Antiques Trade Talks – Relic Interiors

Ambrice Miller officially launched her art and antiques business Relic Interiors in the autumn of 2020, after being a collector of antique art and furniture for close to two decades. She says: “I’m always attracted to older pieces because of the stories they hold and examples of skill and craftsmanship they exemplify – elements that are sometimes missing in modern pieces. My background is in art and art history but I have a personal affinity to portraiture and works that focus on the human anatomy. This is probably apparent with the vast collection of period portraits I have available on Relic. With Relic I try to curate a mixed collection of pieces that have a history behind them and are visually interesting that will fit any budget.”

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What is the unique appeal of antiques?

I am particularly fond of antiques because of the dedication to the craft of their period that was required to bring them to life. Whether a 17th-century Italian oil painting, 18th-century French Louis XVI gilded Bergere furniture or a late 19th-century bobbin chair, the sheer effort required to execute on these pieces commands a certain respect and appreciation that is harder to come by with mass-produced ‘catalogue ready’ pieces you find now. I think this is why we are seeing such a revival in the desire for antique pieces among a broader demographic than ever before. There is also an element of sustainability by investing in antique pieces that have lasted hundreds of years.

What areas/items are currently selling well?

Though I believe there is always an audience for quality pieces regardless of genre or era, it’s impossible to ignore certain trends. I personally rather enjoyed the recent renewed excitement around bobbin furniture. As an American, it’s always great to see American originated styles popularised here in Europe, because it’s not very often. Late 19thcentury to early 20th-century  European landscape paintings are presently selling well. Also, a lot of mid century Swedish landscapes and interior paintings are becoming increasing popular as well, especially with London buyers.

Which of your fellow dealers are the ones to watch?

Rebecca and Jonny Ralfe – founders of Ralfes Yard (@ralfesyard) – based in South Somerset, a beautiful collection of 18th and 19th-century English furniture.

Lisa Gates – the founder of Conspicuous Collector (@conspicuouscollector) – an antique dealer with an eclectic stock of colourful and playful Eastern European folk art and 19th-century gypsy designs.

Helen Gilchrist – founder of Williamson Adams (@williamson_adams) – A collection so diverse that any collector is due to find a treasure or two. I specifically have my eye on a latest acquisition of a pair of African Yoruba chairs.

What antiques do you have at home/collect and why?

One of the greatest pleasures is the privilege to live with antiques. When my husband and I moved from London to our current home in Suffolk several years ago I was excited to have a period property to use as the backdrop of our antique collection. I was also thrilled by the new reality of having enough space to expand our collection.  Because of my love (read borderline obsession) with paintings, every wall of our home is covered in paintings from 16th-century Italian oils to 19th-century English School portraiture to mid-century naïve still lifes. Having an antiques business means I can be the custodian of so many lovely pieces before they head off to their new homes when they sell. I particularly love paintings because of their ability to immediately transform a space. Where space and storage (especially in city living) is a premium, paintings are a great way to invest in antiques without taking up floor space.

What do you think will be the antiques of the future? 

I believe the antiques market will only continue to attract larger and more diverse audiences if dealers continue to happily share knowledge and encourage a younger generation to become involved. As buyers are increasingly looking online (expedited by COVID-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns) dealers will have to adapt and move their stock online to meet these demands. Unfortunately, this may mean there will inevitably be a decrease in antique shops that have brick and mortar premises but I think in the long run it will benefit the market.

How is the industry changing and are you optimistic for its future?

I am extremely optimistic about the future of the antiques business but it will need to attract and retain the next generation of dealers and collectors.

Is new technology good for the trade and buyers/collectors?

Technology is only as good as its users. Over the past few years we’ve seen a surge in dealers coming to the industry and building online presence through platforms like Instagram. I think it’s a wonderful tool to be used for trade to reach new audiences of buyers and collectors.

Tell us some trade secrets – what key questions should buyers ask?

  • What is the provenance of a piece? Or is auction house or catalogue data available?
  • Is the artist (of this painting or art object) held by any prominent collections?
  • What’s your best price on this piece if I were to buy a couple of pieces from you? The one thing dealers love more than their stock is the hunt for new stock, therefore most are willing to part with a piece at a small discount especially if you’re buying several pieces because it means they can go on the hunt for new pieces.

What antiques/artworks would you buy if money were no object?

I would buy as many Old Masters as I could get my hands on, I simply cannot get enough. Then I’d buy a palazzo to put them all in.

You’re down to your last 50 quid – what antiques/art would you buy?

Quality prints and drawings. You can find the most amazing original ink and pencil drawings that most people overlook at antique fairs for very cheap, especially if they are unframed and if you’re not particular about them being from a named or established artist. Drawings and prints are a brilliant place to start an art collection given the price points are generally more accessible.

Where are your favourite antique hunting destinations and why?

My favourite antique destinations are Paris and the south of France, primarily around Avignon. The Paris flea market is a labyrinth of fantastic dealers with incredible collections sourced from French country house clearances and private collections.

What are some of the biggest mistakes that buyers make?

I think the biggest mistake a buyer can make is buying a piece they are not absolutely in love with or making a large purchase without much research or asking many questions. Antiques should be an investment, not purely a financial investment but an investment in quality and into something you adore. There are some people willing to take advantage of buyers who may not have the expertise to distinguish an original by a named artist or maker vs “in the circle of “ and a complete fake/reproduction being passed off as authentic. The best part of Relic is working with customers and sharing any knowledge and educating them on the pieces they are purchasing so they can love their new acquisition as much as I do. A buyer should question any dealer who isn’t willing to share any and all information they have available.

What do you consider the high point of your career in antiques?

The highlights of my antiques career have included being asked to work with several internationally recognised designers to help source pieces for their projects in Europe and America. Receiving calls and emails from designers and dealers I’ve admired for years reaching out to work together is surreal and I still have to pinch myself!

Are antiques attracting younger buyers and, if not, how can the industry reach out to them?

The antiques’ and art market has a long history of exploiting the information asymmetry between a dealer and a buyer. Unfortunately, this can make the antiques market appear insular and intimidating for newcomers and inexperienced buyers. This means we’re missing out on an entire buying base who’s excited about antiques but don’t know how to enter, what to buy and how to learn. The best part about antiques moving online on platforms like Instagram is that it is quite literally targeted to younger buyers. Online platforms also allow for buyers to very quickly compare pieces, compile information on works and speak directly to dealers. The entire reason I started Relic was to make antiques feel approachable and able to fit most budgets. You do not have to be a millionaire to have quality pieces in your home.

What advice would you give to people new to antiques who want to learn more? 

Go to a second-hand book shop and pick up a copy of The Little Brown Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Antiques, it’s a brilliant way to start exploring and building your knowledge on periods and genres that you are interested in. It is also a wonderful reference for if you happen across a type of furniture and would like to learn more it.

Start attending antique fairs, even if you do not have the intention of immediately buying antiques. It’s a wonderful day out and great way to meet people. At fairs, dealers are always happy to have a chat, ask questions, learn what you can and buy yourself a present or two while you are there. Don’t be shy; I’ve never met a dealer at a fair that does not want to chat!

Find your own aesthetic and have fun. Decorating with antiques can have the reputation of a certain seriousness, but I am a firm believer that antiques should be enjoyed, never taken too serious and look fabulous in an eclectic setting. Don’t style your home like a museum (unless of course that’s the look you are trying to achieve).