Antique furniture is much more than the sum of its ancient parts. SUVASINI SRIDHARAN finds out how to make the most of these special pieces

Holding pride of place in my grandparents’ living room is a desk. It’s no ordinary desk; made of rosewood, it is kidney shaped and elegance personified, right down to the handles on the drawers. Bought decades ago in an auction house by my grandmother for the grand sum of Rs.150, the piece is a treasured possession. And at the risk of sounding morbid, many arguments and discussions have taken place as to who inherits the desk.

While we know that my grandmother’s desk is very old, I wondered if that was enough to make it an antique. I asked Shanta and her husband Suresh Narayan who run Indika Creations, a store that specialises in antique and vintage furniture. “An antique piece is generally something that’s 100 years old,” says Shanta. “But nowadays the rules are relaxed to 80-75 years old as well. Pieces older than 50 years can be considered vintage.”

Spot the one

But before you start digging out the 100-year-old wooden stool in your storeroom, read on. It’s not just about age, as Shanta says, but also wood, design, style, rarity and craftsmanship that is considered when it comes to categorising something as antique.

Spotting an antique takes an eye for detail and the skill can be developed. Muthukumar, partner at Mani’s and Co, which deals in antiques and reproductions, is the third generation of his family in the business. “Look out for wooden nails and handmade dovetail joints — these are good indicators that the furniture is an antique,” and the wood is usually rose wood or Burma teak. The varnish on the furniture oxidises over time and the patina changes as well, adds Suresh Narayan. Besides, you need to read up on the different periods and styles of furniture, as well as visit stores and auction houses to get a grasp of the subject. Ideally, consult an expert rather than get rooked.

A new life

Most buyers wonder if it’s a must to restore pieces before they are displayed. Usually, the wood is hardy and does not need much makeover. Menswear designer Arjun Khanna, avid collector of antiques ranging from barber shop chairs to Portuguese furniture from Goa, says that he prefers to display his statement pieces in an un-restored state. “It has a chic charm about it,” says Arjun, “and if the wood is good and seasoned, there is no problem.” But this is a personal choice and also depends on the individual piece.

If you do plan to restore it, make sure you go to a reputed person. Ideally, buy it from someone who will also be able to get it restored. “Restoring costs are significant,” says Suresh. “And the restoration must be done properly; we normally show the client the original piece before restoring it.” Bad restoration can devalue the piece significantly.

With changing lifestyles, the challenge is to get an antique that fits into modern flats and lives. That’s why many people opt to give their antiques a new functional use rather than buy them for display alone.

Trunks can double up as coffee tables, cupboards as bar cabinets, and cradles as magazine racks. Shanta converts paddy chests into side boards and increases the height of antique doors so that they will be suitable for modern homes. She has even turned an antique door into a dining room table.

Also, for those of us who can’t afford it, reproductions are a great option. “Furniture designs that are tasteful and classic will always be in demand,” says Viji Saravanan, proprietor, Timber, which specialises in reproductions. “And the price of our reproductions is one-fourth that of an original.” Reproductions need not necessarily be of poor quality. Timber gets furniture made in Indonesia using good wood and expert craftsmen. In fact, good quality reproductions can command a high resale value.

Antique furniture also makes for a great investment. Year after year its value goes up, because of the rarity value, the wood used and the craftsmanship. Some people collect jewellery, others art, and some collect antique furniture.

Shanta describes her journey in collecting and restoring antiques as a “passion”, but for me its appeal lies in the romance and mystery that surrounds every piece. This is furniture with a history. That kidney-shaped desk at my grandparents’ belonged to someone else a century ago. What letters might have been written on it? What stories could the desk tell me if it could speak?