Renowned antique dealer Holly Johnson shares her advice on how to get started in collecting antiques. Holly trained at Christies, went on to develop her career at Bonhams (Phillips) and following this worked with David Dickinson showing 19th Century Exhibition Furniture at the major London Fairs. Holly has supplied many leading international interior designers over the years.

If you’re new to the world of antique collecting, it can be a wonderful and exhilarating experience, but it is important to do your research and take certain things into consideration.

More and more shoppers are turning their backs on run-of-the-mill, mass-produced goods, making the craftsmanship, history, and individuality of antiques more sought after than ever.

Antique items add interest and a sense of maturity to a home, and when chosen carefully, they can tie different periods of art and furniture together. Many people think antiques don’t work if you have an ultra-modern home but this is simply not the case.

If you’re new to antiques the best thing to do is start with one room in the house and decide where you’d like to put your item. Get an idea of the size of the area where it will be placed as this will help narrow your options when you go shopping. Good pieces to start with are accessory items such as lamps, art, mirrors or side tables as opposed to larger pieces of furniture. Take a photograph of the room so when you go shopping you can refer to it and picture the piece in your home.

Starting an Antiques Collection

There are a few simple questions you want to keep in the forefront of your mind when you are on the hunt for that perfect antique piece; is it genuine, will it fit in your home, and are you paying the right price?

Historically, to determine if something is an antique, it usually means that the antique is over 100 years old, and as time moves on the description of antiques becomes more fluid. For example, mid-century modern items which are typically around 50 years can be classed as prized antiques.

I suggest that the best way to get started is to visit your local or London antiques dealers and check that they are approved members of trade associations such as LAPADA and BADA.

Collectable antiques are often made by well-known designers, are housed in private collections and museums around the world, and are made with the highest quality materials.

If a particular designer catches your eye, please don’t necessarily think it will be out of your budget. To illustrate, we have been buying and selling Mouseman items for the past 12 years. Prices start at around £120 for an ashtray, but an early desk or sideboard could be as much as £33,000. The record price for a Mouseman piece is $70,000 for a cupboard sold at Sotheby’s in New York.

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Over the last four years, the market has significantly risen mainly because Mouseman pieces really hold their value, it is all so beautifully made, and the quality is so high. The oak was seasoned for five to eight years before it was even touched. While today many collectors are wealthy clients or ‘kings of industry’, when the furniture was first made it was often sold to local farmers who used it for bartering.

As prices go up, copies could become a bit more of an issue. If the mouse is stuck on rather than carved it’s a fake. If the mouse is on the board rather than the handle, it means it’s the 1940s or earlier.

Robert Mouseman Thompson chopping board

Caption: Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson Oak Chopping Board Circa 1960 £550

Antiques worth considering collecting are often those that were ahead of their time when they were manufactured, ones that were regarded as Avant-Garde and fashionable pieces to own.

These are the items that then go on to transcend time, and are great pieces to collect. For example, you can see this with the Regency period, where designers were classically inspired such as the very influential Thomas Hope and the Scottish designer John McLean.

A more modern example can be found in the 1980s Italian-based Memphis Group – a design and architecture group, founded by Ettore Sottsass, well known for their post-modern, abstract and colourful furniture, ceramics, glass, and metal pieces.

Martine Bedin Super Table Lamp for Memphis Italy circa 1982 £3200

CAPTION:  Martine Bedin Super Table Lamp for Memphis, Italy, circa 1982 £3200

Many people are worried about wear and tear. Well-made antiques are hardwearing and react well to usage over time. In the industry, wear and tear is an ‘enhancer of the piece and each item will have different patina (the build-up on colour), as the light and how they have been handled affects their colour.’ Holly reiterates that well-patinated pieces are prized, and can command a higher price.

When vising antique dealers, I suggest focusing on the pieces that really stand out to you, and always ask before picking anything up. It is important to take your time checking over it, look for authenticity marks, inspect any flaws and watch out for modern fixings as these are often an indication that the piece has been altered. The antique seller will most likely welcome any questions and should be able to give you an insight into the date and history of the items you like.  If they can’t, you may not be in a reputable store.

If you’ve done your research and you’re looking to invest a substantial sum for a piece by a specific designer you need to visit a well-known dealer. For example, I adore and stock many items by the Italian designer Piero Fornasetti, whose work dates from the ’50s through to the ’80s.

A dealer can provide specialist advice on how to date specific pieces and while modern-day Fornasetti continues to intrigue, it is the vintage pieces that command the highest prices.

For example, a vintage ‘Architettura’ trumeau from the 1940s–1950s would be worth about £150,000, whereas a newer one would be around £40,000. Only around 40 were produced in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, making early examples highly sought after.

Piero Fornasetti Cappiello Ionico Chair Italy circa 1960 £5500

Caption: Piero Fornasetti Cappiello Ionico Chair Italy circa 1960, £5500


His designs are very lively, so they brighten up interiors and give a signature look.  Just one item will bring a wonderful sense of colour and character, like a highlighter, into a room.

We also find that Victorian items from the Arts & Crafts era are highly sought after; as are drawings and artwork which are simple to incorporate into any home. Look out for work by well-known British artists such as Charles Tunnicliffe and Harold Riley, as these pieces will hold their investment for many years to come.

Painting of an Elephant in pencil, watercolour and crayon on paper, (c.1960 England), priced at £3,200. Available at

Caption: Painting of an Elephant in pencil, watercolour and crayon on paper, by Tunnicliffe (c.1960 England), priced at £3,200.

Lastly, make sure you actually really like the item you choose and you enjoy its aesthetics. As with any decorative item, they are completely subjective to the owner’s personal taste, so what I may enjoy may not appeal to you, and so forth. That is the joy of collecting antiques, everything has its own unique personality and identity.

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