Antiques Roadshow expert Judith Miller on how to unearth hidden gems

Judith Miller says it's become harder to find hidden gems, but there are still some out there.
Judith Miller says it's become harder to find hidden gems, but there are still some out there.
  • Antiques Roadshow regular Judith Miller reveals her collecting obsessions, why she is reluctant to retire and offers a few valuable tips on what we should be investing in. Sharon Dale reports.
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ALMOST everyone is an antiques buff these days thanks to the proliferation and popularity of TV series such as Bargain Hunt, Cash In The Attic and the very best of them all, Antiques Roadshow. So the chances of finding old treasure for next to nothing are slimmer than ever.

“You have to kiss a lot of frogs and sort through a lot of tat if you are looking in car boot sales and charity shops, but it is still possible,” says antiques doyenne and Roadshow expert Judith Miller.

“I remember Eric Knowles valuing a vase with a plant in it for a woman and she’d only bought it because she liked the plant. It turned out that the vase was Lalique and worth £24,000.”

She also cites a recent Roadshow in Glasgow where she valued a brooch at £800. The owner had paid £5 for it from a car boot sale as she wanted something orange to match her Hallowe’en outfit. She didn’t realise it was by Dior.

Costume jewellery is one of Judith’s passions and it has proved a shrewd investment as prices for “paste” have risen considerably in recent years. A Joseff of Hollywood pin she bought for £80 ten years ago is now worth £1,000.

It takes a trained eye to tell quality from the cheap and cheerful, but there are some obvious pointers.

“Brands are the best indication of quality so names like Joseff of Hollywood, Miriam Haskell, Trifari, Dior and Chanel are ones to look out for,” says Judith, whose knowledge extends far beyond jewellery. “But there are a lot of unsigned pieces and then what you check for is the quality of the manufacture. So you look for prong set stones and not glued because prong setting takes longer.”

Her love of antiques began when she was at Edinburgh University studying English and History. She began collecting pretty plates from the city’s junk shops and was curious about their origins. Her knowledge was scant. She grew up in a house in Galashiels, where there were no antiques.

“My parents were part of the 1950s Formica generation that wanted everything to be new and modern. They got rid of everything old,” she says.

She started visiting auctions and antique shops and steadily infiltrated the antiques world by asking questions and gleaning information. She met and married a fellow enthusiast, Martin Miller, and in 1979 they founded the best-selling Miller’s Antiques Price Guide, an annual publication known as the industry Bible.

She and Martin, who passed away recently, went their separate ways but she continues to publish the guides. She also lectures at the V&A Museum and the Smithsonian, and appears regularly on TV and radio. She has written more than 100 books, the most recent being the Miller’s Antiques Handbook & Price Guide 2016-2017 and Vintage Home, a collector’s guide and celebration of 20th century design. They are, as ever, a must-read for any enthusiast keen to learn more.

Judith is a mine of information on everything from how to spot a fake to what’s trending at the moment. She says interest in the late Victorian and early 20th century “brown furniture” her parents couldn’t wait to get rid of is finally picking up.

“It got to a level where you could buy two beautifully crafted solid mahogany chairs for £120 and that is ridiculous. Prices are creeping up and people are getting interested in it again.”

It’s not just dealers and collectors who are buying, it is the ever increasing number of upcyclers.Spurred on by chalk paint queen Annie Sloan, they are painting, distressing and waxing everything from Edwardian chests of drawers to plantstands and Art Deco tables. They look good and suit today’s interiors but surely an antiques expert would not condone such acts of vandalism?

“Actually I don’t mind because chalk paint can be removed without causing too much damage and if it means that the furniture is being used then that’s a good thing,” says Judith, who encourages her three grown-up children to buy old. “I think they’re mad to go to Ikea. I tell them to go to the auction rooms instead. The quality is just so much better.”

The world is waking up to that fact and antiques and their cousins vintage and retro are much sought-after.

That’s good news for a trade that was struggling in the late 1990s when antique shops closed at an alarming rate. Now they are back on the high street, online and at dedicated fairs. Among today’s best-sellers is mid-century modern furniture.

“Ercol and GPlan are going for serious money but Scandinavian and original Eames is off the planet. It’s because it suits modern interiors,” says Judith, who adds that dealers and customers are spending more, a trend she puts down to low interest rates and savers looking for an alternative investment.

She is often questioned about what to buy and her stock answer is “buy what you love then you’ll never be disappointed”, though there are some collectables that are becoming increasingly popular and look set to rise in value. Small silver novelties from the Edwardian era are doing well at auction. These include pin cushions, sewing accessories and pots often in the shape of animals.

“People like them because they are easy to display and silver has proved to be a very good investment,” says Judith, who also believes 20th century British glass, including Whitefriars, is undervalued, along with Swedish art glass.

“I can pick up glass from the 1920s and the 1950s as cheaply as I can buy new from John Lewis. The old glass is a much better investment.”

While putting your money into antiques is fun, she warns that the market is fickle. A lot of 18th-century Worcester porcelain is worth less now than it was 30 years ago.

“It’s a fluid market and things come in and out of fashion,” says Judith, who has never been a dealer but says she is “very good at buying”.

She enjoys hunting for bargains and has a weakness for single chairs, among other things. She lives in her North London home with her husband, John, although grabs any excuse to go back to her native Scotland.

Her soft Scottish voice, ready smile and genuine likeability has helped her TV career and her sparkle makes her look younger than her 64 years.

Although eligible to retire, it’s not on the agenda and she isn’t planning to prune her punishing schedule either. It still leaves time for hobbies such as playing bridge and travelling the world to see Bruce Springsteen in concert

“I wake up and nip myself sometimes because doing something you love isn’t like work. As soon as we finish a Miller’s guide it’s time to start the next book but it is fun and I enjoy doing the Antiques Roadshow. I have no intention of slowing down.

“What would I do? Collect more chairs? Every time I leave home to go on a trip, my husband says: ‘Repeat after me, we do not need another single chair’.”

Judith’s Golden Rules for buying antiques

“PEOPLE often ask how you learn more and it’s through research and looking at objects very closely,” says Judith.

“Check for damage because condition is vital to value.

“The best way to spot a fake is to look at the real McCoy first and train your eye. We’re lucky in Britain because we can go to museums and stately homes where we can look at real antiques.

“The beginner’s rule when it comes buying antiques is: buy what you like and what you can afford. And proceed with caution, because antiques are addictive.”

Miller’s Antiques Handbook & Price Guide 2016-2017 is £30 and published by Mitchell Beazley; Vintage Home by Judith Miller is £30 and published by Jacqui Small.