I can’t quite explain it and, believe me, I’ve tried because I’ve been asked why I’m so fascinated by antiques many, many times. What I do know is that, even as a child, there was nothing better than hearing that there was a derelict barn or building that I could explore. The feeling I got racing across the countryside to reach one of these places in north Wales on my bike was the exact same sensation I get now when heading to a great antiques fair such as Newark or Ardingly. You just don’t quite know what you’ll find.
Two years ago, we got a call in the office from Salford Magistrates’ Court. They told me that deep underground in the cellars of the building were the original 19th-century wrought-iron racking systems, and they wanted to know if we would be interested in buying them. We were there like a shot.
It was a glorious summer and my team spent two months underground sweltering in what would have once been cells for prisoners. We could even see the tracks that had been made to bring the prisoners in by horse-drawn carriage on the solid stone floors. Weeks went by. The atmosphere of the cells was unrelenting. Some of my guys started to joke, ‘Don’t send me down there again, Drew!’ but we reclaimed 70 exceptional racks and they all sold immediately to major design houses and international interior decorators. We all pitched in until we could take no more. It was a great find – but it wasn’t the real treasure we unearthed in Salford.
On our way down into the cellars each day we saw a huge steel box that appeared to be part of the staircase. I mostly ignored it, just tapping it every now and then, wondering what it was. Then one day I said, ‘Let’s drag this out,’ to Gavin, one of my chaps, but we instantly got pulled on to something more urgent. The next day, I heard Gav shout for me. He had finally opened the box and, when I reached him, he was stood, aghast, in front of a 6ft-tall coat of arms wrapped in horse hair and straw (pictured below). It dated from the 1860s and was a thing of absolute beauty. We discovered that it had been made for the main court’s wall when the court was built but had never been fitted. We couldn’t believe the craftsmanship of the thing, its scale and the mint condition it was in.
Back at our warehouse, we pulled the heraldic bearings out of the crate, cleaned them all down and put a light air line on them to blow the dust off. We replaced all of the original straw and horsehair wrapping and put it in its original thick, heavy crate, for sale at the concession we had at Liberty. It was a serious piece – with a price tag to match. It sold to Liberty’s biggest American client, who shipped it to the US to display in one of his homes. Funnily enough, he was so happy with it, he called us and asked for a second example for another one of his houses, as if such things were available on tap!
It’s that sense of excitement when you stumble across something astounding and unexpected that keeps me fascinated in antiques. It’s spine-tingling when you walk into a country house and you know how old or rare a piece is, and it’s not been touched for years. Pieces are becoming much harder to find in their original settings but through auctions or even the internet, a long-forgotten item of furniture can give you the same feeling.
Some people might say that it was a shame that the coat of arms left Salford and travelled overseas. But someone is enjoying it and looking after it, they know its provenance and they have a responsibility to pass that on, to make someone else tingle when they discover an unlikely antique, a million miles from its original home.