Thomas Woodham-Smith sees out the antique year
Hedonism and antiques go together like money and laundering, which is why Christmas is bad news for the health of most antiques dealers. My first boss, the genius who created Mallett at Bourdon House in Mayfair, set the standard by smoking 120 a day, leaving burns on every wooden surface in the office and fag butts in every vase in the shop. In addition, he ate and drank energetically and chased after leggy blondes as if he lived in the 1970s. Alongside the numerous cigarette packets on his desk were several vast bars of milk chocolate. As you might imagine, he loved Christmas.
Even in these more spartan times it is still a jolly good thing that Christmas comes but once a year. This time I restricted myself to a couple of work parties, but for years it was not uncommon for me to go to eight or nine. Some are disguised selling events where a gallery claims to be having a party but has an undeclared purpose of flogging you some stuff. Others host craft pop-ups and soften resolve with mulled wine and supermarket mince pies. But the best have always been devoted simply to eating and drinking, with no commercial subtext.
I once attended the annual knees-up of one of the surviving legends of the antique furniture business which took place in the wonderful cellars of Berry Bros in St James’s. An all-male affair, we started with champagne, sat down to three courses of different wines and finished with old-school “stickies”. Food came and went and we all got heroically plastered.
At the end of lunch people rose in turn to tell painfully unfunny smutty jokes. The whole thing was somehow reminiscent of a costume drama and equally self-conscious.
At the other end of the scale there are the correspondingly boozy restorers’ lunches. They always begin by everyone mooching away from the workshop a bit earlier than necessary and having a swift pint or whatever on the way to the chosen venue. Party hats are quickly and enthusiastically donned and again food plays second fiddle to the industrial consumption of alcohol. There is a particular glee to having a drink at the company’s expense, especially if it has been a tough year — a small payback for innumerable small injuries or a desultory pay rise. But the jollity is profound; a particular favourite is passing a secret bottle of brandy around under the table: everyone knows the band-saw won’t be used that afternoon.
When I was setting up the Masterpiece Fair, I was invited to several trade association events. The poshest by far was that given by SLAD, the Society of London Art Dealers. There we quaffed Bollinger and ate gourmet canapés as the 20 or dealers present discussed their year in terms of the millions of pounds of art they had sold.
A few days later I attended the BADA (British Antique Dealers Association) party and drank Prosecco garnished with M&S snacks. Many more dealers were present, mostly moaning about the woeful state of the trade, but in a jollier mood nonetheless. The third and final association party was lapada (London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association) which was warm white wine and crisps. Here there was comprehensive gloom about business, but it was by far the most fun. If the link between bad times and good parties seems counterintuitive, the greatest mystery of all is why all these associations exist separately. Their members would die rather than join together because each group despises the others as much as Monty Python’s People’s Front of Judea and Judean People’s Front.
In an era when such organisations are struggling for both members and relevance it seems obvious that they should work together as one, if only to lobby Parliament as a unified voice.
The year’s main festive event was held at The Duke, on the corner of Roger Street and John Street in Holborn. This is a fascinating Art Deco pub which forms part of a 1937 development integrating pub, offices and flats. The pub retains much that is original — I particularly like the booths — though the current owner is an enthusiast and adds period pieces from time to time.
The offices of BADA, which include the desks for my new fair, the Open Art Fair, are in the same block, so the party consisted of the staff from both. It seems appropriate to have our gathering in a place with period charm, since we have all devoted our careers to cherishing the past. My other event was also quaint in that it was a gathering of art world refugees. The changing nature of the business means that many of my colleagues have become sole traders or home-workers, spending their time browsing the internet or rushing off to show an item to someone. Consequently, you can often feel a bit cut off. Which is why a group of us relics awash with nostalgia gather for no particular reason other than good fellowship to toast the end of another year and float in an agreeable haze into the new one.
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