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The time is right to buy antique oak; ANTIQUES CHRISTOPHER PROUDLOVE.

WE BOUGHT our first piece of antique oak furniture 30-odd years ago from a Saturday village hall auction where the auctioneer described it as a tool chest. True it was full of rusty nails and sawdust but that's about as near to a saw it's been since it was made in about 1690-1710.

More correctly called a sword chest by a specialist - we just described it as a coffer - it was made from wide planks of wood, one each for the top, bottom, front, back and V-shaped sides, no doubt cut by hand from a thick tree by men using a sawpit. Centuries of polish made the almost black surface reflect light like it was covered with a layer of water, while the only decoration on the otherwise plain and austere piece was zig-zag scratch carving in a narrow band down the front of each side.

Since then we have added plate racks, dressers, corner and court cupboards, gateleg and side tables and chairs and their values have risen and fallen like the stocks in a boom and bust double-dip recession. No area of antiques has suffered as much as furniture in general and oak and country furniture in particular.

Currently values are falling, not that it is a concern. We downsized to our present home which is better suited to G-Plan, but there are some things we could never part with.

About the same time we bought the coffer, we also started reading Antique Collecting, the magazine published by the Antique Collectors' Club (ACC). Its editor, John Andrews, is, among other things, a furniture buff who since 1968 has been tracking and publishing the ACC Antique Furniture Price Index. Prices are tracked against the amusingly-titled (but steadily rising) Mars Bar Index, which provides a comparative record of retail inflation.

Oak and country furniture are two of the seven categories from which the index is composed and given the current downward direction of the all-furniture graph, the message is clear: with so-called brown furniture going for a song in the saleroom, there's no better time to consider furnishing your home with antiques. If, like us, you appreciate the sturdy beauty of early oak or naive charm of vernacular country furniture, then read on for John Andrews' advice on what he calls the runners and the strollers in the oak and country stables.

| Court cupboard, buffet and refectory tables: All have been affected negatively by domestic change and available space. John says high grade examples with carved decoration, notably with regional motifs spark avid enthusiasm. Routine examples are unlikely to recover any time soon, while 19th and 20th century examples made to meet previous demand have lost their appeal. | Chairs, stools: Decorative and regional carving is also appreciated, while some Lancashire backstools with carved panels are holding up well. "Full recovery will take a radical change in attitude", John writes. Avoid Victorian copies, which are common, but genuine period pieces such as joint stools which can double as occasional tables "have recovery potential". Country woods such as fruitwood, yew, sycamore, elm and walnut have a marked positive effect on prices.

| Dressers, gateleg tables, sets of chairs: The dining room is likely to continue to lose importance, according to John Andrews, having a detrimental effect on prices of component furniture. Low dressers are more valued than high dressers with racks, although as perennial favourites not confined to the dining room, they are "likely to recover quite quickly". Early, 18th century Windsor chairs are an exception, particularly those with yew wood comb backs and cabriole legs. No limits apply if chairs can be attributed to specific makers. | Coffers, chests: Coffers are useful for storing duvets and bedclothes at the end of a bed. Carving is an important price factor but beware those with Victorian carving "improvements". Chests of drawers with moulded fronts "are being undersold at gift auction prices," John writes and have room for recovery. Chests on stands requiring space are difficult to sell. | Slope-front writing bureaus, corner cupboards: The former are difficult to sell as are those in mahogany, unless they have exceptional fitted interiors. The latter, whether hanging or freestanding are "not avidly pursued". Open or glazed fronts with shelves for display are better than enclosed examples, even if curved. | Cricket and side tables: Three-legged so-called country cricket tables are doing well, particularly if construction and proportions are robust. Bigger is better than smaller, with elm, sycamore, yew and pine highly valued. In contrast, prices of side tables are well below those of a decade ago. Moulded panel single drawers in 17th century oak examples improve their attraction.

Turned legs need to be robust bobbin or baluster shape, cabriole legs need to be sturdy not thin and their feet not badly damaged. | Lowboys: Oak versions are selling cheaply at auction and have potential. Fruitwood versions are rare. "This is a good sector to trawl for bargains," John notes.

"When a recovery in antique furniture prices starts to take place - if, some pessimists might say - smaller oak and country pieces ... are likely to be amongst the leaders," John Andrews says. "Prices are more accessible than those of fine 18th century walnut and mahogany, the vernacular nature of construction sympathetic as well as easier to understand, and the tradition in appearance culturally undemanding.

"Charm and lightness of surface have always and will always be valued. The return in popularity is likely to come about more rapidly than that of other periods.


A Charles II oak court cupboard, its abundant carving and small size helping it realise PS8,125. Photo:

A walnut side table circa 1680 with moulded two panel drawer front and boldly-turned baluster legs. It sold for PS1,573. Photo: Cheffins, Cambridge

A Charles II oak dresser base - early, low examples are very desirable. It sold for PS15,000. Photo: Christie's South Kensington

The joy of early oak but what's hot and what's not? Photo: Antique Collectors

A George III pine floor-standing corner cupboard needing restoration but described by John Adams as "dirt cheap" at PS562. Photo: Bonhams Chester

A George III ash and elm high back Windsor armchair with cabriole legs circa 1770. It sold for PS700 but would have been more in yew and elm with a more sophisticated back and rear cabriole legs. Photo: Dreweatt Neate, Donnington

A mid-19th century oak cricket table. Sold for PS2,375. Photo: Bonhams Chester
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Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Date:Sep 28, 2013
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