeled on a Venetian gondola that had served time in an Italian brothel. On the day we visited one of the recent arrivals was a Victorian dappled grey rocking horse, obviously well loved but now grown out of and needing a wash and brush up. In its present state Tony reckoned it would gallop out for about 450.
Other out-of-the-ordinary items included a 19th century weighing machine that looked a bit dingy but will polish up well to stand in a weight-conscious owners bathroom today. There were several model ships in various states of repair, a games compendium in a fine box fitted with dominoes, roulette and chess pieces 650 for that and on the wall in the largest warehouse, probably previously the indoor riding school two matching tapestries about ten foot wide by six ft deep depicting Shakespearean-type characters wining and dining. The wall hangings came out of a baronial hall.
Tony himself lives on site in two former workmens cottages which he has transformed into the largest one bedroom house in Hertfordshire.
The entrance to his bachelor quarters leads into an oak panelled salon with central polished wood staircase leading up to a galleried sitting room with vaulted beamed ceiling. Off that is his bedroom with half tester double bed and padded walls covered in a French navy fabric. I got the idea of padded walls from hotels I stayed in when I was buying in Paris. The bedhead was the back of a sideboard I sold.
The most expensive room, he says, is his marble bathroom. The cream coloured matching marble covering the walls and floor came out of an office block in London. It all had to be cut to size and polished.
Downstairs, beyond the salon, is a large games room with full size billiard table and a purpose-built conservatory built around the elegant white painted arched windows reminiscent of those in the Brighton Pavilion. The windows were salvaged from an office block in Londons Russell Square.
Tony says the furnishing of his home and the conversion was a labour of love and Im still in love.
He hasnt changed the furniture since he moved in. It fits, is his simple explanation. I dont get tempted when something new comes in because theres no more space.
He emphasises, What the English need when theyre buying antiques and creating a beautiful home is imagination. With imagination you can visualise how to mix old and new and create a modern home. Brown furniture neednt be boring. Think what it would cost if you tried to reproduce like for like today a fortune.
A customer recently rang and said shed seen a new piece in a showroom for 1,500, I had the same thing here, unrestored, for 900. Dont forget new wood can crack in central heating. Old wood has stood the test of time for a couple of hundred years, it wont move. It has a resale value. More than you can say for flat pack.
And with that parting shot he ambles off to get back to the business of answering phone calls.
Bushwood Antiques website www.bushwood.co.uk includes an alphabetical list of technical terms and a comprehensive guide to the changing styles of furniture throughout the ages and what to look for.