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The pitfalls of buying painted antique furniture

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At a Christie’s sale in Paris late last year, a painted “Etruscan” armchair that once adorned Marie Antoinette’s apartments at Versailles, still retaining its original blue and grey pigment, hammered down at €906,000 (€1.1mn with fees) — wildly surpassing Christie’s mid-estimate of €150,000.

Demand for antique painted furniture is on the rise as interiors evolve from what Alix Melville, junior specialist of decorative arts at Christie’s, describes as the “cream neutral walls and floors of the early 2000s” to the “Colefax and Fowler look” with its warm embrace of colour and pattern.

In Europe, examples of painted furniture range from 18th and 19th-century “folk” or “peasant” chairs and cupboards, roughly hewn from pine or ash and washed with a layer of green or blue paint, to royally commissioned tables and bureau-cabinets by famous cabinetmakers and adorned with neoclassical scenes.

Today the most sought-after examples tend to be 19th-century and earlier pieces from Italy, France, England and the Netherlands with “original layers”, says Melville. Swedish furniture — particularly the white-and-blue painted examples of the Gustavian period from 1772 to 1809 — also attract a premium.

blue and white chair once belonging to Marie Antoinette
This painted armchair from Marie Antoinette’s Versailles apartments sold far beyond its estimate last year at €906,000 © Christie’s

Some prefer the paint untouched, but sometimes a dealer might have the paint scraped back to reveal, quite beautifully, centuries of redecoration. “Often [a piece] might have been painted in the mid-18th century, and then the fashions changed, and it was redecorated in the 19th century and becomes part of the rich history it has,” says Melville.

For those who love the look of faded paint on oak and pine but don’t have the budget for a royally commissioned chair, reasonably priced examples can still be found at auction and from dealers. Last year, I picked up a beautiful Georgian chest of drawers with later (probably early 20th-century) blue paint from Gear Antiques on London’s Lillie Road for £500, which has since been joined by more painted Regency chairs than can reasonably fit into a four-bedroom house (three live in my partner’s office in the loft).

Warwick-based dealer John Cornall stocks a range of well-priced chests and marriage cupboards sourced from rural parts of eastern and central Europe, which cost far less than comparable versions from western Europe or Sweden.

colourfully folk-painted  bridal chest
A folk-painted Hungarian bridal chest, early 20th century, £950, John Cornall Antiques

Painted antiques were not always in demand. In the early 1970s, dealers could drive over to “an airfield in Ireland” and pick up a Georgian painted dresser for between £10 and £40, Cornall recalls. The dressers were typically stripped of their paint and sent to the US — “and now they are as rare as hen’s teeth,” he says. Today, even the simplest examples can cost thousands of pounds and fakes — where an old piece is painted in several layers, treated with chemicals and jet-washed or sandpapered to look authentic — abound.

“At the end of day, that’s just a small percentage of genuinely nice [original] pieces,” Cornall says.

Fortunately, painted furniture is a category where having “the best” does not necessarily produce the best results, and having a variety — from gently faded to modern to scraped back or even badly scored — can add texture and depth to a room.

The interiors of the late collector and interior designer Robert Kime were a testament to this approach. The pieces were not always spectacular in their own right, but placed in the right setting — a battered red-painted pine table adjoining a stone fireplace lined in Delft-blue tiles, an early 18th-century chinoiserie clock opposite a bone-inlaid mirror — they would sing.

mahogany hall cupboard with painted panels
Mahogany hall cupboard with painted panels, price undisclosed, The Saleroom

Still, it helps to know what you are paying for, and more than once I’ve been disappointed to find a painted piece has been overly retouched, sometimes in very plasticky-looking (probably acrylic) paint. Buying something you’ve seen in person is always preferable, and even then it’s important to get the auction house or dealer’s take on how old (or not) the paint may be, and how and to what extent it has been retouched and with what kind of paint. Be suspicious of antique pieces vaguely described as having “later” paint — it could be freshly done.

Another word of warning: while it’s nice to have a range of ages and types of painted furniture, it’s probably best to avoid anything that has been recently and obviously “distressed” to look older than it is. 

If you’re not sure painted furniture is right for your home, Melville’s advice is to start small with a tole-painted wall light or tray, which can often be found for £150 or less on auction house aggregators such as The Saleroom or Auctionet. A painted plate rack can relieve the monotony of a kitchen’s built-in cupboards, and a glazed hanging cupboard with a painted back can look beautiful, especially when filled with antique glass. 

But be warned that painted furniture can be addictive, and your partner may not thank you when their loft office is rammed with painted Regency chairs they are strictly forbidden to sit on.

Lauren Indvik is the FT’s fashion editor

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