At this time of year, I always host a school reunion in the gardens of my home, and get out all of my antique garden furniture for the occasion. I have a real mix of stuff, and lots of it – everything from lovely old folding cafe chairs, through to French tubular chairs from the 1970s, Regency benches and original Georgian urns. I love the patina and the way that the older pieces have weathered – how the paint is falling off some of the chairs and the oversized troughs are covered in mould.
The first year we all got together, everyone turned up and I could see a couple of them nudging each other as if to say, ‘What is this stuff? I thought he was supposed to be doing all right!’ One girl suggested I give everything a fresh coat of paint, while another gave my beautiful Georgian chair a good shake before she sat on it. It’s safe to say that not all garden antiques are for everyone but, whatever your taste, some make a good investment.
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As with any antiques, there are designers throughout history whose work is the most collectable and desirable. For me, there are three names of note – Eleanor Coade, who was renowned in the 18th century for casting the most beautiful garden ornaments, statues and architectural decorations from her own-mix artificial stone, which she devised so that it wouldn’t crack during a hard frost.
Secondly, for the most incredible lead statues of figures and characters throughout history, there is John Nost. He was a Flemish sculptor who worked in England in the late 17th and 18th centuries and whose work you can see in important country houses including Chatsworth, Hampton Court Palace and Castle Howard. Then there was Coalbrookdale, whose exquisite 19th-century cast iron benches and garden furniture remain some of the most prized by collectors today. They are loved because they are just so crisp, detailed and beautifully finished.
If you ever find anything by these top names, you really do have the ‘Rolls-Royce’ of garden antiques. Because of this, they are also among the most copied. Some will be convincing, not least because garden furniture is likely to have been left outside for 25 years, so check out my tips on spotting a fake.
The thing with copies is that good reproductions (and bad ones) have been made throughout history. Some look fantastic and there is nothing wrong with buying or selling a copy, as long as everyone is transparent about it. Quality composite stone works for urns, fountains and statues. Done well, it’s hard to tell a good composite piece from a carved stone example.
If you want a bargain, look for a copy with patina and age that will only get better when you leave it outside. But, remember, there is nothing like an original, and carved stone antique pieces will always be worth 10 times that of a composite piece.
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Finally, a note of caution. Garden antiques are the only pieces we leave outdoors, so it’s no surprise there’s a roaring trade in nicked stuff. Whatever you buy, keep the receipt, get the seller to write down as much detail as possible, write your name and address on the bottom in indelible pen, and photograph the piece. Now all you have to do is organise the next garden party!
How to spot a fake Coalbrookdale
- For every true Coalbrookdale there are around 500 or so copies on the market. Real benches have a crispness in the detail, and a depth and rigidity to the casting. Copies are made from creating moulds that are used again and again so they lose that crispness. A fake can look as if it’s slightly melted when arranged next to an original.
- If it looks new, it probably is. A sign is any metric nuts and bolts that hold the bench together. Early Coalbrookdales were cast rather than bolted, and an original will be made out of six or seven elements – a copy will be made of two or three.
- Coalbrookdale pieces have a casting mark and registration diamond. However, at various times, the company changed the location of its marks. If the piece has Coalbrookdale cast into it, it doesn’t mean it is a Coalbrookdale.