Friends old and new
Thomas Woodham-Smith doesn’t collect, he simply accumulates stock
This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Once upon a time we used to go out to dinner and see friends and even strangers. For me, those gatherings could be fraught with difficulty.
My neighbour at the table usually asks what I do. Learning that I hold body and soul together by trading in the past, they ask what I collect or whether I have a speciality. Kind questions meet with disappointing answers: I have no speciality, buying and selling objects from ancient antiquity through to the freshly made, from the Far East and from around the corner.
I keep as much as my wife can tolerate at the house
In many ways I wish I did have a speciality, but my magpie nature means I seem to accumulate rather than collect. My collection is my stock; the same misnomer is used by many others. It is an auction-house trick to dub a dealer’s stock “the so-and-so collection”, thereby transmuting what a dealer has left at the end of his or her career into a carefully chosen and curated group of pieces.
The next hurdle at dinner is the host asking if you wouldn’t mind valuing something they own. The problem here is that most people don’t have valuable things, and if you say that their beloved grandmother’s much-prized Victorian armchair, which is also in a poor state of repair, is not worth anything — even as firewood — it tends to go down badly.
Flummoxed as to what value to give, I often venture “a hundred pounds” — only to hear back later from a third party that I have said this, and then I have another Pooh trap to extricate myself from. My latest ploy has been to say I can’t do anything without my glasses and certainly not in the evening gloom. Dinner parties are tricky for us in the trade.
My own collection is like a personal lending library. I have a storage unit and I have a home. I keep as much as my wife can tolerate at the house. I enjoy swapping chairs, tables and pictures around as the mood changes or when something is sold or arrives as fresh stock.
At first, my wife could be quite shocked when a pair of chairs or our hall table disappears at a moment’s notice, and that the objects on the mantelpiece change with the moon phases, but she has got patiently used to it. There are some items that I suspect will never leave; they cost too much, or have become “old friends” as we say in the business because of their style (no one would want them whatever the price).
Whenever I buy a chair I say to myself, like a gambling addict, that this will be the last time
Many is the thing that I bought, certain I had acquired a treasure at a bargain price only to discover that what I had was both common and available widely at a fraction of what I paid. Then there are the items I bought convinced that someone would share my eccentric enthusiasm to the extent of taking them off my hands. Thus I am the owner of quite a few much-loved white elephants and overpriced doodahs.
I have a particular weakness for chairs. Whenever I buy a chair I say to myself, like a drunkard or a gambling addict, that this will be the last time. If I manage to sell a chair or two, I rush out and buy four more, persuading myself that the tide has turned.
Chairs are magical things though: they offer infinite variety in design and execution. They are crypto-human in that they sit with you and keep you company, enfolding you in their arms and supporting you on their legs — sometimes delicate and sometimes sturdy. My storage bursts with chairs that I wish I could accommodate at home, and I do from season to season.
My first boss was equally obsessed with chairs. We used to shop on Saturday mornings in the King’s Road near World’s End. Back in the 1980s there were no “design” shops — they were all antique dealers, and shops seemed to be around every corner too. My boss never liked buying single chairs; he always bought pairs or larger numbers — though never an odd number. At one time we had more than 150 chairs in stock. Back then people wanted chairs for their hallways, sitting rooms and even their dining rooms. For the most part that market has evaporated.
The current trend is for people to gather in the kitchen, sit on large squashy sofas and dine seated on modern chairs. All the chairs he bought flew off to new homes, leaving me behind with my chair addiction. Maybe one day we will sit around eating and drinking and “support bubbles” will mean something else entirely.
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