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July 3, 2011

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Eye for royal antiques

CHRISTOPHER Payne, one of the world's leading experts on Western antique furniture, is in town to promote appreciation among China's new rich for the antique furnishings of Europe's kings and nobles.

He appears regularly on the BBC's "Antiques Roadshow" broadcast to the English-speaking world since the 1980s.

In Shanghai Payne appeared at an event titled "Appreciation of 19th Century European Royal and Nobles' Antique Furniture."

After working at Sotheby's London for 25 years, he left his position as director of the Furniture Department and is now a curator for private collectors on furniture and sculpture. When he worked with the Sotheby London's furniture department from 1970 to 1994, he was in charge of furniture between 1830 to 1930.

Q: We hear you were summoned by Queen Elizabeth II on one or two occasions. Do you remember the small talk?

A: I was not called in by Queen Elizabeth. I was once at a private party and she had heard that a piece of royal furniture from Windsor Castle was coming up at auction. She jokingly asked me if someone had stolen it! I explained that over the last 200 years a few pieces had been given to favorite servants by the royal family. Exactly the same way that the beautiful table No. 33 in the Pritchard Gallery has the inventory stamp from 1866; it must have been given by someone like Queen Victoria to a friend or a gentleman in waiting, a member of the royal household.

It might amuse you to know that I was at boarding school in Scotland with Queen Elizabeth's son Charles, the Prince of Wales.

Q: What's the charm of Western antique furniture?

A: I have been brought up with European furniture, my father and grandfather were antiques dealers so it is in my blood. It is so complicated to make, takes so many hours and the craftsmen who make it were trained for seven years before they could make their own furniture. I love the color that our furniture develops after 100 years - the patination is a huge part of the charm, so do not let anyone overclean it.

Q: Do you collect Western antique furniture yourself?

A: Yes, but an eclectic muddle. I buy from the heart, all periods and all shapes and sizes. Sometimes I dare not take a piece into the house as there is nowhere to put it so I leave it in the car for a couple weeks.

Q: Some fake Chinese antique furniture appears at auction. Do you find fakes at Sotheby's? Can an amateur tell the difference?

A: Hopefully the big auctioneers in Paris and London are good enough not to let fake furniture get into their auctions. Yes, there are some fake pieces on the market that might deceive the amateur, so it's good to seek a specialist's advice to make sure you are buying correctly.

Q: You are widely recognized as a top expert in French furniture maker Francois Linke (1855-1946). Why is he so well-received in the West?

A: Yes, I was very privileged to be able to spend over 10 years researching Linke and amassing a huge archive on his work. People in the West appreciate how exacting his work was, made to the very highest standards, as good as or even better than royal furniture.

Q: Do you think some rich Chinese buyers will be interested in Western antique furniture? Do you have Chinese clients?

A: I do not have any Chinese clients myself but have met many interested Chinese collectors through the Prichard Gallery. I have found Chinese buyers fascinated by our furniture and so keen and quick to learn.

Q: How do you assess the price rises in Western antique furniture? Is it a good investment?

A: In the 40 years I have been a furniture expert, of course I have seen prices rise dramatically just as property and stock markets have. In many cases the pieces I have advised clients on have outperformed more conventional investments many folds. I think it is always important to have a good spread in your portfolio. The good thing about furniture is that you can use and enjoy it whilst the value rises.

I cannot say if Chinese or Western furniture will prove to be the better investment mode in the long term. All I can say is that as more and more people buy furniture in what is now a world market, genuine antique furniture will become harder to find - as more and more people fish in the sea, there is less fish and so the price rises.

Q: Is this your first trip to China? What's your impression for Shanghai?

A: Yes, this is my first trip to China. I arrived on June 16. I love Shanghai and its people. I have been made to feel very welcome and look forward to coming back soon.

Q: Will you visit antiques dealers in the city?

A: I hope so, if I have time but we have been so busy.


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