Having spent much of his early life in residential children’s care homes, antiques expert Ronnie Archer Morgan left school at the age of 17, with little sense of where his life would lead. He tried his hand at a wide range of occupations, including technical drawing and model making, DJing, managing a boutique in Greece, and hairdressing. The opportunity to deal in antiques evolved by chance.
‘I was hairdressing on locations for celebrity clients like Felicity Kendal, Richard Briers, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Dudley Moore, Hayley Mills and Tommy Cooper. Frequently, I would find myself in interesting places, and during breaks in filming I always took the opportunity to explore the local area.’ On his forays, he often bought interesting objects in junk shops and markets and brought them back to the location. ‘The other members of the production team and the celebrities on the shoots often admired my finds and wanted to buy them from me. I gradually realised that I had an eye for unusual things and people liked my taste. My client list expanded, and my dealing career gradually took over.’
Learning has always been Ronnie’s driving motivation, and he has built up his expertise in a wide variety of fields through meticulous research. ‘I’m drawn to things that are unfamiliar. From the start, if I saw something and didn’t know what it was, I bought it and found out more. If it contained stones, I consulted a gemmologist. If it was metal I took it to the V&A. I visited museums such as the Pitt Rivers, the Horniman and the British Museum. I read, and I looked at what specialist dealers were selling. I learned from all of them. Researching things still gives me great pleasure.’
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Fashion was always a passion of Ronnie’s and he began specialising in men’s accessories early on. ‘At one stage of my life I was known as Ronnie the Watch, because I dealt in wristwatches, and started the first wristwatch department at Sotheby’s. One of my most exciting discoveries was a tonneau-shaped single button chronograph, a Cartier Tortue 1913, which I bought from a dealer in Portobello. It wasn’t signed but I recognised it as being a very rare watch by Cartier.’
Boxes, smoking accessories, fountain pens and jewellery were also among his early stock in trade, and for a while he supplied Emporio Armani shops with vintage accessories. Ronnie’s eye for emerging trends enabled him to capitalise on new collecting areas. ‘In the 80s I bought luggage, handbags and shoes by top names like Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Chanel and Ferragamo, before the fashion for vintage became established. There was no market for luggage in the UK, but it was starting in France, so I would buy here and sell in Paris.’ He was also responsible for the first vintage handbag exhibition held at the John Jesse gallery in 1981.
Ronnie’s interest in tribal art stems mainly from his passion for 20th-century European painting. ‘Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Brancusi, Gris, Modigliani, Kandinsky, and many others were inspired by African tribal art. They appreciated its dynamic simplicity, and employed it in their own work,’ Ronnie says. ‘I’m fascinated by the interplay between the two.’
It’s nearly a decade since Ronnie was asked to join the Antiques Roadshow specialist team. The offer came out of the blue and, to begin with, Ronnie was reticent to take a place on the ‘Miscellaneous’ table. But he now feels proud of the part he plays, enjoying its positive impact on his professional career. ‘I’ve always dealt at every level, and the Antiques Roadshow has given me access to owners I always knew were there and some great things. It’s also helped me in the sense that more people now trust my judgement.’
Ronnie defines his own taste as ‘eclectic’. From textiles to treen, from tribal jewellery to walking sticks, and even walking shoes, all may have a place in his home if they meet his exacting criteria of good design and quality craftsmanship. Kempton, Portobello, Newark and Ardingly antiques fairs are favourite hunting grounds. ‘In the old days I’d go to Paris, Brussels and Marseille to buy. But nowhere constantly produces wonderful pieces. Experience has taught me never to give up – and that, along with knowledge, luck is important too.’