In August, Bonhams began sending its cheapest furniture to its Honiton saleroom in Devon, reckoning that European shippers with their hard-to-park containers would feel more at home down there
If buyers seem to be fighting more feebly for furniture in the high street this sale season, it could be because the auction houses are luring them away. New year sales apart, January has always been a brisk month for furniture sales: Christmas spent in confinement with that wine- stained sofa or wobbly dining table sees to that.

This week there are four down-market furniture sales. To savour the saleroom versus high street battle for buyers, try this innocent experiment. Telephone one of the London auctioneers' furniture salerooms and ask how much the dining suite you bought new only last year at John Lewis or Harrods might fetch. The estimate you get could be as low as 10 per cent of the original cost.

The auctioneers reckon that in the past three years their sales of "brown" furniture (Edwardian and earlier carpenter-made stuff) in the pounds 100-pounds 5,000 range have made a hole in the high street market for new furniture (production- line composite and veneer). Three years ago, Phillips seldom had more than 15 per cent private buyers at their down-market furniture sales, the rest being dealers. Now the proportion of private buyers is at least 40 per cent. The auctioneer's target is couples who want a dozen wine glasses, a dinner service, and a dining table and chairs for under pounds 1,000.

Latest in the battle for buyers is Bonhams's "swift sales". The first, selling furniture, paintings, glass, silver and ceramics, is on Monday 15 January at 1pm - clashing with Phillips's furniture sale (however, these are fortnightly sales, compared with Phillips's weeklies). Catalogues will be rudimentary and devoid of photographs, with lots consigned as late as midday on the Thursday before the sale. Buyers will be given four weeks to pay.

Every other week - soon to alternate with "swift" sales - Bonhams holds a downmarket but respectable sale of "good" furniture, with plenty of estimates in the low hundreds. To lure more bidders, sale times have been swapped: they are now on Wednesdays at 1pm, instead of Tuesdays, in the hope that both private buyers and dealers will make a day of it by attending Christie's South Kensington furniture sale in the morning and Bonhams's in the afternoon.

It remains to be seen whether Bonhams "good" London furniture sales will become a hunting ground for private buyers. In August, Bonhams began sending its cheapest furniture to its Honiton saleroom in Devon, reckoning that European shippers with their hard-to-park containers would feel more at home down there. The Honiton saleroom is now bulging with old furniture, some of which will overflow into the London "swift" sales.

Some old favourites have disappeared from the salerooms, particularly upholstered second-hand sofas made after1950. They do not conform to new furniture fire safety regulations that came into effect in March 1993. Strongest antique furniture sellers: pillar dining tables, the young couples' passport into polite society, still being knocked down to between pounds 800 and pounds 1,500.

Best investment: sturdy Edwardian bedroom furniture, particularly wardrobes, inlaid with urns, swags and ribbons: pounds 2,000 might not be too much to pay for a big one in good condition. These are among the last carpenter-made products we are likely to see.

Ebonised black furniture is out of vogue and cheap. An ebonised card table of the 1860s to 1870s aesthetic period might be knocked down to pounds 150, compared with double that three years ago. Georgian toilet mirrors in mahogany are also cheap (pounds 70-pounds 150). And for those who are really broke, pretentious and eccentric, why not make up a set of dining chairs from odd ones? Single Georgian dining chairs can be had for pounds 60-pounds 100.

Down-market London sales of antique furniture: Monday, Phillips Bayswater (12 noon), Lots Road Galleries (6pm): Wednesday, Christie's South Kensington (10.30am), Bonhams Chelsea (1pm). Auction listings are on p26.

The winner of the Evelyn Waugh bookplate competition will be announced next week.

John Windsor

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