Michael J Austin, an artist in Devon, has eclectic tastes and collects everything from antique furniture to militaria. Luckily he has a house big enough to accommodate his desires. In the latest of our occasional series of collector interviews we talk to him about his passion for a bargain.
ATG: How did you get the collecting bug and what was the first item you bought?
Michael J Austin: I think being an artist, my appreciation for the curvy and the beautiful understandably started quite early on.
I have a good friend in north Devon who is a restorer and clock dealer and it didn’t take much for him to persuade me to buy my first substantial antique, a c.1750 long-case clock.
It was £1000 back in about 1988 – and is probably worth today about… £1000. Certainly not much more, maybe less, such are the whimsical fashions of antique collecting.
This clock remains probably my most precious item.
To imagine that it has been ticking away, telling the time for over 250 years and is more beautiful now than it ever was.
Where do you look to find new objects?
These days, I do a lot of window shopping in auction catalogues but rarely buy as I can never decide which items I want most, which I can afford and, perhaps more importantly, which I have room for.
I have a decent-sized house but it is quite full of tables, chairs, chests, and other assortments I have bought over the years, usually for a ridiculously small amount of money from a local antique market or occasionally on eBay. My wife rolls her eyes when I say I have bought another table.
What have been your recent purchases?
Notable buys recently have been from the South Molton Antiques Market where I found a wonderful rustic, carved and bevelled French mirror for £50 and a (I think) mid- 19th century burr walnut veneered whatnot for £20.
Twenty pounds! To me that is absurd. It is so beautiful, albeit a bit warped here and there but complete, unrestored, fully functional and on original castors. A round of drinks in the pub would cost more.
I paid a similar price for a slightly later nest of cross-banded tea tables, again completely original and unrestored. Quite stunning in their design, functionality and craftsmanship.
These finds perhaps give me more pleasure than a more fashionable and expensive item.
What else do you collect?
Most of my buys are useful as well as aesthetically pleasing.
One of my less useful interests is militaria, especially First World War related, my enthusiasm having been sparked a long time ago by my grandfather’s tales from the trenches.
He used to enjoy showing me the two scars on his neck where he had been shot straight through and left for dead…
I have a wonderful collection of letters home from Cpt Percy Fulton, who sadly died from ill health after having been released from a prisoner of war camp in 1917 on compassionate grounds, which I bought in various lots on eBay in 2005.
Many have been written in pencil which I feel especially close to, using the same tool myself for sketching. It is a soft and almost transient medium which in his case has remained fresh after more than 100 years. I can almost feel Percy writing them from his dugout.
I also have a few guns from before the recent draconian deactivation laws and also a small collection of bayonets.
What draws you to an item?
I like to feel some emotional connection to the items in my collection. The old and hand worn and polished; the letters, hand-written in a time few can comprehend; rusting steel helmets from the Somme, Normandy and Kursk, hiding a story none would want to know.
In my house, all these items live, vibrating with memories, now part of my larger family.
Have you considered selling any of your collection?
I would not sell any unless I had to. But I feel happy in the belief that most are still financially a better bet than many investment schemes. These pieces are unique and are finite in their availability and skill in their making.
Is there one item you are still looking for?
I am always looking for new things. Notably, well-made Edwardian or Victorian pond yachts; early English oak furniture, affordable historical letters and documents and, of course, more tables!
Michael J Austin is on Instagram: @michaeljaustin.artist