Ahead of The Art & Antiques Fair Olympia, which returns this June as part of The House & Garden Festival, we caught up with fair director Mary Claire Boyd for some expert advice on collecting with confidence.
There’s no denying that buying art and antiques can be a daunting prospect for the novice collector, but once the bug hits and you’ve purchased your first few pieces to take home and cherish, it can be an utterly rewarding experience – and one that can lead to “a lifelong passion,” according to Mary. “A good collection is worth more than the sum of its parts,” she explains. “Whether you’re buying for investment or not, the most important thing is for it to work in your home and for you to love it.” So where does one begin? It seems a large-scale fair is as beginner-friendly as it gets, what with its easy access and wide variety, and certainly in eliminating any doubt surrounding rogue dealers. “A good tip for ensuring purchases are genuine is to buy at a respected and, importantly, ‘vetted’ fair,” says Mary. “Many London fairs, like Olympia, have a strict vetting policy to ensure that every piece is checked to be genuine and of sound quality. Another way to ensure authenticity is to buy from a dealer who is a member of one of the two key trade associations, BADA or LAPADA.”
An element of open-mindedness is a must if you’re looking to pick up something specific for your home, otherwise you can come away both disappointed and empty-handed. Of course, the most satisfying finds are the ones you didn’t know you wanted but would have been royally pained to leave behind. “The whole idea is to get inspired,” agrees Mary. “The variety is extraordinary, from diamonds to dining tables, Picasso to porcelain. Be prepared to be surprised by the unusual; we sell antique medicine chests, sundials, telescopes and model aeroplanes… Having said that, it will help to arrive armed with measurements and photographs if you know you need a piece of furniture for a particular space.”
To haggle, or not to haggle
Haggling can be as anxiety-inducing for the neophyte collector as tipping etiquette is to the less well travelled in foreign climes, so when it comes to the art of the haggle, what’s appropriate and what’s not? “It’s so important to build up relationships with dealers,” says Mary. “Pick their brains for their expertise and ask for their help when you’re looking for something specific. Dealers are used to a haggler, but it’s important not to insult them; be realistic with your offer and don’t be put off if they turn it down. The more a dealer knows and trusts you – and sees that you’re a genuine collector likely to come back for more – the more likely they are to give you a good price.”
While choosing furniture is largely a question of aesthetics and functionality, seasoned collectors will also be considering which pieces make the best investments. That perfectly fitting chest of drawers could also turn out to be a family heirloom, treasured for generations to come. But of course, as with any kind of investment, there are no guarantees in the art and antiques world. “The old adage ‘buy the best you can afford’ holds true,” advises Mary. “Look for the unusual, ensure it’s not heavily restored and any provenance will help its long-term value. Nineteenth century mahogany furniture is very well priced at the moment and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t rise in the future. The very best example of any genre is highly likely to retain its value and would usually increase.”
Old and New
You might be apprehensive to introduce antique pieces into an otherwise contemporary interior, but mixing old and new can work wonderfully, especially if you’re going for an eclectic look. “A classic piece like a Windsor chair has a sculptural quality that allows it to incorporate seamlessly into almost any space,” says Mary, “while 17th century old oak furniture with its rich, dark patina works with contemporary art and interiors. Late 18th century Sheraton furniture with its simple, classic design also goes beautifully with contemporary art, while a Regency rosewood sofa table or a 19th century console with lamps on will add elegance and light up dark spaces. If in doubt, dealers will often let you take a piece home and try it in a space.” The Art & Antiques Fair Olympia runs 20-27 June. Olympia London, Hammersmith Road, W14 (olympia-art-antiques.com)