Furniture better than property as a lucrative investment

Prices for old English tables and chairs are at an all-time high, representing a better return on your money than bricks and mortar

Forget dot.coms and shaky technology stocks. Forget spiralling property prices. If you really want to make money, take a look at that old mahogany desk of Auntie Maisie's.

According to the Antique Collectors' Club index, published annually for more than 30 years, antique English furniture prices rose in 1999 by 4 per cent, to their highest ever level.

Based on a selection of typical pieces, it shows that since 1967 furniture has seen value growth exceed that of the stock market and house prices in the South-east, excluding London. A country gateleg oak table picked up for £45 in 1968 for example, would be worthabout £4,250 today.

Best performers in 1999, according to the index, which covers more than 1,000 pieces of furniture, were walnut, country and late mahogany furniture, with increases of 7 per cent each. Oak and early mahogany both rose 4 per cent.

But as with stocks and shares, values range wildly between items. The values of Victorian and Edwardian furniture, which had soared in recent years, saw little or no increase. A Victorian desk bought for £5,750 in 1993 would now be worth £250 less.

John Andrews, who compiles the guide, says the exceptional performance of antiques is largely due to their unusually low starting price. "I think if you look at the last 10 years, house prices and the stock market would have slightly exceeded it," he said. "It's just that 30 years ago antique furniture was ridiculously cheap."

Chris Wright, of the Antiques Trade Gazette, says that while quality antiques tend to hold value, there were fluctuations in the market depending on what was in fashion. Where several years agoArt Deco and Arts and Crafts furniture were shunned, this year the styles are increasingly in demand, along with "anything Gothic".

"It's a combination of what's available and what people are buying ... so Deco material and Arts and Crafts were quite cheap and there was a lot around," says Mr Wright. "Then people start buying, the price goes up, people say it's in fashion, so it spirals. As soon as prices reach a prohibitive level, then fashion will move on."

According to the index, while the best investments included dining tables and chairs from all periods, there were exceptions, such as Victorian balloon-backed chairs. These have dropped in value, possibly due to modern over-reproduction at low prices.

Other pieces to have lost value include sloping fall-front writing bureaux, which may have declined due to increasing ownership of computer equipment, which favours pedestal desks and larger tables.

So far this year, the humble Welsh dresser has been fetching exceptional prices. An oak dresser was sold in Mold, Flintshire, for £46,000, after spending more than 100 years in the house of the farmer who had it made.

Even if it is not worth a fortune, good-quality antique furniture should prove a better investment than its modern counterpart: "If you're a first-time buyer, you can often find good antique furniture for under £1,000, which may be a lot cheaper than buying modern from a warehouse," Mr Wright said. "It should also retain its value, whereas second-hand furniture that is modern and machine-made is going to have a resale value that is negligible."

However, well-made, original pieces by today's designers,says Mr Wright, may become the sought-after antiques of the future.

But the modern buyer is unlikely to see the same return on his or her investment. Mr Andrews notes that dealers - a traditional source of "bargains" - have largely been displaced by major auction houses, and novice buyers by the well-informed. "Antiques Roadshow and shows like it have left everyone feeling that there's a fortune in the attic," he says.