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Of the dozens of items of second-hand furniture I have bought over the past few years, none has delivered better bang for its buck than the Georgian oak linen press I picked up from the Golding Young & Mawer auction house in Lincolnshire last spring.
Linen presses — sometimes called clothes presses — are not typically found in contemporary homes, though they are handsome and useful; I can’t imagine why they fell out of fashion (the erratically reliable Wikipedia suggests built-in joinery is to blame). With a standard chest of drawers for a base and a pair of double doors opening to reveal usually five rows of slides up top, they were popular items of bedroom furniture from the 17th to 19th centuries and used, as the name implies, to store bed sheets, clothes and other textiles (the deep slides are particularly nifty, as they allow you to see all of your folded-up jumpers at once, rather than go digging through ever-toppling stacks as you would on a conventional shelf). Today they can be had for next to nothing at auction — I bought mine for £120, less than a two-door Pax wardrobe from Ikea — and use it to store all of the clothes I do not hang.
Linen presses fall broadly into a category of what I describe as “useful but unfashionable” furniture that is of terrific quality and, when sourced at auction, typically costs less than a cheap high street equivalent. It’s a category of antiques that includes other large pieces of storage furniture such as tallboys (essentially two chests of drawers stacked on top of each other), armoires and freestanding wardrobes, open bookcases, sideboards and pedestal desks.
“The market is very polarised with the sought-after items which are few and far between fetching really strong money while ‘house fillers’ tend to go for firewood,” says Gear Antiques’ Marc Costantini, whose Lillie Road shop has been the source of some of my best (and best-priced) finds to date. “Auctions are wonderful for buying large or very large items which most people, trade included, can’t give storage to and generally are not impulse buys. Most auctioneers tend to give them very low estimates and no reserves just to get them away. Conversely, these are the things that most antique shops charge the most for because they are so large and bulky.”
Beyond my list, that includes dining tables, large buffets, sofas, Chesterfields and beds, says Costantini. Smaller pieces of furniture such as side tables and washstands, of which there are dozens up for auction each week, can easily be repurposed as desks (so long as the height is about 73cm). Travel trunks make for inexpensive coffee tables, and hall chairs that once graced the entryways of grand country estates make for attractive and unexpected bedsides (and at a fraction of the price of matching Georgian washstands, pot cupboards or commodes).
There are some bits of furniture, however, that are best left on the saleroom floor. Davenports were “the Rolls-Royce of furniture in their day, but now not given house space” says Costantini, and it’s not difficult to see why — with their compact proportions and sloping leather-covered tops, they were perfect for storing stationery and dashing off correspondence in the 19th century, but won’t support today’s typical WFH setup. An inlaid Edwardian open bookcase can be found for £100 or less, but I think it’s worth paying up for the superior solidity and patina of the Georgian originals they were often aping.
If you really value function over form, you can pursue the deeply unfashionable stuff — eg dark, Victorian and heavy. Inlaid Edwardian furniture is also little in demand and while I don’t personally like it, it’s preferable to particleboard. Arts and Crafts furniture tends to be solidly made, and certain pieces, such as wardrobes and bookcases, can go for very little. And Art Deco furniture veneered in birdseye maple or burr walnut — again, rather hideous to my eye, but perhaps well-suited to a 1930s house — is both easy to find and generally inexpensive.
A word of advice if you do go the auction route: always email to ask (or better yet call) for condition reports, ensure drawers and slides run smoothly, and doors stay shut. An auction bargain can become anything but if you need to send a piece out for repairs. Avoid anything described as “Georgian style” or “Regency style” — it’s a shorthand for a reproduction. It’s always best to see a piece in person, and failing that, get as many photos (ideally in natural light) as the showroom will send you. And don’t forget eBay.
If I’ve sold you on the excellence of linen presses, but you’d rather skip the auction house, I highly recommend dealer Ron Green’s selection. The family-run team has wonderful taste and terrific knowledge, and every item is restored in their workshop before going online, so you don’t have to worry about wonky drawers.
Lauren Indvik is the FT’s fashion editor