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Antiques and Curios

PUBLISHED: 00:16 23 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:55 20 February 2013

Antiques and Curios

Antiques and Curios

Sherborne is a major hub for fine art and antiques in the South West. Jeremy Miles meets some of those involved in this fascinating world

Sherborne is a major hub for fine art and antiques in the South West. Jeremy Miles meets some of those involved in this fascinating world

Patrick Macintosh is proudly showing me a battered and broken chair. The frame is coming apart and whats left of the upholstery is in tatters. To the untutored eye it would not look out of place on a skip. But antiques dealer Patrick knows different. This, he says decisively is a very nice piece of furniture indeed. In fact Ive just paid 1,200 for it.
He tells me that its late 19th century and was made by Lenygon and Morant, furniture makers to Buckingham Palace. With an investment of 600 or 700, and some careful restoration, he reckons it will fetch around 3,000.

Im getting an inside glimpse of the fascinating world of antiques. Patrick is one of a group of experts who have settled in the ancient Dorset market town of Sherborne. His business is housed in an 18th-century mews building. Originally a stable block for the adjacent Sherborne House, it went on to become a Workingmens Literary Institute opened by Charles Dickens no less. This is the kind of historic detail that you find everywhere in this extraordinary town and one of the reasons that, over the years, fine art and antiques dealers have gravitated towards this thriving centre.

Sitting majestically amid the stunning countryside of north Dorset, Sherborne is unquestionably one of the most beautiful towns in England. With its wealth of medieval buildings and imposing abbey, it positively oozes history. It has world-famous schools, picturesque almshouses and not just one but two castles. Its strategic position in the heart of the Wessex region has enabled it to flourish for centuries. Even now, as the economic crisis continues to bite, Sherborne looks and feels like a town that is still very much open for business.
Solid and reliable, it remains a bustling beacon of hope, that unlike so many clone towns, has managed to retain many of its small and specialist businesses. It is a place where the discerning shopper can find quality handcrafted goods and elegant fashion, as well as a myriad of outlets offering a wide selection of arts and antiques, with a particular emphasis on furniture.
Its not all good news. The classic market, Patrick Macintosh tells me, is pretty flat. Highly polished, ornate antique furniture is out of favour. People dont eat in the same way now. They dont tend to go in for formal dining, so things like Georgian mahogany tables simply dont sell in the same way that they did 10 or 15 years ago, he tells me. These days, people want big old rustic refectory tables, painted dressers and solid farmhouse chairs.

Patrick is one of a group of fine art and antiques experts who have settled in Sherborne

A few hundred metres away in Cheap Street another longtime Sherborne dealer, Simon Dodge, elaborates on this. Running a hand over an elegant Regency rosewood davenport, he tells me: At the moment its so quiet and prices are so low. Its not just the recession, its a fashion thing too. Most of the pieces in our shop are half what they were in 2000. Reproduction furniture is becoming increasingly popular. At the moment we sell far more of our new stuff than antiques.
He gestures to a Georgian tallboy, its price tag is 6,700. Thats the sort of money that people dont want to spend anymore, says Simon ruefully. Its a beautiful piece but its been here for a couple of years now. In the old days it would have gone in ten minutes. He stresses, however, that there are bargains to be had. We can always do a deal. Basically, if anyone offers us a profit we take it.
Next door, Piers Pisani is finding plenty of work for the three-man team that make and restore furniture in the workshop behind his retail store. Ben Fry, who has worked for Piers for 13 years, is fixing a slightly battered chest of drawers. Its French provinial, probably early 19th century, and made of fruitwood, he tells me. He reckons its worth 6,000 to 7,000.
I ask if he gets excited when a particularly nice piece comes in. He looks surprised. Not really. Its just a bit of furniture. Fellow worker Stuart Malbon agrees. You get used to it. You dont really think about the money.

Away from the world of furniture the fine art and antiques business is perhaps faring a little better. However, as art dealer Mark Jerram from the Jerram Gallery in Half Moon Street tells me, there is no room for complacency. Business, he says, is reasonably steady but nothing like as good as it was three years ago.
With a stock of high-quality 20th-century and contemporary paintings he is offering a highly sought-after product but says that he has noticed that buyers have started to rein in. To counteract this, he offers people the opportunity to take paintings home on approval and to spread payments over several months.
Mark knows that Sherborne operates as a magnet to people who love the arts but says it would be madness to take things for granted in the midst of an economic downturn. One might have thought that people would stop buying art all together but theyre tending to buy now because they really like a piece and that maybe it will be a sound investment. I always say dont bank on it though. I cringe when I hear dealers saying Oh yes, you cant lose. The fact is that buying a painting is no more sound an investment than BP shares were before the Gulf of Mexico!
I did find one apparently recession-proof business among Sherbornes antiques dealing community. Silver expert Henry Willis moved to the town from London 18 years ago. His shop, housed in a building which dates back to the 15th century, is rarely short of customers. Im very busy, admitted Henry, but then Ive been here since 1993 so people have got to know me by now.
One of Henrys strengths is that he buys as well as sells and operates in precisely the kind of cash-in-the attic market that thrives when people need money fast. A window display indicates the kind of things he is interested in. He picks up a spoon. This is my favourite subject, he tells me. Its Charles I, about 1625. I discover it could be mine for 1,400. Thats an awful lot of money for a spoon, I remark. Henry chuckles. Not really, he says. Theres one over there for 4,500.
So check that old cutlery drawer. A lot of people have some very interesting silver in their houses, says Henry. But be warned, he also has a string of people bringing what they believe to be treasures to his door only to be turned away disappointed. Most people think that because they can see what looks like a hallmark, its real silver. Unfortunately its far more likely to be electroplate.


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