The other week I had an interesting conversation over dinner with one of my Roadshow colleagues at the first Roadshow of the most recent, and 37th, season. It’s one that held great resonance for me personally, as I am about to open a small, but perfectly formed, shop in Grays antiques market in the centre of London. This particular colleague has had a shop for many years, having given up a lucrative job in the city ages ago to pursue his passions of dealing in and working with antiques.
The core of our conversation was about the importance of the story behind an object, which could variously (but obtusely) be described as its authenticity or its provenance. Loosely described, what we were delighted to discover we shared was a belief that people are returning to wanting to own objects that actually mean something, that have a story behind them and that aren’t just beautiful to behold.
For many years now, the visual appearance of most antiques sold has been more important than any story behind it. Although always affected by fashion, antiques have now become part of it and subject to the swiftly shifting vagaries that govern it. Even a mass-produced piece of furniture made for the masses can be worth a considerable sum providing it has the ‘look’ – be that the right style or a beautifully battered appearance such as a distressed patina or paint. It just ‘looks’ great and matches the dominant interior fashion of the day, be it shabby chic or country kitchen. These ‘decorative antiques’ have eclipsed more interesting and arguably more worthy pieces in terms of demand, and so price. Of course, every object has a story to tell of some sort, it’s just that the stories many of these decorative pieces tell are often little more than a haiku. I’m also not saying that you need to take the be-whiskered, spectacle-wearing attitude to collecting taken by Tom Travers or Sir Watkin Bassett (Wodehouse characters, for those of you who don’t know.), but there seems to be a need for something more than what can be ‘all fur coat and no knickers’.
The reason for this slant has been the decline in the number of collectors and aficionados who read into and around their subject and have an aim in their collecting. Against this, there has been a dramatic rise in the numbers of those reacting to fashions and simply wanting something unusual to add to their homes. I’m not knocking these buyers or criticizing their reasons – it’s always delightful to find anyone buying antique or vintage things. And I’m not knocking the objects or the people who deal in them either, the skill to recognise and display such pieces enticingly is a real and rare talent.
As our conversation developed, my colleague and I realized we had both seen a recent upturn in the number of people effectively asking for ‘more’ when showing interest in an object. They were drawn to something because they liked it, the way it looked, and because it spoke to them in some way. But they needed more in order to part with their hard-earned cash. It had to have relevance and resonance, and a meaning. In the past, I’ve seen the information sheets I research and write to accompany good and better pieces of stock I sell thrown in the bin as a (happy, I might add) buyer walked away from my stand (Yes, I fished them back out again). Now, I regularly get follow-up emails asking for them if I have forgotten them, haven’t produced them, or they got stolen by someone hungry for information about something they don’t own.
We all loved being read stories at bedtime by our parents when we were children. As we drifted off to sleep our young minds were transported to places far and exciting. I don’t think we ever grow out of that, even as adults. As humans, a need for learning is part of who we all are. Before I started dealing, I shared a cigarette break outside a restaurant with a very well-known, experienced and established dealer. He’s also a jolly lovely guy. In response to me saying that I was a dreadful salesman and so was worried about moving into dealing, he advised “You don’t have to sell these things, they sell themselves.” He’s right – I don’t ‘sell’ my stock, I just tell people the stories behind them.
As more and more in our lives becomes ephemeral and all about surface appearances, are we now seeing the start of a return to a need for deeper meaning and stories to excite and exercise the mind? I think it’s a little like dating and choosing a partner. Someone or something may be handsome or pretty to look at, but if the brains and experiences aren’t there, how long will it last?