Drew Pritchard: How to be a successful antiques dealer

Salvage Hunter Drew Pritchard reveals the secret to his success as an antiques dealer and why he lives for the thrill of the next find

A portrait of antiques dealer, restoration expert and salvage hunter Drew Pritchard in his home

I go to great lengths to get the best deals. It’s a constant of the job and it often means extremes of discomfort. When a dealer takes a stall at an antiques fair we call it ‘standing the fair’. I stood Newark for 13 years. You have to be there at the crack of dawn, not only to set up your stand but to get a handle on what your favourite dealers are selling so that you can cherry pick what you want before the gates open and ideally before they’ve unpacked their vans.

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Every month for 13 years I slept in the back of my battered old van, fully clothed, in a sleeping bag with my Russian army hat pulled down tightly on my head. I only stopped when, at 36 years old, I awoke one morning to find that a leak from the roof had frozen on my head in a solid ice drip. During those years I made decent money but dealing always had its losses and gains. One good choice at a fair would pay for 14 mistakes. But even when I was making good money, I’d find myself sleeping in my car and driving hundreds of miles a week.

When I trekked one time to the Hebrides with a couple of the guys, I started to wonder if things were getting out of hand. We had heard that there were 36 beautiful opaline ceiling lights dating from 1910 we could buy from a church on the Isle of Islay – but there was a big catch. The journey to get them would involve a drive followed by two boat crossings. It would take 24 hours one way. Now, if there’s one thing I hate it’s being in a boat on the sea and we were crossing on open-deck vessels holding just 10 cars, in winter, in choppy waters. We were blown to bits and everyone was unwell. But when we reached dry land we went straight to the church to get the lights, which were just as good as we’d been promised.

The guy selling the lights on behalf of the church was amiable. ‘I know you’ve had to come a long way, so I’ll take that into consideration with the price,’ he told us, and we bought the lights for half their value. We thought our luck had changed. But that night, the weather took a turn for the worse and we ended up being stranded on the island for a whole week. We stayed in a local pub. There was nothing to do and no licensing laws. Needless to say we ate and drank the profits before a 15-hour drive home after another rough boat crossing, knowing that, even if we sold the lights for the best price, we’d be penniless.

While not all of our adventures paid off, the disasters never deterred us. I love old cars and I also deal in them. A friend of my father’s knew that I was into old Volkswagens and told me about a seriously rare split-screen pick-up truck that he had once owned. ‘I’d love to see a picture of it,’ I told him, having only ever heard about three or four in existence. We were in north Wales visiting him in Corwen. ‘Don’t worry about a picture,’ he told me, ‘it’s still here.’ ‘Where?’ I asked. To my amazement, they’d buried it. ‘If you dig it up and tidy up after yourselves, you can have it,’ he told us.

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So that’s how we found ourselves on a windswept hill, putting spades to good use to unearth buried treasure. The truck was 50 or so years old and it had been underground for at least a decade. It was in a terrible state when we finally unearthed it, but it was a rare barn-door model and it was ours for free. We pulled it out of the ground with the Morris Minor pick-up we had arrived in and sold it to a specialist restorer in Germany for a fair profit. I’ve owned about a hundred Volkswagens throughout my career but that was the only one I’ve dug up from the ground. Who knows where the next piece lies? Or where the thrill of the chase will lead us?

See Drew’s vehicles at dpclassics.co.uk. Salvage Hunters is on Wednesdays on Quest at 9pm until 30th March

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Portrait: Grant Scott
Image: Magic Car Pics/REX/Shutterstock