Archive for May, 2014

May 30, 2014

Antique Dealing….and other practices

The history of the trade in antiques is composed of a complex mixture of overlapping practices and activities. In the early 19th century, when we can say that the present trade began, antique and curiosity dealers emerged from the furniture-making community, from the ‘rag-trade’, the second -hand trade more generally, and modern china and glass sellers….amongst others…. ..if you’re interested, see my work A Biographical Dictionary of 19th Century Antique and Curiosity Dealers (Regional Furniture Society, 2009 & 2011 – copies still available!…£20…(sorry about the advert!….) – But anyway, historically, the trade has always comprised a series of interrelated selling and manufacturing practices.  Indeed, during the course of the investigations for the current project and the history of the antique trade in the 20th century these overlapping practices continued – here’s just one example of the practices of ‘antique dealing’ operating alongside other activities – some of these are obvious (interior decorating for example, and furniture making…which many dealers today are involved in). But antique dealers have also regularly sold a range of ‘modern’ things alongside what one might describe as ‘traditional’ antiques (the notion of ‘antique’ is quite obviously a mutable term!).

Anyway, Martin Levy (of Blairman & Sons, London) sent us this image of a tea-cup and saucer, which was apparently retailed by Blairman, when the firm was then trading in Llandudno, Wales (they had a shop there from the 1880s).

Photograph copyright Blairman & Sons, London

Photograph copyright Blairman & Sons, London

Photograph copyright, Blairman & Sons, London.

Photograph copyright, Blairman & Sons, London.

We reckon the tea-cup and saucer dates from c.1890-1910, so would have been a ‘modern’ thing when sold by Blairman at the time. The retailing of ‘contemporary’ products is interesting, especially given the recent shift to the contemporary and the changes in the activities of, what were often considered to be ‘traditional’ dealerships – it’s now not that unusual to enter an ‘antique shop’ and be confronted by modern and contemporary design amongst the ‘brown furniture’ and ‘antique’ objects…..

There are many other examples of other practices that the antique trade have been involved in over the years and we hope to include information of these activities as part of our ‘cultural geography’ of the antique trade…




May 24, 2014

Oral History Interviews – Kath’s Button Box

We’ve started the oral history interviews for the Antique Dealers project.  This week I interviewed Kathleen Skin, about her time at Portobello Road antiques market during the 1950s and 1960s; and her time at Grays Antiques market in the 1980s. Kathleen is 93 years old, and has absolutely fascinating memories about buying and selling a whole range of things. Here’s Kathleen, in her home at Cambridge.

Kathleen Skin May 2014

Kathleen Skin, 2014

Kathleen told us about life on Portobello Road, antique dealing for ‘fun’, and some extraordinary things she bought – including a silver belt with Wedgwood ‘Jasperware’ plaques and a rare 18th century doll (which she sold to the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood now the V&A Museum of Childhood). Kathleen began to specialize in buttons, (she still loves buttons!), and continued her trading at Grays Antiques Market in the 1980s, as ‘Kath’s Button Box’. Here’s some of the shops and stalls in Portobello Road in the mid 1970s……

Portobello Road in the 1970s

Portobello Road in the 1970s

All of the project interviews we are collecting , including the interview with Kathleen, will be archived and made available via the project website as the project develops.


May 4, 2014

Wartime and the antiques trade

Geoffrey Hill, courtesy of the Hill family

Geoffrey Hill, courtesy of the Hill family

Working through the Kelly’s directories for Essex has revealed a small but rather stable group of dealers plying their trade in the county thus far but, having started work on the directory for 1914 this morning, I started to think about the more unusual links between the trade and the two world wars. Obviously many shops went out of business in this period both as a result of the huge numbers of casualties and the resulting loss of expertise and also the dire economic conditions that resulted from both periods of conflict. However the wartime periods also led to a number of determined young men and women returning from active service and wondering whether the antiques trade might offer them the chance to start afresh in what must have seemed like a brave new world.

Geoffrey Hill joined the RAF reserve forces in late 1938, becoming a full-time pilot in 1939 and serving in 65 squadron throughout the battle of Britain. Whilst flying a mission in February of 1941 he was shot down and forced to abandon his aircraft, leading to his capture by German forces. Mr Hill was sent to Stalag Luft 111. He promptly escaped from the prison camp on three occasions, leading to his imprisonment in Colditz for the rest of the war. Whilst in Colditz, Mr Hill made use of his German language skills and the availability of what was presumably a well-stocked prison library, reading all he could about antiques and antique furniture in particular.

When hostilities ended, Geoffrey Hill, now an MBE due to his bravery during the war, set up in business in London as Jeremy Ltd, soon moving to the Kings Road and, many years later, to Lowndes Street in Belgravia. His hours of study at Colditz had clearly been time well-spent as he soon built up a reputation as one of the world’s leading experts in English and continental furniture and objets d’art, helping to form many major collections in the process. Amongst his many achievements, he served as president of the British Antique Dealers Association and was a long time exhibitor and member of the vetting committees at the Grosvenor House fair. By the time of his death in 1997 his two sons Michael and John had taken over the running of the business and John Hill continues to run the business as a consultancy to this day. It is remarkable to think that, however indirectly, the horrors of the second world war led to the discovery and sale of some of the finest works of art from the 18th and 19th centuries.

For a fuller account of Geoffrey Hill’s wartime career, please see this link

If anyone has other stories about the activities of members of the trade during the wars then please get in touch.


Chris Coles

Volunteer project research assistant



May 4, 2014

Entire Stock Sold – Walter Bird 1956

We’re discovering some fascinating stories about the trade as part of the research for the Antique Dealer Project – including some stories that I thought were completely apocryphal……the story of the ‘Rich American’ buying up the entire stock of a dealer, for example. Well, it seems that this did happen (how often, we’ve yet to discover).  In 1956, Walter Bird, who was then trading at 112 Kensington Church Street, London (see the image of the exterior of his shop in blog entry for April 22nd) sold his ‘entire stock’ to an American buyer. Here’s Mr and Mrs Bird, in their shop:



The Antiques Yearbook 1957-8 recorded the event; ‘It was into this shop last year that an American stranger walked and drawled “Say, Mr Bird, what will you take for the whole lot?” In no time a deal involving many thousands of pounds (and a hundred chandeliers apart from 20 years’ accumulation of china, glass, silver and furniture) was concluded, surely the most remarkable ever’ (AYB, (1957), p.130). Bird, who was then the President of the Kensington Antique Dealers’ Association, reassured his customers that he was still trading, taking an advert in AYB:






Bird managed to re-stock his shop and continued trading of course.  If anyone else knows of any other instances of entire stock of dealers being purchased in one transaction do let us know!


May 3, 2014

Volunteer Researcher – Chris Coles

Our response to ‘Get Involved’ in the Antique Dealer Project has it’s latest enthusiastic responder!…Chris Coles, of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum has pledged his help (and…that of his family…!)…Thanks Chris and Family for all your help so far. Only days in and already we have several Excel Spreadsheets (for Essex Trade Directories from the early 1920s) submitted for uploading to the developing interactive website…Brilliant Work!…And Chris is also helping out with Blogging…you can read his first post, on the infamous Antique Dealer Wilfred Bull, (prior post, below).

Chris send us an ‘representation’ of him (and his family) – the image, Chris tells us, represents his, and his families collecting interests….just as well…an empty decanter could indicate other ‘interests’!…


Chris Coles..and Family…(collecting interests of, that is!)

Chris also composed a short biography for the project website(s)….

Hello, my name is Chris Coles. I work at the British Museum but I live for antiques! I started with cufflinks and stickpins and those are still the mainstays of my collection but I am also passionately interested in 18th century English furniture, Chelsea and Worcester porcelains, early English carpets and needlework, glass and decorative accessories (particularly those made from Blue John).  As well as the pieces themselves I’ve always been fascinated by dealer ephemera and have stacks of old Connoisseur magazines, Grosvenor House Fair catalogues and dealer brochures. When I read about this project in the ATG I was extremely keen to get involved as it seemed like a perfect way to combine my interests and my skills and hopefully play a small part in something that will have a lasting positive impact on the trade and its reputation.  I’ve roped my parents in to help with the project too and together we’re making our way through Kelly’s trade directories. I’d encourage anyone with even a passing interest in the trade to get involved in the project – it’s extremely satisfying watching your part of the data come together.


………Many thanks Chris for all your excellent help so far!

If anyone else would like to come forward as a volunteer researcher please do email us:


Home Subjects

a working group dedicated to the display of art in the private interior, c. 1715-1914

The Period Room: Museum, Material, Experience

An International Conference hosted by The Bowes Museum and The University of Leeds

H. Blairman & Sons Ltd

A research project investigating the history of the antiques trade in Britain in the 19th & 20th centuries

Museum Studies Now?

'Museum Studies Now?' is an event which aims to discuss and debate museum and heritage studies education provision.

The Burlington Magazine Index Blog

art writing * art works * art market

East India Company at Home, 1757-1857

A research project investigating the history of the antiques trade in Britain in the 19th & 20th centuries