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Finding a fortune in an old armchair

After years of stagnant prices, the antiques market is finally heading up again
English antique furniture prices rose by a touch over 2 per cent last year, according to the 1996 edition of the long-running annual Price Guide to Antique Furniture, by John Andrews.

It is only the second annual increase since furniture prices peaked in 1990 and the index is still more than 10 per cent below the top of the market before the recession.

But the index, which started in the first edition of the guide in 1967, has seen prices rise more than twentyfold in the last 20 years, fuelled by a combination of runaway inflation in the economy as a whole and the growing scarcity of genuine antique furniture - aggravated by the weakness of sterling, which has allowed foreign buyers to plunder the UK market.

The best investment over the past 20 years wold have been a Bergere library chair in mahogany with a wicker infill and cushion seat, which would have cost pounds 30 and now regularly sells for 100 times as much, according to Mr Andrews. The worst investment would have been a walnut veneered kneehole desk, which would have made pounds 875 then and perhaps pounds 5,000 now.

The current fashion is for antiques that have a practical use, like dining tables, bureaux and desks. Ostentation is out of fashion and antiques with little practical application, such as knife boxes and wine coolers, have fallen by as much as 20 per cent in three years.

Antique furniture is normally only a good investment if you buy well and keep it for at least five years because auctioneers' and dealers' margins alike now normally take about 30 per cent of the value of a transaction.

But the supply of antique furniture, not surprisingly, is drying up, according to the guide. Families that inherit antiques are more likely to hang on to them, and the export market has drawn heavily on stocks in the UK.

The number of antique dealers is falling, the survivors are reducing their display space, and the quality of furniture coming up at auction is dropping. Real incomes are starting to rise and the only thing helping to hold prices down is the low inflationary environment.