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Written by Adam Edwards, The Daily Telegraph
What’s the future for antique furniture? Adam Edwards seeks out the trade’s Mr Big
If you wanted an unusual piece of antique furniture and – well, let’s take an example completely at random – you fancied a hand-carved double bed modelled on a Venetian gondola that had seen service in an Italian brothel, Tony Bush is your man.
He has two of them. He also has a chest of drawers that looks like a barrel, a child’s four-poster bed, a life-size bronze of an unknown horse and the marble bust of a mewling infant. These objects are in addition to the 1,000 chairs, hundreds of dining tables and scores of long, mahogany sideboards, all cooped up in the middle of the English countryside.
Tony owns the largest antique furniture cave in Britain and possibly in Europe. His stock, some of it at any rate, is squeezed into 20,000 square foot of a former indoor equestrian centre in the middle of rural Hertfordshire. There is more kit in the two adjacent barns that have been converted into showrooms while the rest – and there is quite a lot of the rest – is housed in farm buildings dotted around the immediate area of Gaddesden, designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty.
”I can’t resist buying furniture I like,” says Tony, owner of Bushwood Antiques, who lives ”above the shop” in a pair of workmen’s cottages that he has converted into a one-bedroom, period home with a wood-panelled snooker room. ”What I like is well-made English furniture from the past four centuries, and I don’t care if it is in or out of fashion.”
As the summer antique fair season kicked off at Olympia last month, John Harvey, a director of Sotheby’s, was reported as saying: ”The way things are going, it will soon be as cheap to buy an antique dining table in a sale as it is to get a new one from Ikea. Prices today are as low as they were 20 years ago.”
Twenty years ago, Tony moved lock, stock and barrel – and that was £2 million worth of antique stock, excluding the barrel chest of drawers – from the capital to the stables and outhouses of a grand mansion 20 minutes from St Albans.
”I didn’t have enough room for everything in Camden Town,” he says, by way of explanation for his extraordinary concentration of brown furniture, ”so I sold my London premises to Sainsbury’s.”
Since the move, he has been responsible for furnishing some of Britain’s grandest hotels and mansions. The Ritz Carlton is a customer, as is the stately Brocket Hall. Oasis’s Noel Gallagher had his country house stocked from the old equestrian centre. Musician Jools Holland picked up a number of bits and pieces for his pad. So did Lady Chelsea, and so do scores of Britain’s smartest interior decorators.
Bushwood Antiques is unique. There is nowhere quite like it in the murky world of French polish and fine veneer. Not only does it hold an extraordinary range of stock but it has its own team of five full-time restorers and polishers that can alter and colour any piece to suit.
‘We provide an after-sales service,” says the nattily dressed Tony. ”If we sell you a grandfather clock that stops ticking, we’ll fix it. If you want a set of chairs to match a table, we’ll polish them to the right colour. If you need the arms to a pair of carvers shortened so that they fit at the end your table, we can do it.”
Tony, who has the air of an elderly rock-and-roll statesman about him, started out in a £6-a- week shed in Ealing, west London. One of his earliest customers was the father of The Who’s Pete Townshend, who asked Tony to help furnish his son’s first home; which, in turn, led Tony to providing the fixtures for lead singer Roger Daltrey’s house.
The wholesale buying and selling of antique furniture has been Tony’s business ever since. Or at least that was true until the unfortunate combination of London property prices, 9/11 and minimalism forced him to go retail.
”The price of renting a shop in London became prohibitive for a lot of dealers,” he says. “They were forced to rely on antique fairs. Then the Americans stopped coming over. And antique furniture had, by then, gone out of fashion. The result is that many big dealers have gone out of business. I am one of the few that have survived and I have done it by selling to the public as well as to the trade.”
Tony, who still buys all the furniture with the help of his assistant, Julie Collins, is convinced that antique furniture will come back into fashion. It only needs an influential figure – he suggests David Beckham – to decorate his home with a mahogany sideboard or a walnut chest and the prices will start to rocket.
“If you think of the craftsmanship that goes into an antique piece – the wood, the hand-carving, the dovetail joints – and compare it to a flat-pack self-assembly piece, then you understand that today’s prices are absurdly low. Now is the time to buy.
” And if you are buying and your shopping list includes an antique bed, may I recommend the hand- carved, hand-painted ”love boat” with one carefree previous owner which is a snip at £12,000.”
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