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05/01/2010

Collecting

by Deborah Singerman

However the passion for collecting starts, it can take over your life. You might be rummaging through a treasure-trove shed on a family farm, or chancing upon a set of perfect Grant Featherston chairs in a scruffy inner-city squat, or just basking in the joy of design for its own sake - and want more of it.

Andrew Shapiro, whose Shapiro Gallery in Sydney's exclusive Queen Street is widely regarded as a leader in 20th century and traditional design, advises collectors to hone their skills and eye, and keep up to date with which era is particularly popular. Over the last year or so, 20th century design has been strong, "post-war designer furnishings particularly in London and New York, which shows a lot about how collecting is going in Australia.

"People now know that if they are collecting good paintings they should also be collecting good design. They go hand in hand. You can't have a collection of great art surrounded by mundane objects."

Going to high-end auctions or to selling exhibitions where the asking price is set. Buying through a furniture consignment house, which displays merchandise selected from people's houses in a showroom for a set contract period (for instance, 90 days). Unearthing a find at a market or second-hand shop or even a deceased relative's bottom drawer, or purchasing brand new classics from design showrooms especially in Sydney and Melbourne are other avenues to explore.

Be warned - once you get serious there is no turning back. It is not just the thrill of the chase; it is how you make it increasingly worthwhile. Collecting design is long-term, evolving and educational.

Estates are cleared or broken up for various reasons, estate advisers say. These include downsizing with grey nomads (retirees who have decided to move house or travel often around Australia for the first time), for instance, leaving family homes and moving to an inner-city apartment. There is also upgrading, relocating overseas, paying off debts, divorce and the ultimate change in family circumstances, death. An estate service will assess whether the object has any commercial value, either collectively as part of a box lot or individually, and will then contact auction houses on the client's behalf.

The most significant way 20th century objects were moved to Australia is immigration, especially from Europe, Shapiro says. He is from the east coast of America. "All they were allowed to take out were their furnishings. With clean, simple lines the items are not precious. They are not sitting on a pedestal. These are the finds that we have in Australia."

Earlier design is far less likely to be imported during its time period as it mainly comes here via wealthy collectors who buy these pieces overseas and then bring them into Australia.

Wherever you are, and wherever you are from, read lifestyle magazines, journals and other reference material, digesting the interiors looks and their accompanying history. Go to markets, scour through objects, touching them, viewing them. Build up a relationship with reputable dealers and talk to people - the co-owner of an interior furnishing shop admits he is lucky that relatives of famous Australian designers such as furniture and decimal paper currency designer, Gordon Andrews, and 1970s Sydney city interior designer Marion Hall Best come into his store with collection insights. You may end up a mite obsessive but that is the main way you will be primed to recognise Shapiro's byword, "rarity and condition" (or at least be able to ask the right questions).

The re-issuing of furniture has helped keep up demand for what is a healthy secondary market and an intelligent recycling process, says Shapiro. As well as seeking out well-known designers, to combat copies from unlicensed manufacturers, you must also check for authenticity, primarily that a licensed manufacturer was used.

Where pieces have been mass produced, the highest value usually lies with unusual examples. For instance, it is best to buy Arne Jacobsen Swan and Egg chairs from the period when the design first came out, 1957, says Shapiro. "If you can find one of those 40 years later in original leather with a wonderful patina it would reach a premium price for a collector."

The final and as close to foolproof guarantee that something is genuine is provenance, a record of ownership that often for the auctioneer comes with being able to visit the home, take photographs and fully document the piece.

Buy the best you can afford, enjoy the piece, balance individual taste with knowledge of trends and you will also be adding to the energy that, as Shapiro says, has seen "design elevated to the level of fine art".