Much as I like Ikea, I find it a pain to shop there: driving for an hour, wandering round a halogen-lit warehouse, queuing at the till, lugging a big cardboard box into the boot, driving home – only to realise you haven't bought any furniture at all, but a series of pre-cut boards, panels and screws that has the potential to be furniture ... if you have a work ethic and an Allen key. Happily, there is an alternative.
After years of falling prices, antique furniture is now as "cheap as chips", as David Dickinson, the perma-tanned TV expert, might say. Quite simply, the bottom has fallen out of the market for ordinary Georgian and Victorian pieces.
Twenty years ago we couldn't get enough of the stuff. During the 1980s newly affluent middle-class buyers raised on The Antiques Roadshow wished to furnish their period houses with the elegant mahogany stationed in their grandparents' characterful, if somewhat gloomy parlours.
In the mid-1990s and 2000s Britain started looking towards the future. Cheaper flatpack furniture arrived. We liked the lighter Scandinavian look; pine and beech. Modern and mid-20th century pieces came into vogue; demand for centuries-old dark wood plummeted.
The antique furniture index in Antique Collecting magazine, published by the Antique Collectors Club, tells the story. Between 1968 and 2003 the index rocketed 30-fold (admittedly helped by inflation) from 100 to 3,492. Over the last seven years it has fallen back to 2,736.
This 22 per cent decline, though, misleads; the really top-end stuff, the exquisite Chippendales and Gillows that fetch tens of thousands of pounds, have continued to appreciate. Prices for more ordinary chests and tables – known as "brown furniture" – have gone into sharp reverse.
"Prices have gone down by 30 to 50 per cent," says John Andrews, managing editor of Antique Collecting. "Quite a lot of things are selling at prices they were selling at 10, 15 or 20 years ago. We were all saying there could be some sort of upturn this year, but it's been diabolical. A lot of shops have gone out of business."
According to Judith Miller, who has edited the Miller's antique price guides since 1979, old chests of drawers are good old-fashioned value. "You can pick up an early 19th century chest of drawers for £100, and if you look at it in comparison with Ikea ... it's solid wood and will last 500 years." Brown furniture is a bargain, she believes. "It's ridiculously undervalued," she says. "My advice is to go out there and buy it. It will never be this cheap again."
You might expect her to say this, but she feels the market is turning: "Genuinely we are on the cusp. I get auction prices all the time and they are just beginning to go up again." Her tip is to buy similarly-designed period dining chairs singly to form a "harlequin set". (She also likes Victorian tea sets, six cups, saucers and plates, perhaps with a rose pattern, for £50.)
Jeremy Lamond, auctioner at Halls, Shrewsbury, says that although prices have not increased this year, he has detected "an uplift in activity". "We don't know whether it's because ordinary people are feeling the squeeze or whether they think antique furniture represents good value."
As well as lasting longer, he says historic furniture is greener, citing a study in Gavel, the magazine of the National Association of Valuers and Auctioneers, which calculated that buying an antique was 16 times more environmentally-friendly than buying new. Aside from longevity and greenness, of course, a Regency chest of drawers has a pleasing shape, a rich glow, dovetail joints. History, heritage, craftmanship...
Everyone in the trade thinks – hopes – that the next price move will be upwards. It may only take a few successful costume dramas: a new Upstairs, Downstairs, perhaps, or something like Downton Abbey?