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Antiquing Across the Pond
by Bob Brooke


Antiquing is a worldwide phenomenon. But nowhere in the world is it more a part of the social fabric than in England.

Just as here at home, the antiques business is lagging due to a surge in online auctions economy and over-inflated prices. Many American dealers, such as John Wilson of Wayne, Pennsylvania, have all but given up buying in England and now buy most of their English pieces here in the U.S.

It's not just the artifacts of any particular period which carry a premium. Olive Branch Antiques typifies the kind of British bric-a-brac shop where you may go to browse and touch. "Customers," said the salesgirl, Angela, "like to look under tables and reach on top of cupboards. I don't mind." It would be difficult for anyone not to pick up something or other: old keys, cups and saucers, hickory-shafted golf clubs, or a lace tea-tray mat selling for no less than $20.

"Olde Worlde" serendipity? Perhaps, but England isn't the place to go bargain hunting in hopes of making a financial killing. Values of most antiques are known, as they are here at home. It's much better to trust to instinct and buy what you like if it's affordable.

Then again, it's possible to choose something whose value is appreciating. The demand for Scottish handpainted Wemyss china, for example, has skyrocketed. So has all Staffordshireware and other types of Victorian majolica.

Prices at some of the better-known flea markets, such as London's Portbello Road, are in the stratosphere. More of a tourist trap than an antique-hunters’ paradise, it offers lots of reproductions, especially of Staffordshire dogs and other high-priced items, which to the unwarry shopper look like the real thing.

A pair of 12-inch turned wooden candlesticks was selling for $50. And on the same table was a stereopticon bears a price tag of $232. Tea caddies, always a favorite of Anglophiles, were selling for $210 minimum. Eye cups, selling for $5 to $20 in the U.S., start at $45 in the U.K.

What Makes Antiquing in England Different?
But there's something especially British about antiquing here, regardless of the prices. British antique dealers, on the whole, are tolerant. They don't pressure their customers to buy. Michael Golding of Huntington Antiques of Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds accepts his role as an impromptu guide with good grace. "Visitors," he said, "treat us like a museum. They tell us that they've seen more here than in Warwick Castle."

That isn't so surprising, since his stock may include anything from an early English, Gothic bed at $145,000 to a Limoges enamel book cover, one of only two known to be in existence. Of course, there are items of lesser cost, such as a 16th-century polychrome wood mortar and pestle for about $4,000.

Even in the most impressive surroundings, the price on the ticket is no more than the starting point for negotiations. Customers rarely hear the word "firm" in an English shop. Antique buying and selling is played by bazaar rules. The trade price is always at least 10 percent less than the marked figure.

At Picton House, Broadway, also in the Cotswolds, a pair of decanters and six crystal sherry glasses stand on a late 18th-century Sheraton sofa table. They aren't for sale, though the table is. They're there for patrons who might enjoy a little refreshment when making up their minds between a serpentine fronted mahogany chest and a set of Queen Anne chairs. The look here is that of an English country house, in its prime during the Edwardian era. Even in the lowliest shop, there's a feeling of class that's often missing here at home.

The greatest difference between antiquing in England and here at home is the broad division between the higher-end market and the provincial shows and shops. "I would say that it is more stratified here," said Pat Wilson, a dealer in the Stratford-upon-Avon Antique Centre, "there being a vast social gulf between the up-market London dealers and those scratching a living as "knockers," who go around knocking on doors asking if the householder has any antiques for sale."

To a degree, this is happening in the States, but in England, it's to the exclusion of those customers that don't have a Mercedes or limo waiting for them at the curb.

To keep ahead of the market some dealers have taken to "making" antiques or to restoring pieces in such a way as to make the piece no longer valuable as an antique. In some ways this also is much like it is here in the U.S., but in England it's becoming even more widespread due to the country's antique reputation and the demand for fine pieces.

Collectors should be careful when purchasing antiques in England today. Often the interiors of writing boxes have been completely rebuilt, replacing leather slopes, putting new fronts on drawers, and such without notifying the buyer. This has become a very common practice in England.

Where to Find Antiques in England
Even so, England is still the world's greatest antique treasure store. Across the country, any day of the week, there may be several dozen auctions and shows taking place. Even a small town will boast a couple of shops. In historic centers like Bath, the numbers run into the hundreds, not counting the stallholders packing specialty markets like Guinea Lane.

But by far the hottest antique trail in England is the Cotswolds. More top dealers set out their wares here than anywhere else outside the London and they're less formal than their London colleagues. The towns of Stow-on-the-Wold, Cirencester and Tetbury have barely changed for centuries. Cheltenham Spa retains more than a vestige of Regency chic. Burford's High Street, lined with limestone houses, is dotted with antique and refinishing shops.

Also, many tourist towns like Warwick, Bath, and Stratford-upon-Avon, have well-known antique markets.

Cornwall has some interesting, if lesser-known, antiquing possibilities. Not traditionally an antique center, towns like Teignmouth, Exmouth, Budleigh Salterton, Topsham, Woodbury and Exeter in the north and Torquay, Paignton, Brixham, Totnes, Dartmouth and Kingsbridge in the south all have enough shops to keep the avid antiquer happy for days.

A full day can be spent in Honiton, where it seems every other building is an antique shop. Also, the Baribican in Plymouth, offers antique markets and galleries by the harbordside along Southside Street.

The types of English antique venues are as varied as their locations. Superb antique galleries abound on London's Kensington Church Street, Bond Street, and Belgravia, where high quality pieces are displayed in an exclusive atmosphere. Other areas that are prime antiquing centers include East Anglia with Woodbridge, Long Melford, and Bury Saint Edmunds.

Besides the medium-sized modestly-priced shops found in most English towns, there are also the house-clearance specialists, whose often cluttered shops may yield some interesting finds, as well as the thrift shops, piled high with goods donated to a good cause.

For those who can't afford the high overhead of individual shops, there are plenty of indoor antique arcades or markets, with a dozen to several hundred stalls. Many reside in attractive old buildings, with individual locked cases or an open-plan arrangement. One of the best is Alfies' on Church Street, in the Marylebone section of London. Here, 150 dealers cram six floors full of everything from pure antiques to "bygones"what the British call collectibles. There's also Antiquarius, Chenil Galleries, and the Chelsea Antique Market on King's Road, Chelsea, as well as Gray's and Gray's Mews on Davies Street, and Camden Lock in Islington.

Antique Fairs

Antique fairs have grown tremendously popular in recent years. The large London fairsthe National Porcelain, Pottery, and Glass Fair, the London Antiques Dealers Fair, and the Grosvenor House Antique Fairoffer superb displays of fine pieces.

"'Dated' fairs [such as the Chelsea Antique Fair] are those where a cut-off point for items on display is established, usually at the latest 1880 or 1900," said Wilson of Stratford-upon-Avon, "though with the increasing popularity of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the limit is sometimes raised to 1930 or 1940."

For those who wish to take in some of the opulence of England's stately homes, there are fairs held in Castle Howard (famous for the filming of "Brideshead Revisited"), Hatfield House or Ragley Hall. Fairs are also held at many of London's top hotels, such as the Kensington and London Hiltons, and the Royal Lancaster Hotel.

More affordable fairs take place on weekends in venues of every type, from townhalls to parish rooms to school gymnasiums. These offer more collectibles, much as the smaller country fairs do here at home. A good example is the Winchester Antique Fair, held in the 11th-century guildhall in the center of town. Two floors of dealers sell everything from picture frames to lamps. Admission charges range from a dollar or so to over $20 for larger events.

One of the best and largest of the general fairs is the one held five times yearly at the Alexandra Palace in North London. Known locally as the "Ally Pally," this fair takes place on Sundays only and features more than 1,000 dealers. Another, held on Wednesdays seven times yearly in Saint Martin's Rag Market in Birmingham, and also known as the "Birmingham Rag," has over a thousand dealers.

The showground fair is a fairly new phenomenon in England. Held in vast complexes that usually showcase agriculture or livestock, these fairs attract an enormous number of exhibitors who set up either inside the halls or in the surrounding fields. Similar to our extravaganzas held twice yearly, these fairs offer all levels of antiques, from top quality items to junk.

England also has shows for collectors of a particular period or item, much as we have here. "Art Deco shows have become increasingly popular," added Wilson, who specializes in the period. In addition, auction houses are developing theme auctions aimed at collectors of specific items, particularly pottery.

British Flea Markets
Flea markets attract everyone from diehard antique addicts to casual browsers. A mixture of young and old of all races and nationalities, from young couples with baby strollers to empty- nesters, all looking, looking, looking for that special find while folk musicians entertain and hawkers sell T-shirts. It's more like a carnival atmosphere--a great "day out" for everyone.

Portobello Road is probably the most well known. Here itinerant dealers set up shop on Saturdays in front of regular antique shops along narrow Portobello Road and its various side streets. Alongside collectibles such as royal commemorative cups and saucers and Bohemian glass etched vases, vendors sell handmade straw hats and jewelry. But there is a bright spot for dedicated antique shoppers if they take the time to find it.

Other markets in London include the New Caledonia Market, also known as the Bermondsey Market and also a Saturday market at Long Lane and Tower Bridge Road, four blocks south of the Tower of London, and the Petticoat Lane Market, a Sunday-only market, about the same distance north. Several others, including Camden Passage in Islington and the Church Street Market near Alfies, are open all week, but the best day to visit is Saturday.

There's a lot of antique stealing and fencing going on in Britain today. Unfortunately, for the buyer, English law states that a stolen item remains the property of the owner however many hands it passes through. Caveat Emptor, buyer beware. It's crucial for anyone spending serious money on antiques in England to make sure they receive a full, detailed invoice describing the purchase. British Customs demands it.

Acquiring an object off a market stall or at one of the growing number of tailgate sales can be risky. While that risk, itself, may contribute to the thrill of antique hunting, it's safer even when looking for inexpensive collectibles to choose a well-run market like the Cotswold Antiques Centre in Stow-on-the-Wold, whose 20 dealers guarantee every item on sale. It's always better to spend a dollar or so more, than to be sorry.

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