Mark Hill, Cracking Antiques interview: 'Who wants to have the same home as everyone else...?'

A lifelong avid collector, Mark Hill is co-author of the Miller's Collectables Price Guide and an expert on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow.

He also publishes books on new collecting areas via Mark Hill Publishing Ltd, and was previously a specialist at Sotheby's and Bonhams. 

On top of all that, Mark is now set to be become a household name co-host of 'Cracking Antiques', BBC Two's exciting new primetime series on antiques and interiors.

The programme will air at 8.30pm for six weeks from next Wednesday (April 7).

In the run up to the new programme's launch, Mark took some time to have in-depth chat about his ongoing love of antiques, and the  thrill of the hunt when chasing the next one-of-a-kind buy...

When did you first become interested in antiques? How has this interest developed over the years?

I've collected something for as long as I can remember, probably starting properly with my grandfather's stamps which he gave me when I was young. Although I don't collect them anymore, that started me off on my collecting journey. Since then, I have collected everything from 19th century prints to Bakelite and early plastics, fountain pens, studio ceramics, and 20th century glass.

Mark with his Cracking Antiques
co-host Kathyrn Rayward

I went straight into the auction world from university and was lucky enough to find a job very quickly. Although it was poorly paid, you can't put a price on the firm grounding gained in this near 'apprenticeship'. Since then, I've never looked back.

I love to learn about new areas, and my current personal obsession is researching ignored or under-rated areas. Since 2005, I've published a number of books myself on subjects ranging from 1950s-70s West German ceramics, known as 'Fat Lava', to post-war Czech glass.

With your combined skills of interior design and expertise on antiques, you make the ideal team. How did you come to presenting Cracking Antiques?

Yes, it's a perfect combination! Coming from different angles allows each of us to see different things in an object. As well as being a fountain of knowledge and expertise, Kathryn is also brilliant fun to work with.

I think the initial idea for the series was Kathryn's - I was brought on once the series had been developed by the wonderful team at Silver River. I'm lucky enough to work as a specialist on the Antiques Roadshow, so I've had some experience of television. But this has been a whole new - very exciting and extremely enjoyable - challenge.

What are the highlights of making this series for you?

I've always believed that shopping for antique, vintage and retro items is much more fun and considerably more rewarding than buying from a high street or retail park. A particularly memorable moment was pointing out an early 20th century oak cabinet at an antiques fair to one husband and wife.

It was the sort of thing that most people walk past - you have to learn how to look at something properly and see it out of the context of a muddy field. The cabinet was made from solid oak, was sturdy and in great visual and structural condition.

Its clean, almost modern, lines, warm colour developed over a century, and Art Nouveau style handles made it an appealing piece. But what made it more appealing was the price - �300. You'd have to pay many times more to find a similar brand new piece today.

After they had looked at it for a couple of minutes, they were beaming from ear to ear - it's watching that dawning realisation of the incredible potential and value in giving an old piece a new life that made me happy. 

Here's a living room before the Cracking Antiques team went to work on it...
(the "after" photograph is further down the page)

The image of collecting and buying antiques is changing. How would you describe this image transformation and why it is happening?

I couldn't agree more - it's a complete revolution, and a new movement is being born. There are many reasons behind it, but for most people the majority come down to how we feel about and see ourselves and our homes.

I think the urge to collect is part of human nature - we've collected things for centuries, from a grand 18th century aristocrat who travelled Europe on the Grand Tour to an Edwardian factory worker collecting Goss commemoratives on railway trips around the country.

We like to surround ourselves with beautiful objects that are a joy to own and have resonance to our lives and memories. The image of 'granny's china cabinet' is also waning, and I'm seeing people in their 20s and 30s collecting retro and vintage pieces with a mind to building up an individual, eclectic look in their rooms.

Who wants to have the same home as everyone else, and who wants their home to look like they ordered it from a catalogue? Due to this trend, many people stop after buying a couple of examples - but many get hooked and become 'proper' collectors.

Do you think the recession has played a part in the increasing numbers of antique buying and collecting?

Yes, I think it has, and I see two different aspects of the effect. For the past few decades, houses have been treated almost as tradable commodities rather than as homes. As such, many people kept interiors as neutral as possible, hoping that this would make them easier to market and sell.

Now it's harder to sell a house, we're beginning to see houses as homes once again. As times are also tough economically, we're going out less and there's a strong 'nesting' feeling going on. All this has freed us to stamp our personality on a home, and fill it with things that mean something to us; that we enjoy looking, using and having around.

The second aspect is that, with money as tight as it is, people are looking more closely at value. Antiques, vintage and second-hand items can be much better value, and often less expensive, than brand new pieces.

Much mid-range antique furniture has also fallen in value recently, but looks to recover soon. That 'investment' potential is a major draw. But many realise that buying this way is not just an investment in terms of money, it's also an investment in terms of quality.

Most of these pieces are made from solid wood, often by hand. If they've withstood many decades, or even centuries, of use they can certainly put up with the rigours of modern life. You can't say any of this about MDF or chipboard furniture bought from the high street or a retail park. 

Are we seeing a rise in the crafts and skills associated with antiques, like restoring and reupholstering?

Yes, I think that a 'make do and mend' attitude is typical of economically tough times. Two of our contributors on 'Cracking Antiques' were so inspired by what we did together that they have taken it a step further.

One is learning how to restore and repair antique furniture, and another has taken a stand at an antiques centre selling vintage 'shabby chic' furniture and decorative accessories. I'm also told that attendance at evening classes is on the up, showing people really are wanting to get practical.

I also think that much of this trend is driven by the ever-growing 'green' movement. We're much more aware about what we are doing to our planet, and are becoming more active in doing something about it.

Brand new furniture and decorative accessories often have a carbon footprint the size of a continent, whereas antiques really are green and are the most glamorous form of recycling I know of.

When looking for antiques as an investment, what are the key items to look out for?

I would never recommend buying antiques purely as investments - that's not the point at all. Buy something because you love it and then it'll never disappoint you! The market changes all the time, so fashion is a key driver to bear in mind. There are a number of areas I'd consider from some early 19th century English porcelain, to West German ceramics, post-war Czech glass, and post-war British metal ware, in both precious metals and stainless steel.

Do you have any expert advice on what to avoid and what not to buy?

First off, buy a book to get your 'eye in'. Get to know the basics about what appeals to you, such as makers' or designers' names, shapes, materials, styles, period of manufacture etc. Also learn about what is hot and what's not, and the price ranges that go with these categories.

If you're looking for a particular style or decorating an interior to follow a period, buy the objects that shout the style or period the most as, these are likely to be popular in the future. Always consider condition, a broken pot will always be a broken pot even if it's restored, and make your own mind up. Some things can be costly to repair, but it doesn't matter if you love it.

Having said all of this, I think 1980s design will make a major comeback in the near future. And I don't just mean the expensive Post -Modern pieces by Sottsass, Mendini and others for Memphis, but the 'high street' pieces they inspired too.

A lot of well made, mid-range Victorian and Edwardian furniture (such as late 19th century mahogany chests of drawers) is also looking too good value right now, certainly compared to prices being paid for some mid-century modern equivalents. I think this will change and prices will rise.

Do you have any advice on buying antiques online and what to look out for?

Over the past ten years I've seen the internet become an absolutely essential part of business for dealers, collectors and auction houses. If you're worried about the veracity of the piece you're interested in, ask the vendor.

Many dealers and auction houses are members of trade associations, and this offers a great feeling of security. Larger companies and auction houses will also have strong, historic reputations, excellent levels of expertise, and clear conditions of business. If buying items on eBay, feedback ratings are invaluable, but be aware that in very large numbers of transactions, a small percentage are bound to go wrong and the seller may not be to blame.

As for specific advice for eBay, bear in mind that the majority of sellers are not experts. This can be bad, but can also be good for the canny buyer with prior knowledge. Check out common mis-spellings of a name -'Wedgewood' is a good example. I've also found that searching a specific category using the keywords 'huge', 'unusual' or 'weird' often yields some surprisingly interesting results.

Are there any particular trends in antiques that collectors should look out for?

I think that we're about to witness an enormous swing away from modern design, and back to older pieces from the Georgian or Victorian periods, for example. But I don't think that any one period, look or style will come out on top. Instead I think we'll mix and match to suit ourselves, and our homes. Granny's favourite comfy armchair may be re-covered and placed next to a 1970s teak sideboard designed by Borge Mogensen.

Stunning examples of late 19th century Doulton stoneware might be displayed on a mid-century modern shelving unit in a Georgian house. Surprisingly, the different proportions, colours and forms can complement and contrast with each other to great effect. Last Sunday afternoon some friends of mine served me tea and cakes from 1920s chintz ceramics, which I was reclining comfortably in a Charles & Ray Eames recliner! 

And after... The Cracking Antiques team will be coming to a television near
you on April 7

As experts, how would you guarantee if an item is authentic?

If you're spending more than a few pounds, my advice is always to buy from a reputable source, be it a dealer or an auction house. Trade associations such as BADA (British Antiques Association) and SOFA (Society of Fine Art Auctioneers) are good places to start, as their members have to abide by a code of conduct.

If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Always ask a seller questions if you are unsure about something, and look in books to build your knowledge and 'get your eye in'. Better that by looking at handling as many authentic pieces as possible.

Going out to buy forearmed with even a little bit of knowledge is vital - after all you wouldn't go shopping for a new flat screen TV without doing a bit of research first, would you? 

Where is the best place for a collector to go and to get items valued and authenticated?

You can do a little initial research in books or online, but ensure that you use reputable sources.

However, in the final instance, always rely on an appraisal and valuation of the item itself by a professional. Auction houses and some dealers will usually be happy to give you an idea of an item's value with a view to selling it. If you need a written valuation for insurance purposes, professional valuers, some dealers and many auction houses offer this service, but will usually make a charge.

Due to the various costs involved in buying and selling antiques, an insurance, or 'replacement', valuation will typically be higher than a valuation for sale. Remember that all valuations are professional opinions based on experience, knowledge and the current state of the market. If you feel unsure or disagree, obtain a second opinion.

Do you have a favourite designer or era, and why?

It changes every week. I'm a magpie collector and move from subject to subject all too frequently. My apartment reflects this. While my living room is filled with mahogany and oak furniture, Persian rugs, etchings, oil paintings and other objects collected affordably since I was 15, my bedroom and kitchen are shrines to clean-lined modernity.

However, I'm not slavish about it and avant garde 20th century glass vases can be found within the Victorian 'Maximalist' look, and the odd 19th century piece creeps, alone or with two friends, onto a shelf to give relief to the clean, plain surfaces.

What is your most valued item?

It had an enormous crack in it, and was lying in a cardboard box outside the shop amidst all manner of dinner plates and glass of various colours and ages. I'd never seen anything quite like it before, and the quality and complexity of its production screamed out at me.

I knew I would never be able to afford it if it was in perfect condition. I bought it and it sat on a shelf next to my computer for a number of years before I stumbled across it in the course of researching my book on post-war Czech glass design.

It was part of a range made for and exhibited in the Czech pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Exposition. Although the designer hasn't yet been confirmed, some important names have been associated with it. Examples are eye-wateringly rare, and I've only seen another two.

I paid �10 for it, but if it was perfect it would probably be worth over �2,000 today - a price I can see rising dramatically over the next few years as this area is becoming increasingly popular and this really is a truly great piece.  

What advice do you have for someone starting out in buying and collecting antiques?

Get out there and learn by handling the pieces that appeal to you. Visit fairs and dealers shops and talk to people in the know. Although you can learn so much by reading books, nothing beats looking at and discussing the objects first hand.

Then there's the thrill of the hunt and that exuberant feeling gained from a fantastic purchase made because of what you taught yourself.


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