Wheeling and spieling

Thomas Woodham-Smith breaks the antique shop silence

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

There is a lot of sound in the antique world. Some might even add that there is also a lot of fury, and together they don’t signify very much. Certainly, if you rub two antique dealers together you will quickly be warm with words. Dealers have an irrepressible urge to embellish their object descriptions with endless adjectives indicating facets of specialness that distinguish their blob from the next dealer’s blob.

In addition to that noise you can add the sound of a restoration workshop. Then listen to the various delivery vans and traffic noises as art is shifted around. Perhaps if you are very lucky you can even hear the rare occasional sound of the till ringing as a sale is concluded.

When considering a chest of drawers there is the jaded old test of opening and closing the drawers

But for me, away from this hurly-burly, some of the best sounds of the antique trade are the silences. Back in the 1980s at Mallett we had a wonderful client called Sir John Gooch. He built a superb collection at his family home of Benacre Hall in Suffolk; after his death it was sadly dispersed at auction. He had a passion for gesso furniture and would come to London regularly on the hunt. The real skill of looking after Sir John was that he did not like talking and yet you had to engage him. If he really liked an object he would become totally catatonic.

As salesmen, normally we achieve success by finding the right words to move someone from admiration to the urge to own, all of which takes a mixture of jolliness and scholarship. But with Sir John you had to be silent, but not awkward or bored. Sometimes the silences lasted 10 minutes. You could not look round, or rearrange the furniture: you just had to stand still looking fascinated by the object and not lose focus.

If you succumbed to talking he would walk away — no sale. If you managed to almost hold your breath and keep concentration he would utter the magic phrase, almost inaudibly, “Thank you very much,” which was his way of saying he would buy it. He never discussed the price or hardly even asked for it. I have sold many things over the years but sales to Sir John were the most testing and the most satisfying.

When considering a chest of drawers there is the jaded old test of opening and closing the drawers. Some stick, some slide easily, but it is something people always do.

Then again there was once a pair of collectors’ cabinets, French and by the great ébéniste Molitor. We bought them from a dealer called Rossi in Milan. Their shop was a mysterious emporium as it was a block of flats and each flat had a family name on the door. Old Miss Rossi, who was very short and crumpled, took you round. The keys
were numerous and always the wrong with things, all of which were exceptional.

The difficulty was that nearly everything was not for sale. You walked round admiring and she would gratefully receive praise. At the end of the tour you would meet her brother, who was tremendously fat and always sat at a table. In five years of visits I never saw him move an inch. In sotto voce Italian they would discuss what we had admired and then Miss Rossi would lead us back to something and say we could buy x or y and give us a huge price.

However, each time there was something we thought we could afford. This time it was these cabinets. Essentially they were boxes on square legs with a door which opened to reveal two columns of shallow drawers. Opening a drawer made the most subtle of air sucking noises and the most satisfying slide you have ever encountered. One could repeat the action 100 times and nothing but a gentle susurration would you hear.

Once they were back in the London shop, every client who came by was wowed by this inaudible whisper. Eventually, they were sold. They came to a tragic end, incinerated in a huge fire at a shipper’s storage. The Rossis have gone too; their wonderful stock was all sold at Sotheby’s in London.

The last silence I want to share is one that lasts only fractions of a second but is filled with anticipation and fear. In an auction, right at the end of the lot, the auctioneer will ask the room for “any more bids”. The gavel is raised and hovers, a long look to the phones and an equally long look to the internet and then a seemingly endless look to the, probably, empty saleroom: this tense moment is always milked in order to try to extract just one more bid.

Then down it comes with a bang. It is yours. Now you have to pay for it, restore it, research and market it. But for a moment before the work starts there is a blink of pure, silent joy.

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