Robin Butler on Twitter

February 2012

One of the great pleasures of being a dealer in antiques is that I am able to spend money on things I really like - and continue doing so when I have sold them.  I have been most fortunate in the past couple of weeks to have seen and bought two exciting additions to my stock in addition to the usual topping-up of standard items - not that anything is really ‘standard’. 

First, a feature very seldom seen in the world of Georgian decanters are ‘tasting stoppers’.  Such decanters have broader-than-usual necks to accommodate stoppers which, when inverted, are hollowed to become miniature tumblers or beakers to taste the contents before serving.   I have only seen three or four in all my years dealing, but about 10 days ago, I bought on E-bay a pair of c.1815.  They were in Massachusetts, and are in need of a little restoration, but as soon as they are back here, I will put them on my website.  I have never seen that model before and they are stunning quality.

My other main excitement was a magnum claret jug.   Not only is it an excellent example of Victorian glass cutting, but it exactly matched one I already had!  So I now have a pair.  The one I had needed a new stopper, and again, as soon as these are back here, I will put them on my website also.  So please keep looking to see when they arrive.

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On a completely different tack, it was recently suggested that I should promote antiques as an opportunity for investment, and my immediate thoughts were words my father said 50 or so years ago.  He made it very plain that antiques should be bought for what they offered in terms of visual satisfaction and practical use, coupled with their being genuine.  However, more importantly, he stressed that the very act of buying antiques with a view to selling later at a profit (which defines an investment) meant that one’s heart was not where one’s wallet was.   Buying antiques is very much a matter of the heart and mind acting in unison, and when that duality is abandoned, then poor judgement is usually the outcome.  Your thoughts on this... ?

Everyone knows that a brand-new item of household furniture or furnishings is worth a small fraction of the purchase price the moment it leaves the shop; often it is worth nothing at all.  However, by contrast, and as a general rule, well-chosen antiques tend to increase in price, sometimes quite dramatically.  Of course, one cannot expect to buy an antique and sell it for a profit the next day, but even that can happen. So perhaps an overall view of the market in antiques is called for.  It is worth considering which antiques have withstood the test of time, as far as values are concerned, and which have not. 

It seems that anything which has a strong following by collectors, is relatively immune from wild fluctuations in price;  prices in these sectors seem to rise steadily.  The curious aspect of the ‘collector market’ is that prices have little to do with intrinsic value.  In the world of antique wine accessories, the obvious example which springs to mind is the silver wine label, which seldom contains more than an ounce of silver (currently at about £18 an ounce), and often less than a half of that.   Yet antique silver wine labels are seldom less than £100 and can easily top the £1,000 mark.  However, wine label collectors are an assiduous group who take their collecting habit very seriously and short of a disaster befalling them collectively at their annual general meeting, their market seems underpinned securely by their group enthusiasm.  The prices of antiques are, after all, solely governed by the pressures of supply and demand.

Whether collectors are looking for first period Worcester porcelain, thimbles or tea caddy spoons, the market in those commodities seems set to flourish.  In contrast, more vague areas of the general market in antiques have fared less consistently.  Furniture is an example where prices have dipped considerably - probably because 30- and 40-somethings prefer to furnish in contemporary style, although there are examples of antique furniture which have seen steady price increases.  These are mainly text-book pieces in exemplary condition and devoid of restoration.  However while the price of ‘Georgian brown furniture’ has generally been slipping, there have been signs that the trend is being reversed.

The other area where antiques have retained their values are those which are priced competitively with modern equivalents; decanters are a good example of this.  The secret to this is finding a subject which is not the focus of collectors - which fortunately comprises much of the antique wine accessory market.

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