Archive for October, 2017

October 29, 2017

The Social & Cultural Identity of the Antique Dealer

As many of the readers of the Antique Dealer research blog will know, one of the themes I have been investigating as part of the Antique Dealers Research Project has been the ways in which ‘antique dealers’ have been represented in historical visual and literary culture. As part of the research activities dominated by this theme I’ve been assembling books and ephemera associated with the construction of the identity of the antique dealer over recent years; and there are literally scores of books by/on antique dealers, and a wide range of fascinating ephemera – of which more in a later blog post perhaps?

But anyway, the representation of art dealers and agents for art, as well as dealers in antiques and curiosities, is something that I have been working on, off and on, for over 10 years.  And it’s clear, from my research, that a distinctive trope has emerged in relation to art and antique dealers. A key example from the 18th century would be the character of the art dealer called ‘Puff’ in the satirical play Taste (1752) by the writer Samuel Foote. This trope of the dealer as ‘problem’ takes on particular formation in 19th century culture. For example, the stylistic character of the dealers Remonencq and Magus in Honore de Balzac’s novel Cousin Pons (1847), or the personal qualities of the character of ‘Grandfather’ of Little Nell, in Charles Dicken’s Old Curiosity Shop (1840). There’s a lot more to say on these developments of course – but I thought readers of the blog might be interested to see a more recent, late 20th century example, of the continuing legacy of these highly significant identities.

One of my recent purchases (in a local charity shop no less) is this board game, produced by the Leeds based manufacturer Waddingtons in 1976, called ‘SWINDLE’.


‘Swindle’ board game, 1976, Waddingtons, Leeds.

The game is a fascinating example of the continuing trope of the antique dealer as ‘problem’.  As the tag line for the ‘Swindle’ game itself suggests ‘The great game of dubious antique dealing for 3 to 6 ‘swindlers’ 9 years and upwards’.

The publicity for the board game continues to rehearse this, now, very common trope. The players in the board game take on the role of a ‘dubious’ ‘antique dealer’ – and even the player pieces themselves reinforce the idea of the dealer as implicitly untrustworthy – the pieces are shaped as the moulded head of a, quite obviously, dubious character – (the chap looks like a ‘cad’!)

Player piece – the ‘Swindle’ board game, 1976.

The publicity information on how to play the game continues these implied, and explicit, suggestions about the role of antique dealers in contemporary culture.  Players are tasked with some quite revealing rhetorical questions  – ‘How convincingly can you pass off a Plaster of Paris bust as a genuine marble antique?’, it states; and ‘How good are you at picking the difference between a real Regency chest and a cheap chipboard swindle?’

‘Swindle’ board game, 1976.

‘A super-cool bluff are essentials for players in this action-packed game of dubious antique dealing’ -states the publicity on the cover of the board game.

These stereotypes and tropes are, as I suggest, something that emerges as a distinctive form in the 18th century, but becomes more embedded in the cultural consciousness in the 19th century – indeed, it is perhaps no coincidence that these notions settle into familiar patterns at the same moment that the conjunction of ‘art’ and ‘money’ develops as a discrete anxiety. But these speculations and observations are perhaps better left to a longer, deeper analysis, rather than attempting to deal with them here – it is interesting though, that a piece of ephemera, a now probably long forgotten board game from the 1970s, has such a fascinating genealogy, and that a popular board game can open up the prospect of deeper critical analysis of perhaps one of the most fascinating tropes in art and culture?


October 22, 2017

New Oral History Interview – John G. Morris

Our ‘Voices from the Trade’ oral history interviews continue to make progress, thanks again to the BADA for their generous support towards the Oral History project. 

Our most recent interview was with John G. Morris (and his wife Lorraine).  John established his own business, John G. Morris Limited, in Petworth, West Sussex, in March 1963, and will be very well known to many readers of the antique dealers blog. John was a specialist in antique English Furniture and his shop in Petworth was a regular feature in the country antique trade for more than 35 years, until his eventual retirement in 1996.

John G. Morris, photographed for the Voices from the Trade research theme, as part of the Antique Dealers Research project. Photograph copyright Antique Dealers Project, University of Leeds, 2017.

John is now 87 years of age, and as well as some fascinating reflections on his own antiques business, he also had some astonishingly vivid memories of the time he began his career in the antiques trade, starting with the world-famous antique dealers M. Harris & Sons on 4th November 1946. During this enthralling interview, peppered with delicious anecdotes of his time at Moss Harris, John recalled with amazing clarity the characters he encountered during an astonishing 70 years experience of the antique trade!

John started with Moss Harris & Sons, aged just 16 years of age – working in workshops at M. Harris, at 27 Little Russell Street, near the British Museum. The main showrooms for M. Harris were in New Oxford Street (shown below, in c.1921); John recalled a different shop front when he joined the firm in 1946 – and thinks that the shop front was changed sometime in the late 1930s, just before World War II.

M. Harris & Sons, New Oxford Street, London, in 1921.

M. Harris were perhaps the leading antique furniture dealers in the world and when John joined the firm in 1946 they had been trading for 80 years.  The business had roots back to 1868, with the firm of D.L. Isaacs. Moss Harris, who made his first fortune as a dealer in horsehair, recycling this material back into the furniture trades for upholstery work, acquired the D.L. Isaacs business around the time of World War I and established M. Harris & Sons. They published a celebratory publication in their centenary year 1968. When John worked at the firm, he recalled that they still had more than 100 rooms filled with antique furniture.

John initially worked under the then office manager, Harold Dawson, and was tasked with booking in goods that constantly arrived in the yard behind the New Oxford Street shop – he remembered that in those days there was often so much stock that they had trouble getting it into the store rooms in time before closing the yard. John was paid £2.0.0 per week when he started, but obtained a pay rise of 5 shillings a week within a few months.

John’s memories of the business in the 1940s and 1950s will, I’m sure, be a rich resource for future scholars; he remembers, for example, one of the old retainers from the D.L. Isaacs business deal (there was an agreement, apparently, that a member of the Isaacs family was to be attached to the business until the last member of the family died out) – and John remembers ‘Old Ick’, resplendent in top hat, walking the floor of the M. Harris galleries. John also remembered the sad day when George Harris (one of two sons of Moss Harris) died suddenly of a heart attack; George was found dead in his Bugatti in Mecklenberg Square at 4am.  John recalls having to steer George’s Bugatti back into the yard at M. Harris as the police removed the car back to the shop. One of the lighter memories John recalled, was the time in 1947 when Sidney Harris (the other son of Moss Harris), was entertaining some important clients at the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, but had inadvertently left the shop without his wallet.  John was immediately dispatched to the Grosvenor House Hotel with £100 in crisp £5 notes, and was allowed by Sidney to wander the stands at the Grosvenor House Fair during the afternoon – the first time that John had seen Grosvenor House, which was then the premier event in the antiques calendar.

M. Harris & Sons; one of the showrooms in 1948.

John also recalled that in 1946, when John joined the firm, business was booming, but after John did his National Service in 1948, and returned to M. Harris in the Spring of 1950, he remembered that the business had changed; George had died in 1947, and Sidney, his brother, also died in the late 1940s, leaving the firm with significant Death Duties to pay.

There are many other more amusing, and illuminating anecdotes of John’s time at Moss Harris – memories of visits by Queen Mary and the Princess Elizabeth in the early 1950s (Moss Harris were granted Appointment to Queen Mary as  ‘Dealers in Antique Furniture & Works of Art’), as well as many other well known personalities and V.I.P.s.

John’s memories of his own business, which he started, with his wife Lorraine, in 1963, were equally fascinating. He recalled the antiques scene in Petworth – which when he opened his shop in 1963, had just 4 antique businesses; 2 of which were cabinetmakers and antique dealers (Ron Denman and Mr Collingham)….

Lorraine Morris, wife of John Morris. Photograph 2017. Photograph copyright Antique Dealers project, University of Leeds.

…. and 2 antique dealers proper (Bill Boss, and Miss Streeter, of Streeter & Daughter). As the antique business boomed during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Petworth became home to at least 15 dealers, eventually becoming a key location for the trade.  During the interview John also recalled his memories of some of the ‘old characters’ of the antique trade, now long gone – people such as Sam Wolsey, Claude Partridge, J. Rochelle Thomas, and ‘Jippy’ Botibol (J. M. Botibol), as well as more recently departed dealers such as the legendary Dick’ Turpin.

Our interview with John makes an absolutely fascinating addition to our corpus of interviews with members of the antique trade, and like all of our interviews, will, once edited, be available on the project website in due course.


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

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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