It was sad to hear of the death of actor Dudley Sutton last week.
Best known for his portrayal of Tinker in the TV series Lovejoy, Mr Sutton’s acting prowess was fresh in my mind as I’d recently chanced upon repeats of this legendary antiques-based series.
‘Drama’, a previously undiscovered tv channel in the outer limits of my TV guide (found at no. 143 on a sky box) is currently showing the original BBC series; it’s quickly become a staple afternoon treat with which tea and cake works rather well. I often put my feet up and watch as the eponymous hero and his faithful sidekicks Tinker and Eric, outwit a variety of baddies who would otherwise hustle an antique treasure off an unsuspecting pensioner.
Though occasionally a bit clunky and obviously dated, the programmes retain a charm and warmth that makes one nostalgic for the eighties and early nineties, resplendent as they were with mullet haircuts, shoulder pads and Volvo estates, their roof racks laden with furniture as they pull up to park on un-permitted roads. Each is a pleasant reminder of antiques dealing as it was then, before some of the more tedious trading trends of the 21st century took hold.
This was a bygone era before mid-century modern, shabby chic and all things vast and industrial captivated the kids and became the decorative modus operandi.
While much of this new way of valuing and assessing old and vintage objects is to be welcomed, I can’t help but wish that there was a little more quality control in what counts for charm and integrity in objects of art justifiably valued for exhibiting the qualities of a life well lived.
All to often this artistic integrity becomes compromised with some dealers becoming gripped by the overwhelming notion that furniture will somehow benefit from being painted grey, rubbed back or scraped. These unimaginative offerings are then served up for consumption on the online social and commercial platforms of Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook and such like.
These days the younger, and indeed older generation, do much of their business online via a mobile or tablet when the very reason I became an antiques dealer thirty years ago – in Lovejoy’s time – was precisely not to spend my days staring at a computer!
But trends and times have changed. Back in Lovejoy’s day, there were numerous antiques shops to trawl through and source goods; and crucially, there was no internet. In those bygone days, there was no possibility of texting photos to an uncle in Shanghai or Beijing to find out how much a Kangxi vase was worth. Nor could you check something’s value via a search engine before committing to a purchase.
The trade then was rather different; you learnt more by ‘having a go’, you lived off your wits, and you took a chance. I’m not suggesting the antiques business was just some form of crazy gambling, but it was calculated only to the extent that you had previously bought and sold an item, or you’d attempt to use a Millers or Lyle antiques book to get a guide price.
These books were filled with truly awful, low definition photographs of barely identifiable goods at hugely inflated prices. You could only really tell what the object was because of the description written below. On reading, you’d be astonished to discover that a blurry black and white thumbnail photograph was, in fact, an early 19th century kingwood bonheur du jour!
So, I’m not suggesting that antiques dealing back in the eighties and early nineties was plain sailing, nor do I labour under the romantic misapprehension that it was really like an episode of Lovejoy; but elements of the show weren’t so far off the mark. In many respects, it’s very well observed.
Lots of us frontline antiques dealers did run around as he did, usually buying from and selling on to other dealers, learning as we did.
We cut our teeth at shops, auctions and fairs and our knowledge grew as we made contacts further up ‘the food chain’. And in truth, you were no kind of dealer if you didn’t make the occasional mistake by underselling or overpaying, a state of affairs which, despite living in the age of the World Wide Web I still believe to be true.
In fact, sometimes losing a little on a deal is simply tossing a few quid into the communal antiques dealer’s pot.
I just hope there are still enough antiques dealers left out there who understand this.
by Robert Shaw | email@example.com
Robert has been buying and selling antiques for nearly thirty years, sourcing a variety of antique objects but with a special interest in Chinese pieces.He is based in Chichester, West Sussex. Robert can regularly be found buying and selling at fairs and markets both in the U.K and Europe including the massive Newark antiques fair where he exhibits in the George Stephenson building.
The next IACF fairs are at: Newark on 11th & 12th October; Bingley Hall, Staffordshire on 19th – 21st Oct; Runway Monday at Newark on 29th October. For more information go to www.iacf.co.uk