Gifts with a sense of history

Timothy Barber
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squo;S no coincidence that the recession has overlapped with a surge in the popularity of all things old fashioned. If our confidence in a bold, sparkling future has faltered, our interest in the aesthetics of the past – and the values of quality, provenance and craftsmanship that go with it – has rocketed upwards. 1940s-themed club nights are thriving, vintage fashion items are hotter than ever, Savile Row is once again an epicentre of male style – and at home, nothing says now like something that was made way back when.

Which means that, for Christmas, antiques make for far more stylish gifts than things bought brand new, and they’re better value too.

“You can get the same quality as a modern piece of jewellery or other decorative item at a fraction of the cost,” says Neil Jackson, manager of Grays, the popular Mayfair antiques market. “You’re buying something made years ago by artisans, that wasn’t mass produced and is likely to be unique, that has a history and character that can’t be replicated.”

The antiques market is subject to the vicissitudes of taste and fads – dealers are gearing up for a rush of interest in engagement rings with sapphires and diamonds in the wake of last week’s royal announcement. Mark Dodgson, secretary general of the British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA), says a flurry of calls from people wondering about the value of the pottery in their attics was one result of the spectacular sale two weeks ago of a 18th century Chinese vase for £53.1m.

“That was a fluke, but good quality oriental ceramics that were made for the home market rather than for export are very strong right now, as Asian collectors are very active bringing them home,” he says.

But while a few people will get lucky with their antique investments or their inherited heirlooms, Dodgson’s advice to novices is not to get overly worried about the potential of an antique’s future value. After all, if something has already been around decades or centuries, you should be looking to pass it on rather than offload it at a profit.

“Buy something because you, or the person you’re giving it to, will like it and it will mean something,” Dodgson says. “Buy from dealers who are specialists in their areas rather than generalists – if you’re spending a lot of money, you need to have confidence that the person selling it to you knows exactly where it fits in, what its history is and can value it accurately.”

And that’s half the fun, of course – shopping for antiques can be a journey of discovery whether you end up buying anything or not, as Jackson points out. “You’re getting an education and history of the period you’re buying from, and for the dealers explaining things and imparting knowledge is their passion – you always come out feeling that you’ve gained something.”


Grays Antiques Market Just round the corner from Bond Street station, this is the vintage lover’s alternative to Mayfair’s exorbitant boutiques, with over 200 dealers gathered under one roof. It’s open Monday to Saturday, and on 2 December its Christmas shopping party includes live music and drinks, though you’ll need an invitation to attend. Call 020 7619 7034 to attend. 58 Davies St and 1-7 Davies Mews, W1K 5AB.

The London Silver Vaults In the heart of lawyer land, the Silver Vaults houses a vast collection of historical silverware in a site that once rented safe deposit vaults to wealthy Victorians. For gift hunters, it has a dedicated Christmas selling exhibition, this year themed around the cocktail party, with items including an Art Deco silver cocktail shaker and a pair of Old Sheffield Plate wine coolers dating from around 1880. 53-64 Chancery Lane, WC2A 1QS.

Alfies Antiques Market The more bohemian sister site of Grays specialises in 20th century furniture, vintage fashion, art and collectibles. Perfect for those looking to kit out their city pads with some on-trend retro furniture. Alfies is also holding a Christmas shopping party on 9 December. For an invitation to attend, call 020 7723 6066. 13-25 Church Street, NW8 8DT.

Lots Road West London is arguably the heart of the UK’s antiques scene, with a number of high-end dealers dotted around Kensington and Pimlico. Over in Chelsea, Lots Road Auctions holds auctions every Sunday, with over 500 items auctioned each time. There are specialist sales each month in areas like fine antiques, continental furniture, fine carpets and rugs; while items to be auctioned are available for viewing four days and one evening per week. 71-73 Lots Road, SW10 0RN.