Antiques In London

London Hotel Magazine &
New York Hotel Magazine 00-06-1986

From street markets to grand homes in city squares, Britain's capital is a treasure trove of antiques. Christopher Long investigates...

Just for a minute let's forget about Britain's Royal Family. Let's forget about great palaces and stately homes. And let's forget about the famous salerooms, art galleries, antique shops and street markets.

Instead let me take you to just one small, fairly typical Kensington apartment. An apartment very like thousands of others in Georgian or Victorian houses throughout Central London.

Here you'll find late 18th Century furniture in rosewood, mahogany and oak. There are 17th and 18th Century Chinese vases. To the left is a classic example of a Heal's art nouveau buffet, c.1910. On the walls are collections of English Victorian watercolours alongside 18th and 19th Century oil paintings – one by the great French painter Jean-Paul Laurens.

On the side-table is a part-gilded Japanese bronze urn (early 18th Century) beside a superb English fusée clock made a little later in the same century. The lamps are converted from Georgian mahogany candle-sticks. The telescope saw service at Trafalgar. And the chair was made just about the time America was seeking independence from England! And all this is to be found in the hall – before we ever visit the drawing- room, the dining room, the kitchen or a bedroom.

The point of all this is to explain one of the truly staggering facts about Britain: the sheer, mind-boggling quantity and quality of art and antiquity still to be found here.

The Queen's collections surpass those of any of the world's greatest museums. Great English family collections certainly match most of the world's national collections. And even quite modest English homes can bring gasps of amazement to many visitors. And none of that takes into account the vast size and range of 'visible history' being bought, stocked and sold by dealers at any one time.

Since World War ll, countless thousands of container-loads of antiques have left Britain while collectors from all over the world have been buying in salerooms, markets and from specialist dealers. Yet still Britain remains the world's best stocked warehouse of antiquarian treasures.

The reason for all this is quite simple. For a thousand years we have never been invaded and for 500 years Britain's explorers, conquerors, empire builders and traders brought back objects and skills from all over the world. From China and Japan came porcelain, silks, china and lacquered furniture. From France came treasures from the homes of aristocrats on the run from the French Revolutionaries. In Italy there were dealers with blank cheques from great English collectors who sent back the cream of Italy's Renaissance fine art. From Greece, Egypt, the Middle East and the Far East, archaeologists and collectors brought back the remains of great civilisations, while here in England craftsmanship of all sorts flourished almost undisturbed for half a millennium.

So, thanks to refugees, collectors, explorers, the Empire and the peaceful prosperity which allowed Britain' craftsmen to perfect their skills, London in particular has become the world's most fruitful repository, trading centre and hunting-ground for art and antiques.

Roughly speaking these objects fall into four main categories which might be described as: Museum Pieces, Fine Investment Items, Collector's Pieces; and Interesting Bric-à-brac.

The Museum Pieces are, almost by definition, exceptionally rare and often unique examples. A painting by Goya, Titian or Vermeer seldom comes onto the open market. Its existence may or may not have been known before and it probably comes out of a Swiss bank vault or the almost unknown hoard of a collector who prefers to remain anonymous. Perhaps just a handful of major museums and a few of the world's richest collectors will hear about it and be in a position to bid. Shadowy intermediaries and art 'experts' conduct clandestine negotiations until the painting returns to a new owner's vault or ends up for ever more on a public gallery's walls.

From time to time such items crop up in salerooms at Christie's, Sotheby's or Phillips' in a blaze of publicity. But for the most part the number of people who have, and can afford, such museum pieces can be numbered in double figures.

These items may not always be worth millions, of course. Museums are constantly looking to fill gaps in their more modest collections: secret letters from Marie-Antoinette may sell for £20,000; a twelve-piece set of English silver Tudor apostle spoons might cost the Victoria & Albert Museum a few thousand. And unique items of furniture, ceramics, coins, books, costume and classical art will join a Spitfire, Marconi's first radio, or artefacts from the Mayflower's first settlers in a half-dead, mummified existence behind glass in museums around the world.

But while these museum pieces may range from a few hundred pounds to a few million, it is only the more expensive items that may turn out to be forgeries or fakes.

It's among the Fine Investment Items that the buyer should be most wary. For obvious reasons it's not worth anybody's time, trouble, skills and the risks of getting caught to produce relatively worthless and unprofitable fakes. It's certainly worth cobbling together a Louis XlV commode out of a jumble of old French furniture if the result can be sold for £50,000. It's not worth cutting out genuine 18th Century silver marks and inserting them into a 19th Century silver salver if the result can only be sold for a couple of thousand pounds.

And in any case no-one embarking on collecting expensive items should ever forget to obtain a detailed receipt stating exactly what the vendor claims the piece to be.

For this reason it's undoubtedly wisest not to try to find brilliant bargains at fly-by-night street stalls. In the first place most dealers are far too well-informed and canny to let a bargain slip away from them. In the second place you should be most suspicious if you think you have found a Tudor miniature among a pile of Victorian crockery and Edwardian costume jewellery on an antique stall in Portobello Market! Not that such things never happen. Merely that they never happen to you or me.

Investment buyers looking for English 18th Century furniture should visit Mallett's in New Bond Street or the specialists in parts of Brompton Road, Fulham Road and Kensington Church Street. Those looking for the finest 17th, 18th and 19th Century silver should head for Tessier in New Bond Street, Spinks in King Street or for any of the dozens of well-established dealers in and around Mayfair, St James's and the City of London, not forgetting the London Silver Vaults in Chancery Lane.

Here you won't find 'bargains' but you'll be buying from people who are experts on their subject, people who have reputations to maintain and who'll give you an authenticated receipt. They'll only stock the best and as every wise investor knows, buying second-rate brings in only third-rate returns.

Next down the list come Collector's Pieces. The range of specialised collectible subjects is quite staggering. I have friends who collect only first editions of rare erotic books published by Mr Smithers; only military cap badges of the French and German armies; only pre-war postcards depicting travel, transport and holiday resorts.

There are those who collect early Victorian song sheets beautifully illustrated in colour by Alfred Concanen. Some who specialise in more orthodox subjects like arms & armour, art deco ceramics, fans, Chanel gowns, or rare books, maps and manuscripts.

I collect English and Irish silver spoons from 1680-1760 and happily admit that I'm as obsessed and loony as the rest of them. For such specialised collectors life is made blissfully easy in London. In the first place it's all here. In the second place salerooms like Christie's, Sotheby's, Phillips' and Bonham's hold regular auctions devoted entirely to these esoteric specialities – anything from vintage cars to early photographic equipment with dozens of categories in between. Catalogues are issued some weeks in advance, price estimates are available on viewing days and despite the occasional scandal, the auctions are generally beyond reproach. The only warning is that a buyer's premium of 10 per cent may be applicable to certain sales in some auction houses.

In addition, London's street markets make excellent hunting grounds for real bargains. Specialist collectors often know their subjects much better than generalist stall-holders. Top of the list of good hunting grounds must be Portobello Road (open Saturdays 8.30 am – 5.30 pm) and Camden Passage (open Wednesdays 10.00 am – 2.00 pm and Saturdays 10.00 am – 5.00 pm).

These are the two largest markets in London containing scores of shops which in turn contain hundreds of small, individual dealers. The vast bulk of their wares are 19th and early 20th Century items with the best of the earlier, finer and more valuable pieces creamed off by dealers who arrive early to stock their own smarter shops in more fashionable areas of London.

The best policy for specialist collectors is probably to do a very quick tour of the entire half-mile of assorted stalls to get an overall idea of what's available, where and at what prices. Then use all the well-known dealer's tricks. These include asking first for a discount on individual items plus a further discount when you're buying two or three item from the same person.

Also don't forget the well-worn ploy of finding faults in an item to reduce its value. And remember to show great enthusiasm for a piece you don't really want while showing only mild, half-hearted interest in the piece you're really after. With any luck the trader will offer you a good price on the piece you're only half-interested in – in the hope you'll buy both. You then quickly pay for the latter and leave behind the first piece you were never really so keen on.

Problems arise with authenticity. Stallholders seldom set out deliberately to defraud you. They simply allow you to believe that an item is older, rarer or more valuable than it is. This is particularly the case with brass, copper and china. Only if you ask for a detailed description on a receipt will you be able to detect whether you're being bluffed. If they hesitate or refuse to give you a receipt you should hesitate or refuse to buy.

The other major point to remember is what we discovered at the beginning: the sheer quantity of this stuff in Britain. Remember that the stalls are stocked like this every day, year in, year out. Most things are far more common than you'll imagine.

For example, a student friend of mine did good business in the late Sixties selling Indian Army solar topees and pith helmets. He had one apparently rare example of each type on his stall. He sold them almost with regret. Buyers paid £3 – £5 (then!) without realising that he had bought an entire army surplus warehouse of the things for little more than £1,000.

Specialist collectors, however, are very well placed. They can range from the untold thousands of stalls, shops, dealers and salerooms to superb markets such as Gray's in Davies Street. In Chelsea is the Chelsea Antique Market and the very smart Chenil Galleries, as well as Antiquarius, also in King's Road, SW3.

Many dealers now operate sophisticated marketing techniques to reach their collectors. Jonathan Potter Ltd, for example, caters exclusively to map collectors at No. 1, Grafton Street, W1. Maps of Britain, dating from 1607, can sell for as remarkably low prices as £60 – £150. Indeed, like Old Master drawings, there are extraordinary bargains to be made in a field like this.

True, these maps have often been torn from venerable 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th Century volumes, but Mr Potter at least makes them accessible. He publishes articles and guides for collectors and by exhibiting and enthusing widely, serves his collectors well.

But when he buys "the most important 18th Century chart of the whole California coastal region" for £42,000, the retail price is not likely to be within the reach of the last category of collectables – Interesting Bric-à-brac.

For most visitors to London an adventurous stroll through Portobello Road and Camden Passage is as essential as a trip to the theatre or the Tower of London. The whole point is discovering something interesting and unusual. So, there are no rules or guidelines here. Except, perhaps, a few warnings. Beware of pick-pockets. Don't fall for glib sales techniques. And rely on your own good taste and judgment always.

Remember that all English silver must carry Hall Marks which will tell you when it was made, where it was assayed, who made it and which also guarantees the silver purity. Beware of 'antique-looking' magnifying-glasses which often consist of old knife handles attached to modern, mass-produced mounts and glass.

Look very carefully indeed at any stripped-pine or Victorian mahogany furniture. Much of it is heavily restored, bastardised or dubious. And as a final warning, remember that only the very best quality items retain their value. Always buy what you like and make sure it's the best. After all, if it was rubbish in Queen Elizabeth's time it may not be rubbish now, but if it's really rubbish now you can bet your life Queen Elizabeth would have agreed with you then.

Written for a predominantly North American tourist readership.

© (1986) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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