The antiques trade can seem, at times, to be a weird and wonderful aspect of modern life. After all, dealers and collectors around the country, and for that matter around the globe, invest in objects that typify tradition and taste, and portray fantastically rich and complex social histories. This can often throw up strange things, quirky adjuncts to the recognised and the useful. For these we all visit places like Portobello market, to root out personal ephemera and private passions, and the hunt through the crowds nearly always pays off (even if it's just the pint next to the pub fire at the end of the morning's foraging).

The unique and the ordinary mix at Portobello Market in Notting Hill.

However, the trade can also be a very serious one, and for good reason. Enthusiasts and collectors alike have the ability to buy some of the finest and most beautiful objects that humans can make, and have made, over our ten thousand or so years of fruitful labour. Just up the road from Reindeer Antiques is a little shop selling Indus valley pottery from 2500BC, for example. Here in the gallery, our own specialism lies in fine examples of English furniture that often bear the marks and patinations gained from 300 years of love and use. We are custodians of history, to use that well-worn phrase, and we carry with us a responsibility and a duty to learn from and protect these objects.

The top of a well patinated Chippendale period mahogany piecrust table. Circa 1760.

Quite how to value the importance of objects that have been battered and bruised as part of a busy and tempestuous household, or else locked away and are never to be touched, is always a sensitive and difficult issue. Things can get ever more serious when money is involved. A recent example of something that has taken the trade (and the news) by storm, is the Chinese vase that fetched £43,000,000 at Bainbridges auction house in Ruislip. Having spent a good deal of its life in an attic space in the suburbs of London, this vase is now considered a world treasure, the very pinnacle of skill and craftsmanship from the artists in the employ of the Chinese imperial court. If insider gossip is correct about the identity of the buyer, the vase may even end up in a new museum he is building in Dalian, China.

The Chinese vase that fetched £43,000,000 at Bainbridges auction house on November 11th.

Whether the sums of money that can sometimes exchange hands for these objects and artefacts are considered by the rest of the world to be extravagant, or an important and passionate illustration of our love for the past, such auction results are telling of the role that art and antiques play in our lives. We’ve got the bug, and we’re addicted. But when we are given the opportunity to own something many times our own age; a chair or a desk, a plate or a painting used by people like us, and which can speak on their behalf long after they have gone to the grave, isn’t it easy to see why we can’t stop ourselves collecting, even needing these things?

It is also a good thing that not everything ends up in museums, and though the vase will inevitably be locked behind bullet proof glass, or even in a bank vault nestled alongside the Van Goghs and Roman silver hoards, we can still thankfully get a chance to own a fantastic plethora of important objects from history. Those of us fortunate enough to be in the antiques trade are instrumental in ensuring that such pieces are available to private buyers as well as to museums - to be used and enjoyed wherever possible, hopefully well into the future.

To go back to our role as custodians of history then, whether it is a clay pipe smoked by Hogarth or an oak table that generations of people have eaten their stews and hotpots from, there will always be a place for these objects in society, and in the homes of collectors. They don't have to fetch the same amount as your average island in the Maldives to have the capability to enchant and entice. It is by living around these things - using and appreciating them - that we can fuel our own lives, and take from them a wonderfully rich visual archive, and a key to our past.


Matthew Reeves


December 14, 2010 — Peter Alexander
Tags: Opinion