Low road to deals
Thomas Woodham-Smith heads for Brussels bargains
For me, a classic antique dealer road trip is a meander from one meal to the next, larded with shopping. I recently headed to the Low Countries with my pal Joost, a defrocked Dutchman specialising in Indian and Islamic art. I needed to deliver a pair of mirrors, which seemed a fair enough excuse to disappear abroad leaving my wife and our tiny twins for a night.
It wasn’t long before we entered the small hell of passport control at the channel tunnel, where it seems to be the joy and satisfaction of the border guards to initiate travellers into the post-Brexit world by making travel involve as long a queue as possible.
For our first stop in Belgium, we paid court to the King of Jabbeke in his castle at Snellegem. In real life King Paul is, appropriately enough, Paul de Grande, and he has been presiding over his kingdom for the best part of 50 years. Every floor of his castle is teeming with stock; he has outbuildings bursting at the seams and warehouses in neighbouring towns equally crammed.
The downside is that I don’t want almost any of these treasures. Over the years I have bought many things from him, but they remain the merest pipette droplet in the Pacific. We spend a jolly hour with him reminiscing and hearing about his girlfriend and wife issues. He is very charming and twinkly and has what you might describe as a roving eye. Partners don’t last but he has produced a charming set of children, one or some of whom occasionally appear. We drank small strong coffees and he plied us with minute sugary wafers.
We pressed on to Joost Dusol in Haaltert, just outside Brussels. Joost is rather an Eeyorish character; it may be sunny now but it will certainly soon rain. He has been in this trade for an aeon but business has never been good and it was better in the past. Compounding his air of tragedy is his reportedly ever-crumbling physical state. His hip was an issue, and don’t get him started on his cough, hair or eyesight. He was a picture of misery as he showed us his gallery rooms which were clearly bereft of quite a few items since our last visit, indicating a good run of business.
Finally we made it to Brussels. Without question the best way to find a good place to eat is to ask a local antique dealer. We both “phoned a friend” and went to the place where the addresses overlapped. The Brasserie Toucan sur Mer fed us perfect small Dutch oysters, shrimp croquettes and slabs of delicious hake; lubricated with a bottle of French white wine, we finished the evening with headache-inducing cognac.
The next day feeling a bit desiccated we stepped out to see a dealer in the neighbourhood. His home was cold and trendy and had Japanese music playing; he gave us a ginger-and- something drink which did help. He and Joost “traded knowledge”. This is a sort of primal thing that we dealers do, a bit like rival monkeys. We meet, and then we show off about what and who we know, and make enigmatic allusions to deals we have done.
Eventually one of the monkeys rolls over and has his tummy tickled. Job done, Joost steered us on to the Sablons. This is the historic antiques area of Brussels, today a shadow of its former glory but still rich in goods and personalities. An arcade I often visit has offered for many years the panelling from a brothel dating from around 1900 — all cherubs and nymphs but depicted cavorting carnally rather than decorously, and in exaggerated and graphic detail.
We did a round of the dealers and then headed for lunch in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (sensibly known to all as Den Bosch), where my mirrors were to be delivered. We detoured via a massive derelict shoe factory which is home to acres of twentieth-century “design”.
This is the future of the trade — not the stock necessarily, but their selling methodology: everything is on the internet and they offer and supply packing and shipping to the whole world. Their stock is priced at market rate or just below. Everything has a maker’s name and they provide market parallels for their prices. They don’t need physical visitors since almost all their trade is done in the ether.
Eventually one of the monkeys rolls over and has his tummy tickled
We reached Den Bosch where my clients the Vandervens — Floris and Nynke — have their shop of Chinese art. We share a classic Dutch pub lunch of almost inedible heavy stodge whilst enjoying the traditional exchange of news and admiration, after which we head back to their house/shop to see if we can do any business. I had swept up from shelves and cupboards at home a few items of stock (a fabulous paperwork-free convenience which hopefully won’t be ruined by Brexit).
We swapped our Chinese export crucifix for a Japanese bronze stag and got a couple of other Japanese bronzes on consignment. Job done, we set off for our last call, Bill and Cornelia Van Dam. They used to have a tiny and fabulously beautiful sixteenth-century house in Zaltbommel but they have retired to a scarily anodyne block of flats with characterless rooms.
In the middle of Bill’s main room is an English Regency desk which always has a cup of coffee and a glass of red wine on it. I have almost never failed to buy something but this time I did, and it was painful to leave without having acquired a treasure.
Our premonition of unnecessary queuing at Calais passport control was fulfilled and we sat becalmed as one kiosk out of ten managed all travellers. Never mind: we sat happily in the car munching the Dutch snacks we had bought for our children and reminisced about the wonderful, resilient old men whose company we had enjoyed during the last two days. This is a collegiate and international trade, which brings us together as we exchange objects we love, but it is a fragile one. Let’s hope that our complex connections can weather whatever is to come. Long live road trips!
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe