I’m always looking for that extra-special piece – an antique that has an edge. Over the years I’ve learned that these aren’t always the rarest pieces or the ones that are worth the most money, but somehow they just have something exceptional about them. Learning to spot them is an art and one that takes years to hone.
There can be two identical chairs, made on the same day by the same man, but one will be more desirable than the other. It might come down to a slight difference in shade, a quirk in the way it’s made or the way it commands attention when it’s placed in a room. Any of these things might give a piece an edge. These are the pieces that often appeal to other people too, and they fly out of the door when I come across them.
I’ll never forget coming across a tiny, very stylised robin at a stained-glass dealer once. I took one look at it and thought, ‘That’s a bit special.’ When I got it back to work, I propped it up against a window to admire it. It had perfect proportions. No single piece of lead was too long or too short, everything was exactly right in the design: the colours of the stained glass, the way it was painted. You could see the years of craftsmanship, knowledge and skill in that little bird.
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Later that day, a client we called Gothic Gary (because he’d buy anything we had in that was Gothic) turned up. He spotted the robin instantly. ‘What’s that?’ he asked me. ‘This? It’s just come in,’ I told him. ‘I think it’s a bit special.’ ‘Name your price,’ he replied without hesitation. Now, this guy has a very high-profile job. He drives an Aston Martin and always rocks up with a carrier bag full of cash. The stained-glass dealer I’d bought the bird from wasn’t sure what it was, so I put an ambitious price on it. If Gothic Gary was willing to pay, I would, of course, sell. To my amazement he took my hand off.
When I went home that night, something about the sale bugged me, and I looked through all of my books until I found the robin. I almost wished I hadn’t. I discovered that it had come from one of the houses that the renowned English architect and Gothic designer Augustus Pugin had owned. Anything connected with Pugin is incredibly rare and highly desirable, and I’d let it slip through my hands.
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There’s a saying in the antiques business that you should never buy and sell something on the same day, and it’s good advice. You need time to investigate anything you suspect is good and check its provenance. I once bought a pair of stools from Forde Abbey in Somerset, which I was told were 19th-century reproductions. I only discovered after selling them quickly for a small profit that they were 18th-century originals worth a fortune. But I’ve always held on to the fact that I knew these pieces were good enough to buy in the first place.
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I once found a beautiful pair of 19th-century West Country stick-back armchairs in their original green paint. The unique way they’d worn made them that extra bit special and I fell in love with them. We decided to put them into our concession at Liberty with a fitting price tag and they were, perhaps, the most expensive stick-back chairs in the world at the time. Every time I handled them there was a bit of magic and a small part of me wanted to put them into the back of my car to take home. But the same day we put them on the shop floor, they sold.
The guy who bought them fell in love with them too. He understood them and didn’t flinch at the £6,500 price tag. They went to the right buyer, at the right price. Through the learning that follows the mistakes, you have the knowledge to bring it all together as a dealer and it all pays off, just in time for you to start the search for that extra-special piece once more.
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