I’ve just started work on a Victorian mahogany sideboard. I bought it a few months back, but to be honest I’m a bit in awe of it. The sideboard is lovely as it is, but just isn’t fashionable, hence I want to do a good job with the refurb. It has some lovely carvings and certainly isn’t a shy and retiring piece of furniture. I bought some Annie Sloan ‘Cream’ paint a few days back; I’d bought some Designers Guild ‘Vanilla’ a while back, but I think it may be a little too rich – I want something quite gentle and subtle, something that won’t fight for attention against all the curves and carvings.

Once the sideboard is finished, I have a few commissions lined up and need to get out and about buying. I haven’t done any ‘serious buying’ for several weeks and I’m off to a big sale next week to re-stock my empty parlour. There are usually over 700 lots going through the auction in the space of 3 hours, so the bidding is fast and furious. So that’s a piece of furniture every 15 – 20 seconds, including the auctioneer’s description! I love it!!!

I like to spend quite a bit of time viewing before the auction and have a mental checklist of things to look out for:

  • overall ‘eye appeal’
  • check that drawers and doors open and close nicely
  • I have a good grope of each piece – does it feel right?
  • any handles missing (not fatal to a purchase, but reflects on the price I’m willing to pay)
  • check the legs (the wobble test – an unsteady piece of furniture is fine if it can be screwed, or glued and clamped, but it all takes time and affects what sort of price I’m willing to pay)
  • the ‘sniff test’ (yes, I’m a secret furniture sniffer – my nose tells me whether the wood is damp/rotten)
  • if there’s damage, can it be remedied?
  • and just how the piece of furniture makes me feel – goosebumps are always a good sign:-)

So, I walk around with a notepad and jot down the item number of each piece I’m interested in. Next, I go outside and grab a coffee and have a look at my scribbles. I then go back inside the auction house and scrutinise each item more thoroughly and jot down my own description of the item, any defects and a guide price. I’m slightly flexible on my guide prices because they tend to even themselves out – if I buy something for £20 less than my guide, I might pay a little more for another item if it has really caught my eye. However, if I’ve got a soft spot for a particular piece, I do underline the top price I’m willing to pay – it’s all to easy to get carried away at auction.  

From my starting list, I’ll probably knock out half to two thirds of the items because they don’t stand up to close scrutiny.

When I first started buying at auction, I was quite self conscious and didn’t like to man handle the furniture, but it’s essential. All serious dealers check out the goods thoroughly and each have their own criteria that each piece of furniture must pass. Surface scratches mean very little to me because I buy to paint, but most dealers at auction are buying to sell straight on, so are put off by superficial marks.

Once the money has been handed over, it’s then time for the worst part of my job – lifting, wrapping and loading the furniture into the van – back breaking and stressful, but every job has its pitfalls I guess. On a busy day, I might have to make 3 trips, but do sometimes use the auction house delivery man to deliver large loads.