The Dealer: How to buy antiques

Ian Butchoff advises on whether to buy from auction houses or dealers

So you and your beloved have set your heart on an antique dining table to show off your newly decorated dining room.

Perhaps a Christmas present to yourselves?        

You envisage the family sat, starry eyed, around the table enjoying bounteous Sunday lunches.  

But how to make your purchase?

Do you keep an eye on auction catalogues? Study household names like Sotheby’s, Christies or Bonham’s? Or visit your local county auction?

Or do you cross the threshold to the inner sanctum of the antiques dealer?

“furniture is tactile, you really need to be amongst it, to touch it, to find the pieces that steel your heart”

Obviously I have a vested interest in the outcome of the next few paragraphs, but let me be straight with you and explain the pros and cons of both options.

Auctions provide a valuable way of getting the feel of one’s own taste in furniture.

If you see enough different dining tables you begin to know that it is a central pedestal leg that you prefer, rather than, say, a turned leg in each corner.

You will be able to appreciate the different colours wood can be, whether you like a highly polished item or one with a more subtle finish.

You can see much of this on the internet or even the old fashioned book but furniture is tactile, you really need to be amongst it, to touch it, to find the pieces that steel your heart.

(This may sound extreme as you read this at your desk of a morning, but remember this has been a lifetime passion for me).

Your auction catalogue will give a guide price and, like all commercial transactions, a low price will attract more interest and potentially more bidders.

Be aware that the level actually realised may be well above this.

You will have to pay a buyer’s premium and in London this can be up to 25 per cent, with an additional 20 per cent vat – a whopping 30 per cent in total to add to the hammer price - your “bargain” can suddenly seem less so.

There is an art to bidding at auction too. Know when to play your card to close the sale. It can be very easy to get carried away with bravado and pay too much, it’s not for the fainthearted and can be very time consuming.

Equally, you must ask, will your new purchase need restoring? Repolishing? Would you know who to approach to help you with this? Have you factored in this cost? If an antique item is “over restored” you will reduce the value – beware!

Importantly the auctioneer’s contract is between the auction house and the seller and although the auction house will act honestly to the best of its ability, if it should prove that the item has been incorrectly catalogued they are absolved of any responsibility. Caveat emptor!

“He or she has everything to lose, not least his reputation if he tries to pass off something that is not as he describes”

Equally they will provide condition reports on request but they will come with a caveat that the statement is not exhaustive and that a buyer should have their own expert inspect the piece personally.

Are you going to go to this trouble? Do you know who to ask for help? Are you confident?

A dealer, in comparison, has to put up his own hard earned cash in the certain belief that a regency chair is indeed a regency chair. He or she has everything to lose, not least his reputation if he tries to pass off something that is not as he describes.

Do some research on him or her – how long have they been in business? Are they an accredited member of a trade association? 

Ask around, maybe someone you know has purchased from them previously?

Buying through a dealer gives you access to his expertise and the refined eye that allows him to pass by what may look like the deal of the century to an amateur. It is more than likely that the items in his showroom will have been restored correctly and with no future detriment to the value of the item.

Within a dealer’s showroom and stock you may be offered the table you desire at more than one price level. Some dealers, particularly for large ticket price items will allow you to see the item in your own home and if it turns out to be slightly less than ideal, will often be prepared to source something more suitable.

Buying from an accredited dealer can give you certainty. What you are taking home is indeed what you think it is. And if you are parting with a large sum, surely this would be fundamental to your quality of sleep?

It gives you educated choices, allows you to view the item at its very best, and if you have an interest in antiques this dealer may well become your new best friend.

Of course it’s fair to say that you are probably paying a premium when purchasing from a dealer – although not always, I’ve seen many auction prices that dealers can only dream of!

I recently saw a nice pair of sofas which had failed to sell at a top antique fair in June make double the asking price in a London auction a couple of months later. 

But with that extra premium, you get his eye, knowledge and experience. 

Pick an auction or dealer – it’s your choice, but don’t just jump in.

Merry Christmas.

Ian Butchoff is the founder and owner of Butchoff Antiques, located on Kensington Church Street. He entered the trade aged 11 and is today recognised as a leading authority on 19th century furniture. He is a co-founder and board member of the dealers’ association, LAPADA, and writes a regular column for

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