Last month, while browsing the catalogue for Dreweatts’ fine furniture sale, I came across a large, 19th-century, Swedish Baroque-style mirror bordered by deep blue glass. It was crowned with gilded cherubs and garden urns, and adding to the romance was its provenance, having been acquired by Douglas Hogg, former Lord Chancellor, in the first half of the 20th century, and passed along to his descendants. I wasn’t really in the market for a mirror, but was so taken with this one that I decided to lob in a bid.
I needn’t have bothered. Estimated by Dreweatts to fetch between £1,200 and £1,800, a flurry of pre-bidding activity drove the price up to £11,000 before the auction even began. On the day, it hammered down at £18,368 with fees. For a 19th-century mirror done in an 18th-century style, it was a stunning price. What had I — and more importantly, what had Dreweatts — missed?
“It’s quite unpredictable,” says Ben Brown, head of the furniture department at Dreweatts. “But it ticked all the boxes: originality, size, appearance with the very distinctive blue glass. Still, we did feel it was 19th rather than 18th century [which would have lowered the valuation]. Obviously, the provenance helped.”
Generally speaking, valuations are informed by originality, age, provenance and what comparable examples previously fetched at auction. But there are prevailing tastes too. Some years ago, new mirror plates were preferred, for example; now there is a premium for original or at least older plates. Frames that have been regilded or heavily repaired will also knock down a valuation.
The nice thing about dramatically losing a lot at auction — versus being the underbidder — is you don’t lose sleep wondering if you should have gone just a little higher. But it did make me wonder what I ought to know before trying to buy another antique mirror.
I rang up antique dealer Mark Punton of Ebury Trading in south London, who supplied the fantastic Irish rock crystal and glass mirrors in Lily Allen and David Harbour’s Brooklyn town house. “When buying at auction, it’s always preferable to go and look at the piece in person,” he says. Images can be deceiving, even to an expert eye — a mirror he once bid for online, billed as 19th century, turned out to be new. “By the time you pay for something to be shipped to London, you’re stuck with it,” he says.
If you can’t make it to the auction preview, ask for more images and study the description carefully. “If they’re vague, or don’t give an age, or the images are grainy, that’s a red flag.” And then pick up the phone. “Ask — don’t email: is the mirror plate original? Is there any damage one should know about? Ask questions about its age.”
One thing bidders don’t have to worry about is the back, which can range from paper to wood to card, and which Punton and another dealer told me is inconsequential. As for the condition of the plate, that largely falls to personal preference. Most mirrors made between the 16th and late 18th centuries were backed — beautifully but dangerously for their makers — with tin slicked with mercury, which is what made them reflective. Deterioration has produced a range of (to my eye, lovely) effects such as “foxing”, which can range from small black spots to an entirely clouded plate, and a silvery glitter aptly described as “diamond dust”.
Next I visited the antiques dealer Shane Meredith, whose two-storey shop on the Lillie Road in west London is lined floor-to-ceiling with antique mirrors, sometimes going three or four deep against the walls. It’s a real mix. I’m struck by one bordered in a deep-button silk that is also pleated with burgundy velvet at the back. He points to another, in brassy gilt festooned with cherubs. “It’s the campest mirror I’ve ever seen,” he says, giggling.
Meredith says the price is determined more by fashion and less by age, quality or make — “though, of course, it has to do with those as well”. He points to a large, 19th-century Italian mirror with a dark, ornately carved frame that will probably, he predicts, end up in a hotel lobby. Though the workmanship is superb, it won’t command the same price as the trendy, mid-century Italian brass-framed mirrors he can’t keep in stock. Chinoiserie and Chippendale styles are also selling at a premium.
Meredith doesn’t buy often at auction but when he does he goes in person. “It’s not like buying a Howard chair,” when the brand ensures a level of quality, he says. “With mirrors, you’re not buying a name, you’re buying something 300 years old, there will certainly be some things wrong with it, and you want to see in the flesh.”
I keep thinking back to a 19th-century French mirror with a beautifully foxed plate and a silver reeded frame that he had in stock. It is £450. And, come to think of it, a lot more to my taste than Swedish Baroque.
Lauren Indvik is the FT’s fashion editor
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