I can’t really explain what it is about a second hand stuff that I love so much, but my heart quickens when I enter an emporium and smell that slightly stale air and gaze at all the discarded items that are just waiting to become someone else’s prize possession. Let me make it clear, I am sadly no Lovejoy, but in a way that takes all the pressure off – when I shop, I am not looking for a Chinese pot that is worth a hundred times the price on the ticket, but simply something that I know immediately that I am enthralled by and is destined to be in my home. Indeed much as I love the antiques roadshow, I recoil every time the price is discussed because far too often, the tension that hangs in the air makes it clear that the owner of late Auntie Elsie’s porcelain figurine feels no love for it other than its financial potential. For me, it is not about what the items are worth in monetary terms but the excitement of the hunt, the notion of the history of the piece and the individuality that it’s presence could add to a home.
There is a tendency to think that if you incorporate an antique into your home, you are committing to dark wood, an old-fashioned feel or something that is not cutting edge. Don’t be misled – there are so many variations on second hand items available that the right piece can add an edge to almost any style of home and appeal to the most varied of aesthetic tastes. As an example, there is a wonderful shop just along the road from a friend of mine in West London called Max Inc which is dedicated to home furnishings from the sixties and seventies. It is a late mid-century modernists heaven and oozes urban cool. Every time I walk past, I am drawn like a magnet to it, not because it is my style (unfortunately I am neither urban nor cool) but because the pieces in there are utterly captivating.
Whilst there is nothing more alluring to me than a sign glimpsed from a moving vehicle that says ‘Antiques shop’ or better still, when in France ‘Brocante’, there are many other ways of feeding this addiction. Ebay was made for second hand lovers and I have already spent too much of my life on it (scorecard an embarrassing – purchases 197, sales 3). As with so many purchases made online, the trick is to be as inquisitive as Poirot before committing yourself. Check the description, pictures and dimensions as a given, but don’t be afraid to ask the seller for more information, or more pictures. A genuine vendor is normally helpful, and interested.
One of the joys and frustrations of Ebay is that there is so much stuff to look at and finding the right item is helped by knowing what term to put into a search engine. I was recently looking for a “small low rustic side table”, which produced very menial results – I finally found something close to what I was looking for which was described as (and possibly was) a French milking stool. I put this into the Ebay search box and found I had hit the jackpot on my small low rustic side table.
An extremely happy middle ground between antique shops and Ebay are the many auction houses that exist to feed our desire for a one-off purchase. I find them utterly irresistible because not only is there the excitement of bidding on something you want but you can actually look at the item in question and normally take it with you at the end of the day, (unlike Ebay where you then have to figure out how you get your newly won chest of drawers from the far end of Cornwall to your own home) so there is no big surprise, good or otherwise, when you finally set eyes on it. More auctions take place than you would think but if you are interested, I would strongly advise getting on the mailing list for regular local sales at Willingham Auctions and also Cheffins Interiors and Fine Art Auctions which are a thrill to be involved with, even if you don’t buy, although I bet like me, you will find it hard not to be tempted by something you had no idea you needed or wanted.
Many second hand items are entirely home ready but I would strongly advise not being put off if what you have in your sights is a little care worn. There is an army of artisans out there that can transform a battered purchase into a statement piece if you know who to call on. A good French polisher is a contact to be cherished as they seem to be able to transform tired furniture into glowing centre-pieces, but there are others who you need to consider such as furniture restorers, cane restorers, electricians, decorators and so on. All can work their magic if you know the right people. If you don’t, hunt around for a good recommendation from someone who has actually worked with them and if possible, see the work they have done. Then talk to them about what is possible, mostly their expertise will become obvious, or not.
Finally don’t be afraid that by dipping your toes into the second hand world you are excluding the possibility of also owning contemporary furniture. I think mixing second hand and new furniture can work brilliantly to create a personalised look that has the interest and depth that good antiques bring, combined with the freshness and modernity of new pieces. I also think you can mix second hand pieces of different periods but there does need to be care given to this as there is a point that an interesting mix becomes a confusing jumble.
As with so many things interior-related, I would recommend following your heart, and thus your own style, when selecting second hand items. Know roughly what you are after (a chair, table, artwork) and what will work in terms of size, comfort and so on but then wait for the moment when you think, ‘I absolutely love that’. Then and only then it is the right time to consider a purchase.