‘What’s the next big thing?’ is one question I’ve been asked a thousand times. If I really knew the answer, I’d be filling up warehouses with antiques and sitting on a sunny beach drinking the rewards. But that’s part of the problem – where do you find large quantities of James Barclay Hennell silver hound’s head stirrup cups?
Antiques – using the broad sense of the word – are, by the very nature of their inherent attraction to potential owners, generally appealing for a number of reasons: scarcity, craftsmanship, notoriety and provenance, to name but a few. So, in reality, latching onto a sector of the market that can easily return you a good investment either requires pots of cash or plenty of skill, or both… It doesn’t require you to fill up a warehouse.
I have often referred to the art and antiques world as a barometer of the economy. It ebbs and flows carrying the flotsam and jetsam of fashion and economic intrigue like an ever-changing fringe of mucky foam on a south coast beach. Each wave brings another headline in the press proclaiming the demise of the Chinese art market, the ever-creaking decline of brown furniture (I hate that expression) and the stratospheric prices paid for modern art.
Yet the real question is, does any of this have anything to do with us? Have you got a spare £20million in order to take a gamble on a couple of Hirsts or an Emin? It’s small change in the realms of the serious art market – and in my mind, that’s what it’s really about. It’s what your budget dictates. Everyone knows that the supply of Rembrandts is finite – ergo, they will always be worth lots of money!
I love people watching, particularly at antiques auctions. In almost any saleroom, you’ll see the whole gamut: ‘St James’ casuals, brassy hard-nosed ladies, mopper-uppers, Irish tinkers and Chelsea housewives; none of these my expressions I hasten to add, but nevertheless, part of the descriptive range of human ingredients that go into any auction house gallimaufry. Within this mixture are those whose profession it is to buy and sell, always chasing that elusive piece of Chippendale, sometimes finding it, but generally concentrating on making a living.
Some are part-timers, fair-weather boot-fairers. Some fancy themselves as interior designers. All are chasing their idea of a bargain or an object that simply suits their purpose at the right price. Success in buying and selling can be measured in so many different ways; as a result, defining ‘what’s hot’ can be very subjective.
My business model is probably not altogether orthodox, but when giving advice I generally recommend that you avoid specialisation. Too many people chasing too few objects in my view.
- Keep your overheads low.
- Buy with skill and accumulated knowledge, seeking out the less obvious but acquiring the unique and the rare while mixing it with the average – the better boosting the lesser, sometimes to great effect.
- Spread your risk through eclecticism.
- Don’t follow trends too vehemently – few people really want to put anatomical models in their homes!
- Buy what you like and keep the best – if it’s cheap.
- Remember, it’s the best in any genre that people really want.
- Don’t be scared to let go sometimes, particularly if you’ve seen another. There will always be other chances.
- Always be polite and always haggle fair.
So, after giving you the ‘expert’ advice, I suspect you are wondering what I have profited from in my 25 years of serious acquisition; how many bursting bubbles have I avoided and where have
I lost out?
Firstly, I regard myself, foremost, as a collector. As a result, I sell in order to buy more objects, to trade up. I’ve always had an eye for the niche. Scientific, aboriginal, antiquarian, faux, diversionary, emotive… these are the type of words that drive my decisions to buy or not to buy. I avoided Clarice Cliff – don’t like it. I missed the Russian thing – sold too early. I’ve traded on the strength of anniversaries, profited on pop. Made hay on the back of the Asian Tigers and bought a couple of old dogs at auction that I didn’t view properly. C’est la vie.
And what am I buying now for future investment? The answer is, the very same things that I have been buying since I was a boy – things that fascinate me.