Art market

Demand for early oak furniture has fluctuated throughout the 20th century, and even though prices have risen sharply in recent years, pieces are still "very underpriced"

Minimalist interiors are being decorated with showy accent pieces


Last month’s sale at Sotheby’s of the Clive Sherwood collection of early oak furniture was one of the best groups to appear on the market in a number of years. With over 91% sold by value and a sale total of £1.35 million (almost $2 million), it demonstrated the recent strength of this part of the antique furniture market.

This is a field in which condition is a key issue, and much of what is sold consists of made-up pieces with lots of recarving, replacements and additions. In the past this hasted many buyers to steer clear of it.

The Clive Sherwood collection was, however, a landmark event. Mr Sherwood was an obsessive collector who filled his home floor-to-ceiling with his finds. The 400 lots, mainly of furniture, were of a high and consistent quality. The prices made reflected this, with the top lot making £64,250 ($93,740, est. £40/60,000) given for a rare Elizabethan refectory table and even stronger, a four-times-estimate £37,600 for a James I panel back armchair, which is probably a world auction record for such a piece.

“Early oak furniture used to be considered the poor cousin of the grander walnut and mahogany, but less and less so today,” notes Sotheby’s specialist Hans-Christian Bowen. However, oak has fluctuated more than its grander relatives. In the 1930s it was greatly prized; for instance, in 1939, Sir Henry Price bought an early oak buffet from Partridges for the then princely sum of £1,000 (£30,000 today). However at that time there was less emphasis on authenticity and when the same piece arrived at Sotheby’s in 2000 it had been demoted to merely “containing some 17th-century elements” and sold for just £7,800.

The 1970s saw interest flare up again, but then the market took a plunge in the early 80s before rising strongly (along with just about everything else) at the end of the decade. “In the mid to late 80s there was a lot of oak on the market but many pieces were very restored, and they haven’t gone up in value,” says Mr Bowen. However, since the late 90s prices have been rising steadily, bolstered by the appearance of a number of good collections. Last year Christie’s scored with the Bramcote sale, achieving £28,200 for a mid-16th-century linen-fold chest (est. £4,000/6,000) and £21,025 for a marvellously carved early 17th-century oak livery cupboard (est. £6,000/10,000).

At the Sherwood sale, an Elizabethan table was a good illustration of the current price rises. A comparable example was sold by Sotheby’s in 1970, when it fetched £680. Mr Sherwood bought his table in 1981 for £8,000; another very similar piece appeared at auction in 1993, when it made £32,200. Last month’s sale saw that figure neatly doubled. The Charles II oak press cupboard which made £15,275 in the Sherwood sale was worth just £250 in the 1970s.

Even though prices have risen sharply, early oak furniture “is still very underpriced,” according to Christie’s consultant Victor Chinnery, the author of Oak furniture, the British Tradition. For under £40,000 you could buy a really significant piece, for example the fine Welsh dresser which Cheshire dealer Sandy Summers recently sold to a UK client.

According to Mr Bowen, interior decorators are increasingly using early oak, placing one drop-dead piece in a pared-down interior. Rupert Thomas, editor of Interiors magazine, confirms the general tendency of decorators to focus on just one item, be it an early oak court cupboard or a Buddha, in their layouts. “We are seeing fewer collectors in this field, but more new rich buyers who are looking for ‘impact pieces’ says Michael Golding of Huntington Antiques, a leading specialist.

Other reasons for the current strength of the market include the buoyant housing market; home-owners are moving, selling and buying both property and its furnishings. There are also American buyers on the market. US private collectors took three of the top 10 lots in the Sherwood sale, and American bidding was keen at Sotheby’s Nyetimber sale, despite its being held just two weeks after the 11 September terrorist attack. The market is nevertheless dominated by British buyers and, although there is some London buying, many of the main dealers are in the country, with a significant cluster in the Cotswolds.

Today, according to both dealers and the auction houses, the rise in prices and work of bodies such as the Regional Furniture Society has made buyers much more “clued up and fussy”, says Simon Green of Christie’s. “Knowledge has advanced since Percy MacQuoid wrote The Age of Oak, says Mr Golding. “Now we know that many of the pieces he illustrated are fake. Today a dealer needs to know his stuff.”

Nick Humphrey, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, explains, “There isn’t strictly speaking an absolutely clear criterion [for judging restoration] and you see all levels between honest repairs and deliberate faking. In working on the new British Galleries no overall picture emerged: some pieces which had question marks over them, under proper scrutiny, turned out to be things we were happy with. We aim to be more transparent and make clear what repairs or modifications were made in a piece’s lifetime.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Condition is all'