Today for my Wednesday Ad break I’ve got a great interview with Paul Middlemiss, of the vintage emporium Merchant & Found. Paul, whose mother was an antique dealer, has worked at Conran, Habitat and Pedlars, and today, as well as sharing stories of sourcing trips where he was forced to sleep in his van in a snowdrift in pursuit of the perfect piece, he also has lots of advice for how to tell if a piece is any good, if it’s a fake, or whether it’s worth the effort of restoring, as well as his tips on what will be sought after next and therefore worth the investment. He is a mine of information so I suggest you make a cup of coffee and give yourself a bit of time (and for those of you who were here for the previous interview with an antiques dealer be assured there is no snobbery here – this is charming, informative and kind).
In a break with tradition, and because he has so much to say, I’m going to leave my short questions rather than writing round them as that will give him more space to speak. So:
How do you know if a piece is any good?
Basically, I go with my heart but as well as that it must be well designed, well made, good quality and original ie, not been changed or messed around with. Lastly is it a fair price? If it passes those tests then the chances are it’s by a decent maker and will have a story and provenance – we champion the forgotten makers and know most makers’ labels and will thoroughly research the story behind each piece.
The most important factor apart from love is originality. I rarely buy anything restored as it loses its soul. I want the hidden pieces that come to light and we can restore, give a bit of love and even if it has a few scars, these sort of pieces usually wear it well. That said, everything we have usually gets ‘restored’ in some way – very rarely is a table not wobbly so we tighten the legs, drawers are always sticky and need sorting, handles have been lost. We put it all ‘right’ but we rarely strip and re-finish. We do all of this in-house in our own workshop.
When I started in 2018, I did all the restoring myself, I‘m practical and it’s the only way to learn – trial and error with a hell of a lot of googling and asking questions along the way. I think we have it bang on now, we can pretty much ‘restore’ anything but you would never know it. Haberdashery units are a great example, recently I bought a truck full (3 tonnes) of around 20 amazing cabinets which had been sitting in a disused Scottish shop untouched for thirty years. Some were built in so had to be ‘cut out’, some were already cut in half and have to be put back together, some had broken glass but they were all in original condition so it’s about keeping that amazing history but making them presentable and practical. That’s not to say I haven’t made many mistakes like paying too much for stuff or underestimating the restoration costs.
If you see a knackered chair – at what point do you know it’s worth reupholstering and at what point do you walk away?
This is a tricky one… I’m a romantic so am doomed to saving so many things from old cars and houses to scruffy old chairs! But I have two tests:
- Is it worth saving? The more special it is the more it needs to be saved.
- Can I do it commercially? Profit margins vary massively, sometimes you make a few bob, sometimes you do very well. It’s all a balance.
I recently bought a set of 1940’s Multipl’s armchairs and paid top money for them so from a return on capital point of view it was not a great idea sinking a few thousand pounds into some chairs on which I might make a couple of hundred pounds.
But, I had never seen/handled these armchairs before so I wanted them, to see them, to photograph them to learn more about them – how were the arms made, what makes the construction different form the side chair and so on, so then in terms of experience it was priceless. So, on balance a good thing.
Any way of checking if it’s a genuine piece or a fake?
Yes and no. My mum was an antique dealer and there is an incredible book out there (sadly can’t remember the name) where basically the author had done a very detailed estimation on how many pieces of furniture had been made in the 17th/18th/19th century. He had worked out the number of workshops, houses and so on and pieced it all together and his calculations were basically proving that the vast majority of what was being sold as ‘antique’ was fake.
And I have seen it done FIRSTHAND, literally hundreds of times. The easiest way is to take an original piece and make it something else. The classic being, take a set of six chairs and make it twelve, take the chairs apart and rebuild them, two old legs/two new legs. There are VERY very good workshops out there that can do all sorts of things and it’s not just limited to brown furniture, I have seen fake Robin Day and fake Ernest Race. But ultimately it will only really happen to the expensive pieces because it’s economically viable. I would honestly say that when I worked with my Mum, 50 per cent was fake, some of which she turned a blind eye to.
So how can we, as buyers not experts spot the fakes?
It is very difficult to fake age. So does it look old? The timber will have a different look; old timber dries out, it moves and has character. Pine is the best example – look at a new piece of pine in Homebase versus an old piece of pine, it has a different colour and feel. Look at the construction, was it made the way it should have been with handmade joints versus machine-made joints, old screws versus new screws. The absolute tell-tale is Philips head screws versus slotted, or flathead screws and shiny screws versus rusty screws. But a good faker can fake all of that. With old timber and old screws, and time, you can copy anything.
So above all else it is patina, which is not a word I especially like but it is very difficult to fake age. Take the glass on the top of a haberdashery unit that has been used as a shop counter for 75 years, it is totally scratched with 75 years of coins/bags/whatever scratching it, you can’t fake that. So it’s very easy to spot a new piece of glass. Light and use make patina, a piece of furniture sitting by a window absorbs light and will be softly bleached… you can’t fake that. A piece of furniture used for many years will have a different colour from years of greasy fingers touching it and just using it, and all the tiny scratches and marks from daily life. Spotting all of that simply comes from experience seeing and comparing.
There are some workshops out there that are VERY good at doing repairs that you will never ever spot. Old timber, old screws… hand cut joints and so on. But to some extent does that matter if it has been done well and was done to save a piece as opposed to faking it?
What are the first three things you look for in a piece?
Do I love it? Simple as that. It has to look and feel right.
1 Design/proportion quality. It can be the most original piece at a great price, but unless it’s a stunner I’m not interested! Ninety per cent of the time if I love it, I know my customers will and the longer you trade the more you learn that. It’s a cliché that you have to buy pieces you love but they also have to fit your business’s vision or before long you have a disparate offer. I passionately believe if all your pieces ‘sit together’ that makes a massive difference.
2 I walk away from pieces that have been restored or mucked around with. I don’t care how dirty and dusty it is if it’s original. As ‘champion of the forgotten maker’ I love a makers label or any history that comes with a piece is a bonus.
3 Then its condition, if it needs work can it be done cost effectively and not damage the originality? It’s easy to miss small things that cost money. Missing handles on cabinets are an absolute nightmare, it sounds so simple, but it’s almost impossible to match one and you can spend hours trying to find one, so often, that will kill a piece but there are ways round it.
I might just buy a piece for the handles, if a piece is pretty bad, use it for scrap, save the handles and keep the old timber – you never know when you might need it. Or sometimes if a few handles are missing the only solution is to change them all, but where possible we keep them original. There’s a pretty good range of old handles out there the secret is making them old but there are all sorts of ageing chemicals out there and ways of ageing metal and brass so it is solvable.
What is popular now?
The whole 60’s/70’ glamour vibe is huge, but it’s not our thing as many pieces are expensive and ‘designer’ and we are trying to carve our own niche but that said I think the whole ‘Scandinavian’ mid-century vibe is softening and moving on.
I stumbled on Baumann chairs a few years ago in France and just loved them and have been buying pretty much all I can find. they are bang on mid-century but much softer and less ‘teak’ than the stereo typical sort of Danish chair and these are huge for me at the moment. I also think they are an amazing investment, and they haven’t really been seen in the UK before.
Classic bentwood chairs are big sellers, they are so beautiful and so well made and they age so well and can go in almost any setting. I sell most of my vintage chairs for between say £65 and £120 and you get a hell of a lot of chair compared to what you would get for that money in John Lewis or Made.com.
Apothecary cabinets, large statement banks of drawers, I simply can’t source enough, everyone loves them because they are beautiful to look at, incredibly practical and a sort of timeless classic, a great statement piece.
What is out of fashion – brown furniture was out of fashion for years but it seems to be coming back?
My mum was a BADA dealer and I watched the market just go off a cliff mainly in the 90’s. This was driven by the US dollar drop, the rise of shabby chic in the eighties and the whole contemporary move. There will always be a market for the upper end – especially earlier early English oak and Queen Ann proper period furniture – but yes I agree I think brown furniture has been trying to come back but it’s a slow return
- Classic Scandinavian Mid Century is plateauing
- French Brocante/Shabby Chic will always be there but is plateauing.
- Victorian furniture is rising, coming in from the cold.
- 60’s/70’s is having a big moment.
- Industrial has become less rough and more sophisticated.
- Brown furniture is sort of coming back but slowly, there is definitely a movement to strip it or repaint it, French polish is out.
I think basically customers are more sophisticated and can now mix and match styles better, and are getting better at putting it all together, they amount of ‘ideas’ and advice available out there on Pinterest and blogs. Instagram is huge and giving inspiration and confidence, everyone is a budding interior designer and wants to make their home look special.
It’s a bit like fashion, buy a Gap/Uniqlo/Primark white T Shirt for a fair price and mix it with a decent pair of shoes or a designer or vintage jacket.
It’s also about having the confidence to get the look right. Do you really want a house full of Scandinavian teak, it’s too heavy and one dimensional. But a great farmhouse table can work with sixties Scandi lighting and mid-century chairs, as long as the actual designs work. I think it’s more about buying beautiful pieces and combining them in the right way, so they work in the space.
I had a lovely Victorian scullery cupboard, not usually my thing, but it had an incredible solid fruitwood top and we dry scraped the base to give it a lighter feel, it looked amazing and transformed the piece, although I do feel a bit guilty when stripping stuff and try to avoid it!
Finally, what if you spot an amazing piece when you are on holiday – how do you get it home?
No matter what I don’t leave it. I am a big fan of pallet transport I think it’s a quite unknown way of shipping things very safely. Put something on a pallet and you can ship it safely and cost effectively pretty much anywhere in Europe. Pallets are 100/120cm and you can ship pretty much any size so
for a big piece you can just bolt two pallets together and put quite a large table or sideboard on top.
You can send a pallet anywhere in Europe in days for roughly £200, safe and simple, it’s like the Royal Mail of freight.
So there we have it. I feel like I picked up so many fascinating tips from that. Paul will be back later in the year to tell us stories about the pieces that got away and his best ever discoveries. As ever, you can subscribe so you don’t miss anything.