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In 1988, Bill Nesheim was antiquing in the Cotswold region west of London when he developed a passion for the richly carved, medieval-looking furniture made in the British Isles in the 17th century and earlier. Nesheim, who owns a wholesale jewelry business in Minnetonka, Minn., bought a three-legged chair made of spools that had been hand-turned on a lathe and two elaborately embellished coffers, or storage boxes. To his delight, his initials, B.N., were gouged into one of the boxes along with the date 1699. "I was taken by the beauty of the carving and the beautiful patina," says Nesheim. "I had never seen anything like them outside of books."
England has produced many distinguished genres of furniture. But to devotees, 400-year-old throne-like chairs, deeply worn stools, richly embellished cupboards, and other pieces fashioned from the wood of native forests, mainly oak, have far more charm than the more sophisticated items produced in the 18th and 19th centuries. Each piece is unique and handmade by craftsmen with tools that are little used today. "The great thing about oak is that it looks old," says John Andrews, author of British Antique Furniture: Price Guide and Reasons for Values, who has a small collection. "It is beautifully solid and well made. There is something about the style you can't help being attracted to."
You might think remnants from the time of Oliver Cromwell, Charles I, or Elizabeth I would be fearfully expensive. But while prices have risen sharply over the past two decades, the best pieces rarely approach the six- or seven-figure sums sometimes commanded by 18th century English furniture or early American antiques. A very desirable early 17th century livery cupboard or sideboard, for instance, sold for $38,000 at Christie's South Kensington showroom in March, 2005. Plain chairs and carved figures can still be had for a few hundred dollars. Christie's next London sale is on Feb. 28 (christies.com).
Americans don't have to cross the Atlantic to do their buying. Quite a few oak coffers, stools, and tables are circulating in the U.S., where they tend to be cheaper than in England because their prices haven't been inflated by the strong British pound. "We recently sold a lovely 17th century coffer with beautiful carving for $3,500. What else can you buy from that period for that price?" says Lisa Freeman, a dealer in Belmont, Vt. (fiskeandfreeman.com).
Sometimes you can get great deals in the U.S. because the sellers don't know the value of what they have. Trip Millikin, a New England financial adviser, snagged his favorite carved oak armchair, worth $7,000 to $8,000, at a New Hampshire auction for $800. "Most Americans think of oak as ugly brown furniture, and we like that just fine" because it dampens prices, he says.
Millikin and his wife Dora started collecting in the mid-1980s with the aim of acquiring one museum-quality piece a year. They disposed of a collection of 19th century American furniture to concentrate on English oak. One reason: They live on a farm, and oak can stand up to the rough life. In fact, old stains, burns, and the like tend to add to its appeal.SILENT WITNESSES
Millikin often wonders about the history of his collection. He talks of a 16th century stool whose feet show damage from spending centuries near a damp wall. He says he looks at the stool and marvels that it has been a silent witness to epochal events such as England's mid-17th century civil war. "If only that piece of furniture could talk," he says.
Old English furniture covers a wide range of items used by households and institutions such as churches. The most commonly found examples are coffers, which almost every early household used to store possessions. These range from plain planked boxes to elaborate affairs studded with relief carvings of flowers and human and mythical figures such as sea monsters. Also common are stools, the best examples of which can go for $10,000 or more.
Collectors not only study the objects themselves but also try to determine their social history. Wealthy merchants and the officers of medieval guilds showed off their importance by sitting in high-backed chairs with elaborate crests. The chairs weren't very comfortable, but they looked impressive. Big shots displayed their crockery on cupboards. Some of the earliest examples are just open shelves with carved decoration along the apron. In later pieces the shelves were enclosed, forming large cabinets called press cupboards. These items can be highly ornate, with elaborate carving and inlay work.
Simon Green, an oak specialist at Christie's in London, says dressers, which are long, low bureaus with drawers, are very popular, going for as much as $22,000. Other good sellers include richly carved beds, which can fetch $40,000 if they are in close to their original state rather than composites of new and old wood. Hanging wall cupboards also almost invariably fetch solid prices, and 16th century objects, which are relatively rare, command a premium over those from the 17th century. Not surprisingly, the English who emigrated to America in the 17th century continued to make similar furniture in the New World, but very early American pieces are rare and can fetch $100,000 or more.
While collecting English oak in the U.S. is possible, the mother country still has the deepest trove of stock. In addition to Christie's, Sotheby's and regional auction houses hold regular sales. England also boasts quite a few specialist dealers in oak and country furniture. Galleries William H. Stokes in Cirencester, Day Antiques in Tetford, and Beedham Antiques in Hungerford are all within a couple of hours' drive of London.
Judging the value of English oak can be tricky without an expert's eye. Collectors closely examine carving quality and avoid pieces with major restoration. Good material usually shows centuries of wear, with the wood looking almost as if it had melted along the edges. Above all, experts prize patina and color -- the result of hundreds of years of handling and polishing. "The best color is a rich and varied combination of black, chestnut-red, and golden brown," writes Victor Chinnery in Oak Furniture: The British Tradition, the bible of oak collecting. The surface should have a hard, glowing look. Oak is definitely an acquired taste. But once acquired, collectors say, it's hard to resist. By Stanley Reed