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Whether you're a serious collector or not, it pays to know your way around the world of furniture. There are some simple, but golden, rules that you should follow when assessing antiques. Irrespective of whether you're buying at auction or from a dealer, the same watchwords apply: provenance, condition and rarity.

Harvey Cammell        Print Edition: August 22, 2010

Collecting furniture, whether for pleasure or investment, can be fascinating and absorbing. The search for the perfect piece can take one all over the world and into eye-watering realms of expenditure; consider these the signs of the passion that marks the serious collector.

All collectors, however, need to know their way around and there are some simple, but golden, rules to follow when assessing a piece of furniture. Whether buying at auction or from a dealer, the same watchwords apply: provenance, condition and rarity. Getting the combination right can help ensure that your investment in furniture is just as enjoyable as it is profitable.

The origins of a piece of furniture are an integral part of its appeal. As we often say, "The aura of a work of art is not merely determined by its form, but also by the journey it has travelled." Who owned it? How long has it been in the same family? Why did they have it made? Who made it? Good, well-documented answers to these questions can make a real difference, not only to its immediate worth but also to helping the piece hold its value for the future.

The better documented the item, the more valuable it is likely to be; and the more prestigious its first owner, the more desirable it becomes. Famous names give lustre to an object which might otherwise be quite ordinary. A good piece once owned by a great figure in history- and the paperwork to prove it-will almost certainly always be a better investment than a higher quality piece with no provenance.

The collectors' cabinets sold by Bonhams in its recent Australian sale are a good example. They were built to the specification of Sir Joseph Banks, the great 18th and early 19th century botanist who set the model for the mounting and storing of specimens which is followed to this day. Sir Joseph had a strong interest in Australian flora and the cabinets were made from Australian wood.

They have a spotless pedigree having been bequeathed by Sir Joseph to his fellow botanist Robert Brown who left them to the British Museum. Another cabinet from the same set was presented to the Botanical Gardens in Sydney by the British Museum in 1914. Such a strong provenance and the historical significance of the cabinets helped them to a price of AU$300,000 (Rs 1.2 crore).

Furniture like this is, of course, not for everyday use but it nonetheless illustrates the importance of knowing the history of a piece and the difference that knowledge makes to its value. A saleroom in the English regions, for example, recently achieved three times the estimate for a 19th century housekeeper's cupboard which had all its original features and evidence that it had been in the same family from the start.

The condition of a piece of furniture is, not surprisingly, also of great importance in determining price and future value. The top end of the furniture market is strongly driven by collectors and investors and they want the best. Ideally, this means something in mint, untouched condition. English furniture collectors, for example, are looking for a beautiful patina, no restoration and, preferably, something fresh to the market. A piece of furniture in prime condition which has never been offered before can command very high prices indeed.

In 2004, for example, an 18th century Irish carved mahogany card table which had never been at auction in the past and was estimated at �30,000 to �40,000 (Rs 21.6 lakh to Rs 28.8 lakh) achieved an astonishing price of �250,000 (Rs 1.8 crore). The reason was simply its fine condition and its freshness, which had collectors vying with each other to add it to their collection.

Realistically, few objects fall into this category but the general lessons still apply, even at the more modest end of the market. Most furniture is made to be used and, not surprisingly, with the wear and tear of years often needs repairs. People may even have had pieces altered slightly to suit their circumstances. These are genuine and legitimate reasons why a piece of furniture may have changed in appearance but they rarely add value and-when buying furniture as an investment-it is important to take good advice on the extent of restoration.

The final quality to bear in mind is rarity-the holy grail for collectors. The passion for collecting is a mystery for people who do not share it but the chance to own something unique is an essential part of what drives people to pay very high prices to obtain the best.

The pair of French Empire Side Cabinets, known as the Gladstone cabinets, which came onto the market in 2006, are a case in point. The very fine cabinets had been in the same distinguished family since they were brought to the United Kingdom in the 19th century. They were acquired by Sir John Gladstone, father of the four times Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, and had been in the family home of Fasque House in Scotland since 1841, giving them an irresistible allure to serious collectors. The sale price of over �430,000 (Rs 3.1 crore) reflected not only their quality but also their unique historical appeal.

The maxim 'buy the best you can afford' applies to investments in furniture as much as anything else. Again, as with any investment, it is important to be aware of how the market for your goods may change in the future.

The relentless pressure on space in major cities wideworld inevitably affects how we furnish our homes. There are, of course, still plenty of houses that have space for large dramatic pieces as well as buyers with the means to acquire the very best but even serious collectors of furniture are not immune to modern life and the need for room to accommodate their treasures.

It is inevitably the middle market which is likely to be most affected by this phenomenon and middle-range pieces that are large in size have certainly lost their appeal over the past 20 years as buyers have begun concentrating on furniture which better suit their lifestyles.

This shift is not simply a matter of fashion; it is fundamental and people wishing to put money into furniture in the expectation of a return need to think of where future demand lies. Going for the highest quality possible is, therefore, especially important in a market which is likely to continue to change in response to changes in lifestyle.

(The writer is Director of Valuations and Furniture at Bonhams UK )

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