On July 25, 2004, Annabel Fallon and Sophie Coke-Steel set out a compelling case for the softening in demand for traditional 'brown furniture' in an article in the Independent on Sunday titled Castors fall off the antiques bandwagon.
Excuses included the collapse in numbers of Americans travelling by plane to the UK after 9/11 and the Iraq War, the unfavourable exchange rate and the lack of interest from the younger generation. One dealer even seemed to blame the geography of the modern house when he was quoted as saying "open-plan living spaces are fashionable now and they can be every antique dealer's worst nightmare".
Over ten years on, the song remains the same with an article in February 11 this year in ATG reporting on the Antique Collectors' Club's 2014 Antique Furniture Index, suggesting that "the English antique furniture market remains in a parlous state and no category from early oak to Georgian mahogany held firm".
When I started in the antiques auctioneering business nearly 30 years ago, 'brown furniture' was considered the backbone of the country saleroom and results were driven by the trade in brown furniture. If your sale did not have a decent selection of the brown stuff, well, you did not have a sale. Brown furniture was fashionable, durable, full of character and oozed old-world taste. Importantly, its acquisition was the mark of a discerning eye. It was also used, perhaps surprisingly so now, for furnishing!
Is the furniture downturn over?
The two articles quoted above discussed both positive and negative aspects of the 'brown furniture trade' although in 2004 it appeared that it was near collapse and all the indices from John Andrews' tracking of the market over an extended period seemed to agree.
Well, not quite. There has indeed been a change in taste and the minimalist 'look' (what exactly is there to look at?) has held sway for a long time. But perhaps the 'zeitgeist' is changing. In the same way that there is a trend away from supermarkets to boutique shopping, authentic food, home-farm produce and cheaper alternatives, there could be a trend away from wholesale bland mass-market furniture.
When particle board furniture is now often more expensive than antique furniture, the only triumph here is style over substance - in old-fashioned terms, marketing.
A few weeks ago I started the small Twitter campaign with a hashtag #BringBackBrownFurniture and my point in all this is clear. For too long the antiques trade, who have seen profits disappear in 'brown furniture', have either given up selling it or closed their shops. But for those who remain, the challenge is more a case of marketing than selling.
Shout the benefits from the rooftops
If you are as old as I am, you know that 'brown furniture' used to sell itself, the only effort being physical! Today you have to sell it and we, auctioneers and antiques dealers alike, have to extol its benefits and shout them from the rooftops. Remember, we are up against particle board furniture here, something with 'zero' re-sale value. Brown furniture may not be selling for what it did, but it always has a 'value'.
My bullet point plan to #BringBackBrownFurniture and revive the market is as follows:
1 Stop telling everyone what it used to sell for and start to actually sell it.
2 Forget the 'good old days'.
3 Extol the eco-friendly virtues of antique furniture from its low carbon footprint to its enduring quality throughout the ages. Reference everything from Wolf Hall to Downton Abbey when you sell it - make it relevant and popular by association.
4 Compare it pound for pound with the modern alternative. Buy one particle board, plastic-runnered chest of drawers for your shop and sit your George III mahogany chest beside it. Let the furniture do the talking.
5 Emphasise the personal generational story of antique furniture compared to modern alternatives. This type of furniture is your 'farmers' market', your fresh bread roll and home-made cake. And a bargain? It is your Lidl, Aldi and Iceland all in one! And they are not making it any more so it's exclusive and cheap!
6 It's a bargain! If you are selling a piece for £1000, stress how cheap this actually is - the customer will never need to re-furnish and can pass on the furniture to the next generation at no cost to you, to them or to the planet. How cheap does it have to be? Keep a piece for 30 years and it has cost you £33 per annum!
7 The nay-sayers will tell you that antique furniture is 'too big' for the modern house. So sell big furniture to big old houses and occasional and small furniture to modern householders. Everyone needs a chest of drawers, a wardrobe and a sofa - all of these can be antique. Brown furniture is not 'inconvenient', it's unique. We are giving people something to look at again.
8 Start the conversation with someone near you from the next generation. My children and yours are the new buyers and they need to be 'on board'. They need to be 'trending' on brown furniture.
9 Forget short-term investment potential (except at the very top end) and concentrate on William Morris in supplying something which is both 'beautiful and useful'.
10 Remember the best times in life? When you are with family and friends? The more the merrier? Many pieces of antique furniture have a communal quality. From stretch dining tables to the Welsh dresser, sets of chairs to triple wardrobes, it's furniture for using, sharing and enjoying with friends. It makes your house a home, not a 'show home'.
The British general public are intelligent, shrewd, like a bargain and know what they like. But a lot of what we all like has been 'sold' as a concept to us and we have bought into the concept. We now need to take brown furniture out of the aspic and sell it as a concept, as part of an interior, as the 'making of an interior'. Antique furniture has more than enough 'arrows' in its quiver to defeat the modern equivalent. Just find your bow and begin.
Brown furniture has been surrounded by a gloomy atmosphere for too long both in the national press and in the auction room and fair cafes. Gloom and despondency can affect a whole market.
Snap out of it folks.