Furniture is about to have its moment, says Fergus Lyons, Head of Furniture at Bonhams New Bond Street. "We all tyre of the same look and appearance, and there is an indication that people are bored of wrestling with Allen keys and flatpacks, and have realised that solid oak – rather than cheap veneer – is enormously good value, considering its quality."
At the top end of the market, the enthusiasm has never gone away. Lyons should know: he was involved with establishing the record auction price for English furniture when a Chippendale commode sold for £3,350,000 in December 2010. As he says, "When someone wants something, they are prepared to pay for it."
Lyons has been dealing with furniture since he was 22. However, his first brush with it was not a particularly happy one. "I was trying to get expelled from Rugby, where I was at school, but instead of sending me home, I was punished by being given three weeks' hard labour. I had to do gardening, and make things in the workshop. I had made the mistake of asking for a desk so a master told me to make one instead. Perhaps I was so fed up at having to make my own furniture, I decided to find out about other people's."
After backpacking around Australia, Lyons became involved with antiques. "My father collected Modern British art so I think that environment fostered some kind of interest. I had always enjoyed going to junk shops and small auction rooms – I used to buy old gramophones and radios. A friend of mine suggested I try King & Chasemore, which had just merged with Sotheby's. I started on a salary of £2,000. The line was 'You'll only need just enough to get by on, won't you?' I began as a porter but my break came through a rather lazy specialist in the furniture department. I was rather frustrated that he would never catalogue anything and so I asked if I could help him out. He was only too happy to load some of his responsibilities on to me."
In the past 30 years, the business has changed dramatically. As Lyons points out, "In those days there was a sense of a never- ending supply of very good furniture. And the prices were on an ever upward spiral. Not only that, but there were constant discoveries. One of the most spectacular 'sleepers' that passed through my hands during the 1980s was a painted Gothic cupboard, which I and my colleagues, suspected might be by the master architect and furniture maker William Burges (1827-1881). This was borne out by the hammer price of £44,000 – a huge sum then. Another piece was a lowboy, which ordinarily might make £1,000-1,500, but which made £33,000 because it was American."
Lyons has been involved with some landmark UK sales, including Thornton Manor, Easton Neston, Stokesay Court and Chatsworth's 'attic' sale in 2010. "The estate had to clear some space as attics and outbuildings were stuffed with furniture and artefacts – a lot of it from Devonshire House in London. Looking through it all was like visiting a crime scene. There were all these fragments and you had to work out which object they came from – and which house the piece originally belonged to."
Of course, specialists live to find the missing pieces, the artefacts from great stately homes that have survived the wrecker's ball and which bear witness to the stupendous luxury of another era. Lyons remembers one discovery in particular. "Someone sent me a picture of a chimneypiece in Ireland that was in a modest 1920s house. As soon as I saw it, I was reminded of a similar one at Penrice Castle in Wales. We went through copies of Country Life and found a picture of it in situ at Downhill Castle in Northern Ireland. It had been removed when the castle was demolished. It wasn't the most expensive thing I've sold – it achieved more than £400,000 – but it was one of the most satisfying."
The story proves that to the practised eye, quality will always out. The exciting thing, says Lyons, is that there is a wonderful opportunity for collectors to explore undervalued areas: "Obviously, Chippendale and good walnut will continue to be sought after, but if you want to speculate, some of the underrated makers of the second half of the 19th century – Lamb of Manchester, Trollope & Sons, Gillows, and Holland & Sons – may be worth considering. Arts and Crafts is selling well, as is 20th-century furniture, but my hunch is that collectors will once more turn their eyes to earlier periods." And, as he points out, one of the best features of a Bonhams furniture sale is the range on offer. "Due, in part, to our regional network we get some great private stuff in. It's a great draw for buyers – and, by extension, it becomes a great place to sell."
Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.