Trade Talks – Jonathon Holder of Welsh Vernacular Furniture

Jonathon Holder is one half of Welsh Vernacular Furniture, alongside his wife Yvonne. The pair are antique dealers based in the village of Mydroilyn in Ceredigion, west Wales. Soon to open their first shop, they specialise in the vernacular furniture of Wales. Find them on twitter @WelshVernacular

What areas or items are currently selling well?

Three primitive Welsh stick chairsIt is fair to say that at any time certain items will be trending, although we all have our bread and butter pieces. For us, seating is always current, dealing in Welsh furniture we don’t do upholstered (or duvets) and our sales consist highly of country dining chairs and farmhouse windsor armchairs. We have noticed a dip in the appreciation of general or average pieces, as is reflected across antiques as a whole, and the demand for the best and rarest pieces is currently high. Currently in demand are practical storage solutions such as linen presses and cupboards, with 19th century oak pieces of strong simple design in lighter tones selling quickly.

What do you think are the current ‘good investment’ items – ones to watch?

An interesting question as the answer can sometimes be a long one and it is one that we are not asked often enough in my opinion. Some pieces in our field have risen consistently and have never really gone down or fallen out of favour. These include Welsh stick chairs and similar primitive pieces of genuine antiquity, such as Welsh love spoons and, in more recent times, Welsh blankets and quilts. Pieces that are currently trending may not prove the best investment from a monetary return perspective as the high demand naturally rises the price and, should the fashion or market change, then the price is likely to drop. Rare pieces are always a good bet as the limited number available means that there are always buyers waiting when it comes time to sell.

Welsh vernacular furnitureAnd there are, of course, always pieces that are experiencing their own slump when it comes to prices. Currently it is the Welsh dresser, with clean 18th and 19th century examples of common design fetching between £400 and £600. In my opinion this is an absolute steal and surely they cannot get any cheaper. If you would like a Welsh dresser, a true piece of furniture, then now is the time to buy one. However, from an investment point of view you need to look for a really good example. It doesn’t have to be a Montgomeryshire or Swansea Valley one, but a good example of its type or region, which you should be able to buy for between £1500 and £2500.

Our final answer to this question is what do the dealers collect as an investment? Personally, we have started to collect items that we have noticed have started to become hard to find, such as Welsh cawl spoons and ladles. Whilst we don’t expect them to give us a great return we have collected some for ourselves before they are impossible to attain any longer. Other items we’ve been investing in recently are early love spoons; forever popular, they should prove a worthwhile investment however long you choose to keep them for.

We also live in a cottage full of antiques and all our personal investment pieces are items we love, so we would not be tempted to buy a piece for investment alone. Living with an item that brings you enjoyment is a great investment on its own.

What antiques do you have at home?

Welsh vernacular furnitureHaving a young family hasn’t deterred us from living with antiques; apart from a ball ban inside there are no real rules. Welsh furniture is well made from good timber and can be used daily as it was originally intended. Our kitchen is home to a Cardiganshire oak deuddarn, which holds everything that you would have in your typical kitchen cupboards and cutlery drawers; we have a small 19th century dog kennel dresser with all our mugs and cups on; and we use an 18th century sycamore dairy table at every meal time, which can be wiped clean with an everyday surface cleaner.

In the lounge, our TV stands on a 17th century carved coffor, our shoes and wellies are kept in an 18th century sycamore box settle and a coffor bach houses our kids’ Playstation and games.

A modern sofa and small fitted kitchen means that family life is comfortable and the inclusion of good antiques makes it feel like a real home. If an item has lasted generations of family use then I only see it right to continue to use them for the purpose they were intended.

What do you think will be the antiques of the future?

Whilst dealing in what would be considered to be true antiques of considerable age, we do, however, love design from all periods and the revival of traditional craftsmanship is something we believe will create the antiques of the future. The combination of expert craftsmanship and simple design always create items of tactile beauty. In an age of 3D printers, the appreciation for natural products I feel will continue to grow. A pole lathe turned bowl from a maker like Robin Wood should be a great antique of the future.

Welsh vernacular furnitureHow is the industry changing and what will it look like in the future?

Online has been the cornerstone of growth for this industry for some time and continues to be so. The consistent creation of ever more online platforms sees us stepping from one to the other as we look for ways to keep in touch with buyers. I don’t think enough buyers will tire of this and wish for the good old days of antique shops enough to see their return. However, we know first-hand that there are many buyers that do need to physically see, hold or sit on a piece of furniture before buying. Antiques can be such personal things that we think that there will remain a large percentage of buyers who require a shop or showroom to visit and we’re happy to have the premises to offer this service.

A successful business does not need to cater for everyone so it is a matter for the dealer to decide whether a solely online existence is for them. Whilst selling antiques is our business it is much more than that for us. Should profit be the only driver then we would sell as a single image on Instagram with little more than a brief description and minimal communication with the customer, but where would be the enjoyment in that? It is not a business model that we would wish to work exclusively to. Personal interaction with a customer, offering them everything they need to make a well-informed decision and providing consistently good customer service is the way we like to run our business. When customers see the heart and soul you put into your work and the enthusiasm you have for what you do it goes a long way. Having options for people to view your stock online is a must and being available to reply to people quickly is always advisable, so working 9-5 is not really an option.

Tell us some trade secrets – what are your top tips for buying antiques?

Primitive Welsh stick chairA piece of good advice for anyone would be to buy from someone you trust, ask plenty of questions, don’t be afraid to test the seller’s knowledge and always go with your gut.  If it doesn’t feel right then it’s not the piece for you.  There are plenty of antiques out there so don’t rush.

What antiques/artworks would you buy if money were no object?

This is difficult as we only buy what we personally love and the pieces that appeal most to us are fairly affordable. A piece of art by an old master would be nice to have, but I honestly don’t think it would give us any more pleasure than the pieces we have by our local artist friends. If money were no object I think we would buy a large Welsh farmhouse and fill it with more of the best Welsh antiques we find. The frustration in not having the room to keep some of the best pieces we have owned is something that only a true lover of antiques will understand.

You’re down to your last 50 quid – what antiques/art would you buy?

Welsh vernacular furnitureI would certainly not be in a rush to spend the £50, but would continue to look hard and bide my time until a good piece with potential came along, perhaps a farmhouse chair with a wobbly leg that needs a good polish, this way with sensitive restoration and a bit of elbow grease an honest profit can be obtained and justified.

Where are your favourite antique hunting destinations?

Being based in West Wales and having young kids means that anything more than a day trip requires a lot of planning. We love going to a good antiques fair where the chance of buying something quality is higher. However, we often enjoy a morning out at the local flea markets, whilst the chances of buying something with a nice profit is slim there is a great chance to pick up smaller items of local interest and catching up with the other dealers is always fun.

What are some of the biggest mistakes that buyers make?

There are two that are pretty clear for us. The first is that many more private buyers are buying from auction and, whilst there is nothing wrong with this at all, they often make the mistake of thinking that the piece will be bought for less than it might from a dealer. It is true that this was often the case in past years, but the increase in private buyers at auction has made it a more competitive place in which to buy and has lead to higher prices.

Also, when making a purchase a buyer should consider that an item from a dealer will generally be in better order than one from an auction where it may have come straight from a private home. When purchased from a reputable dealer it should have received any remedial attention, cleaning, polishing and treatment it may require before being offered for sale. Generally the piece will be far more suitable for Welsh vernacular furnitureeveryday use and provide the buyer with a long and serviceable life. The expense of a good restorer is something that most buyers do not consider they will often have to add to a piece bought from auction in order to bring it up to the standard they require.

Secondly, it is a good rule not to discount the smaller shops and dealers when buying, good pieces can be found in many places. A large number of the finest dealers we know are not members of trading associations and have structured their business as we have with good honest stock and a reputation for being knowledgeable and fair on price.

How does the industry encourage younger buyers?

It’s a matter of placing your product in a way that will appeal to your customer base in a location that it will be easily found by them. For younger dealers such as ourselves, I am 37 and Yvonne a year younger, we find it easy to relate to younger buyers and enjoy taking photos for Instagram and Twitter and we can be contacted easily on social media. Making old oak furniture sound cool is not going to happen, but to sell the items on their quality, simple design and displaying them in an environment which mixes modern and antique in a relatable and attractive way helps create the appeal of antiques for the modern young person.

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