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The Old—and New—Curiosity Shops

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The quality of the London art and antiques market is still the best in the world. Martin Filler reveals his favorite places to acquire that perfect objet d'art.

Thanks to Britain's 300 years of imperial prosperity, political stability, and ruling-class greed, more covetable things have always come up for sale in London art and antiques emporiums than in any other metropolis. And, despite a rocky patch in the past decade, they still do.

As a frequent traveler to London over the past 20 years, I've become a bit of a collector myself, and I've rarely returned from my trips without treasures I now couldn't live without. A third-century Gandharan gray-schist Buddha head from the venerable St. James's dealer Spink has been my biggest purchase, but I can get just as excited about finding a William Morris tile at Haslam & Whiteway or an 18th-century botanical watercolor at Abbott and Holder, at a fraction of the price I paid for my prize possession. I literally dream about shopping in London, the recurrent theme being a futile search for a particular Arts and Crafts gallery I once visited but can no longer locate.

Like Caesar's Gaul, my London art and antiques map is divided into three parts: Mayfair/St. James's, the celebrated enclave in which the city's premier galleries in many fields are concentrated; Pimlico Road, a cluster of some extraordinary furniture dealers; and Kensington Church Street, with dozens of fine galleries between Kensington High Street and Notting Hill Gate. And scattered in three other places around the capital—Bloomsbury, Islington, and Holborn—are a few galleries so distinctive that I always go out of my way to see what they've gotten since my last visit.

Here is my personal and, admittedly, opinionated address book of London dealers. It's not just filled with the greatest and grandest, but also with those that give me the most pleasure and a sense of adventure. Long may they all prosper!


Mayfair and St. James's

For many collectors, London is synonymous with old-master paintings, and the city has a good dozen dealers of high international standing. A number of them are alumni of one of the two venerable Bond Street firms that still loom large in the field despite recent upheavals. Julian Agnew, chairman of Agnew's (43 Old Bond St.; 7629-6176), is widely respected as the embodiment of the old-line London art dealer, seriously knowledgeable, steeped in tradition, and committed to carrying on the 185-year-old family business at the highest possible level. British and French paintings from the 17th through the 19th centuries form the core of Agnew's extensive holdings. I yearn to own their moody Constable oil sketch of clouds scudding over Hampstead Heath, and plan to do so when I get my hands on a spare $367,500. Agnew's exceptional pictures are supplemented by drawings and prints of equal quality, with great things from late-19th-century Paris—Toulouse-Lautrec and Vuillard in particular.

Agnew's longtime rival, Colnaghi $ (15 Old Bond St.; 7491-7408), changed ownership several times in the decade before it was bought by German dealer Konrad Bernheimer in 2000. This year Bernheimer relaunched the legendary house, founded in 1760, in an attempt to return it to its former glory, when it sold old masters to the Maecenases of the Grand Tour and the Gilded Age. Now dividing his time between Munich and London, he has placed day-to-day operations at the landmark Bond Street premises in the hands of dynamic American gallery director Rachel Kaminsky. And to bring Colnaghi's once-powerful drawings department back up to par, he's asked Munich dealer Katrin Bellinger to supervise works on paper. Given Bernheimer's force of personality, entrepreneurial spirit, and passion for his subject, there's every likelihood that this will become the London art world turn-around story of the decade.

GREAT DEALS For those of us not used to spending as much on a charcoal sketch as on a new car, the ideal place to satisfy one's pictorial collecting urge close to Bond Street is at the St. James's gallery of Julian Hartnoll $ (14 Mason's Yard; 7839-3842), who specializes in 19th- and 20th-century British drawings and paintings. A stop at Hartnoll's appointment-only showroom, tucked away in a quiet courtyard just off busy Duke Street, is a most agreeable way to spend an hour, as he rummages through his stock to find you a winner. Here drawings by some of the great names of Victorian art—including Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Holman Hunt—might be found in the low thousands. Five years ago I bought a quartet of lively 1940s botanical watercolors by Noel Rooke, made to illustrate Penguin's Flowers of Marsh and Stream, at a giveaway $60 each. If you don't find what you're looking for, the consummately easygoing Hartnoll will point you in the direction of other likely dealers.

Back up in Mayfair, the quaint Flemish Renaissance-style facade of Eskenazi $ (10 Clifford St.; 7493-5464) is deceptive, for behind it soars a breathtakingly modern multilevel interior housing a museum-quality collection of Asian art. By common consent of his peers, Turkish-born Giuseppe Eskenazi is not only the world's greatest dealer in Chinese antiquities but also London's most important dealer in anything. He epitomizes the learning, visual acuity, capitalization, and daring that keep the British capital firmly anchored as the center of the international art and antiques trade during a time of wholesale globalization.

It's no exaggeration to say that many of the pieces that have passed through Eskenazi's hands over the past two decades have prompted scholars to rewrite the history of Chinese art. The occasional multi-million-pound price tags seen in his gallery underscore the rarity and the significance of what are often unique pieces. Though always willing to pay top dollar for the finest treasures at auction and in private sales (hoovering up huge amounts in Hong Kong just before the 1997 handover, for example), Eskenazi is renowned for his contacts within mainland China. That inside track has given him access to the cream of archeological discoveries, and his prizes simply blow away all competition.

Just a few yards away on Cork Street, Waddington Galleries $ (11 Cork St.; 7851-2200) is presided over by the irrepressible Leslie Waddington, who, since longtime archrival Anthony d'Offay recently closed up shop, is now the unchallenged leader among modern-art dealers in London. The Dublin-born Waddington is widely respected on the international scene for his integrity and keen intelligence, to say nothing of his fine eye for the best of School of Paris paintings, sculptures, and drawings. (A typical example: a sexy Matisse ink sketch of odalisques in a Moorish interior, which he recently acquired in New York.) In the heady days of the eighties art boom, Waddington overexpanded his business, but like a hardy rosebush after a judicious pruning, his trimmed-down operation—in sleek minimalist spaces designed by architect John Pawson—is as vigorous as ever.

Waddington's stock spans the 20th century, from Picasso to Dubuffet to Warhol to Rauschenberg, with strong holdings in British artists from Henry Moore to Damien Hirst. Though his offerings are always blue-chip and usually five to six figures, he also loves such cult figures as Giorgio Morandi and Milton Avery, whose underappreciated paintings he has long championed.

Among London antique jewelers, none compares with the Norton family's S.J. Phillips (139 New Bond St.; 7629-6261), whose ugly barred windows in nearby New Bond Street give it the unfortunate air of an upscale pawnshop. But once inside the wood-paneled premises, there can be no doubt that this is a true Cave of Ali Baba, with case after case glinting with the most gorgeous Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian jewels you've ever seen (whose prices range from $500 to $2,000,000). Though there are plenty of diamonds on hand—the subtly gleaming old-mine stones are my favorite—the overwhelming impression is one of richly saturated color, with the grape-purple amethysts, lime-green peridots, and wine-red garnets vying with lustrous pearls, intricate micro-mosaics, and multihued enameled gold at every turn.

LITTLE SECRETS After I recover my breath leaving Phillips, I head north on New Bond Street, and if I have lately received a wedding invitation or birth announcement, I dash into The Bond Street Silver Galleries (111-112 New Bond St.; 7493-6180). This dingy multistory, multidealer building reeks of stale tobacco and reminds me of Manhattan's seedy wholesale jewelry district on West 47th Street. But hold your nose and take the lift up to Bruford & Heming (7499-7644), who have handsome antique silver mugs perfect for christenings, and at $380, they're not much more than new ones at the big-name Fifth Avenue jewelers. They also stock other small Georgian and Victorian pieces—saltcellars, cream jugs, sugar tongs, and such—that make equally welcome wedding gifts.

Then, especially if Christmas or our wedding anniversary is approaching, I make my way further north and west to Grays Antique Market (58 Davies St.; 7629-7034), a multidealer mini-mall just off of Oxford Street, with a slew of jewelers where you can find top-quality pieces that cost less than your summer house. We all tend to think fondly of dealers from whom we've bought great things at good prices. Thus my favorite at Grays is Licht & Morrison, where in the eighties I got my wife a marvelous 1863 gold and cabochon-garnet bracelet in its original case from Tessier's (still in business on nearby New Bond Street and worth a visit as a somewhat lesser version of S.J. Phillips).

Mayfair is also home to the grandest furniture dealers in the land, but the one I am most drawn to these days is Pelham Galleries (24 Mount Street; 7629-0905), whose director, Alan Rubin, is an Alan Rickman look-alike and so passionate about playing the harpsichord that he often travels with one. In September, a rare 1789 Abraham and Joseph Kirkman harpsichord was on offer for $230,000 at his stand at Paris' Biennale des Antiquaires. Does he stock them so he can play them? Though Rubin's holdings are wide-ranging and include a good deal of grandiose gilded furniture, he gravitates toward superb painted and lacquered works and especially perennially chic Chinoiserie, in both its European and Chinese export manifestations.


Pimlico Road

London used to boast a number of old-fashioned generalist dealers in everything from antiquities and mineral specimens to medals and Orientalia. One rare survivor of those magnificent curiosity shops is Raffaello Amati's 30-year-old Antiquus (90- 92 Pimlico Rd.; 7730-8681), off the corner of Pimlico Road and Lower Sloane Street. A cultured Roman with a wry sense of humor, Raffaello ("like the painter") Amati ("like the violinmaker") also possesses a discriminating eye for a broad spectrum of strange and precious objects that could have graced an 18th-century grandee's Wunderkammer. Spooky reliquaries, majestic goblets in amber, silver gilt, and ivory, ravishing remnants of Genoese cut velvet, pietra dura panels, snippets of medieval tapestries, and mounted hunks of lapis lazuli, coral, rock crystal, and malachite make this shop seem like the fantasy version of an imperial attic. "Anything for a sixpence," says the charming Amati with a sly smile. "I decided to live once and to deal in the things I enjoy. In the next life, I'll try to make money."

Across Pimlico Road are two furniture dealers whose grandly eclectic sensibilities are of a piece with Amati's. The sprawling, theatrically lit gallery of John Hobbs $ (107A Pimlico Rd.; 7730-8369) makes the premises of even the poshest Mayfair furniture dealer look rather timid in contrast. Instead of following the well-trod path of good-taste 18th-century English and French design, Hobbs made a name for himself with preposterously extravagant pieces from the far corners of Europe (prices range from $1,500 to $150,000). Caring less about provenance and decorum than pure dramatic impact, he helped to resurrect le goût Rothschild for late-20th-century masters of the universe. Bizarre as many of his selections may seem—pond-sized mirrors, Brobdingnagian cabinets you could rent out for the summer, tables and throne-like chairs swarming with carved animals—they somehow all work together, though his superscale show-stoppers would overpower the ordinary antiques most people live with.

Down a nearby alley is the shop of Christopher Gibbs $ (3 Dove Walk; 7730-8200), who (along with the much lamented decorator Geoffrey Bennison) helped perfect the hugely influential English shabby chic look back in the 1960s. Three years ago Gibbs gave up his longtime Mayfair location for this cavernous skylighted showroom, which neatly sums up his blend of the unpretentiously grand and the unsqueamishly worn. Gibbs' instinct for imposing scale (such as a colossal 19th-century Neoclassical marble head), attractive patina, and faultless placement have allowed him to carry off some amazing decorative effects over the years, but his pieces are always inherently compelling.


Kensington Church Street

My wife and I collect decorative arts of the Aesthetic and British Arts and Crafts movements, so Kensington Church Street is our street of dreams. We begin our visits to London with a superb lunch at Clarke's (122-124 Kensington Church St.) and then take a stroll from north to south, nosing around our favorite shops. But aside from the dealers catering to our particular interest, Ken Church Street offers a wide range of top-flight antiques, including Asian art, early English ceramics and glassware, jewelry, and even royal memorabilia.

The low-key S. Marchant & Son (120 Kensington Church St.; 7229-5319), one of London's truly excellent Asian dealers, has for 75 years specialized in the finest Chinese porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Stuart Marchant (son of the present family head, Richard) readily admits that Giuseppe Eskenazi reigns over most of early Chinese art. But this firm's encyclopedic stock of blue-and-white, monochrome, and Imperial wares makes it the retail equivalent of the definitive collection of the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (on view in a Bloomsbury townhouse near the British Museum). S. Marchant craftily stocks a nice selection of blue-and-white for under $1,500 to entice beginning collectors, but it takes no prior knowledge to quickly fall for pricier pieces. And like all top dealers they're only too happy to take back pieces from clients who later want to improve their collections by trading up.

SMARTLY PRICED More budget-minded collectors will find much to tempt them at the nearby side-street gallery of newcomer Arthur Millner (2 Campden St.; 7229-3268), who has a graduate degree in Oriental studies. This Sotheby's alumnus has staked out a moderately priced portion of the Islamic and South Asian market that other London dealers have lately neglected. His minuscule storefront is jammed with Mughal miniatures, Islamic tiles, Buddhist and Hindu sculptures in stone and bronze, and the odd piece of 19th-century furniture made for the Raj colonial trade.

In my opinion Michael Whiteway, co-owner of Haslam & Whiteway (105 Kensington Church St.; 7229-1145), is more important to the still-emerging history of 19th-century decorative arts than any living museum curator. A trailblazing scholar and author who wears his immense knowledge lightly, and a merchant whose faultless instincts and astute rediscoveries have fueled the market for three decades, Whiteway has no interest in fancy presentation. Thus his two-level shop looks like a jumble sale, but his turnover in furniture and decorative objects (from $225 to $300,000) is so brisk and his clientele so lofty—all the major museums and collectors in the field buy from him—that frippery displays are not required. Masterworks by A.W.N. Pugin, William Morris, and William Burges breeze in and out, but not before Whiteway has methodically photographed them for later publication in his definitive books on the subject.

Farther down the road is New Century (69 Kensington Church St.; 7937-2410), whose soft-spoken owner, Harry Lyons, began as a catchall Arts and Crafts dealer but has made himself into the world's leading expert on Christopher Dresser, the Victorian polymath who became the first great designer of the Industrial Age. Lyons' previous career, in British Army intelligence, prepared him well for sleuthing down the innumerable unknown works of the prolific Dresser, and the catalogue of his comprehensive exhibition on the master three years ago is now a standard reference work. I've acquired many Dresser ceramic pieces and much vividly colored monochrome Burmantofts pottery from Harry since he opened in 1990, and he takes good care of his loyal clients whether they're buying from him at the moment or not. Earlier this year he saved me from a costly mistake when he noticed that I'd successfully bid on an iffy "Dresser" silver-plate teapot on eBay. He called me from London within minutes of the close of the auction to alert me to the problem and eventually bought the impostor as an instructive fake. Talk about a full-service operation!


Points North and East

Certainly the most internationally prominent antiques gallery outside Mayfair and St. James's is Koopman & Rare Art (53-64 Chancery Lane; 7242-7624), the world's foremost dealers in English silver from 1680 to 1900, occupying a street-level gallery in the London Silver Vaults building in the heart of the city's courts district. Without the slightest boastfulness, Lewis Smith, co-director of the firm with Michael Koopman (who merged their businesses in 1993), matter-of-factly states, "You could build an entire silver collection here in one day if you wanted to." Such a spree would put you in contention with Queen Elizabeth II, London's Gilbert Collection, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, the only other repositories hoarding as much of the work of such master silversmiths as Robert Garrard, Paul de Lamerie, Benjamin Smith, and Paul Storr. Among the thousands of pieces in stock are a half-dozen complete sets of antique flatware, including an astounding service for 48 ($100,000).

WELL-PRICED PRINTS AND PHOTOS I have been going to Abbott and Holder $ (30 Museum St.; 7637-3981), dealers in old British watercolors, drawings, paintings, and prints, for two decades now, and I seldom fail to walk out with something wonderful at a price that seems ludicrously low. It's impossible to resist original works of art that can cost $150 or less, though the gallery always has a small number of important works that venture into four or even five figures, by celebrated names from Thomas Rowlandson to Paul Nash. Landscapes, botanicals, travel vedute, and architectural drawings make up the bulk of the 2,500-piece stock, but if you find something you like, act fast. Because of the cheap prices, things disappear quickly.

I stumbled upon Daniella Dangoor $ (40A Museum St.; 7404-3919), who specializes in 19th-century photography, on my way to Abbott and Holder four years ago, shortly after she moved into a shared space on the opposite side of Museum Street. With her huge green eyes, the sympathetic and cosmopolitan Dangoor (of Polish-Jewish and Iraqi-Jewish descent, born in Paris and raised in Italy) looks as exotic as the photos she most favors: depictions of Near Eastern and Asian peoples and places that most Victorians had never seen before. Earlier this year I got a striking 14-inch-square carbon print of Chartres Cathedral by the Swiss photographer Adolphe Braun, ca. 1870, for a paltry $300. But as auction records for the finest 19th-century materials skyrocket, Dangoor's prices are going up as well. On my most recent trip I was floored by a haunting 1850s photograph of a man and a horse by Jean-Baptiste Frenet, which I would have bought on the spot for $7,650 if it hadn't just been sold.

AFFORDABLE JEWELS Tadema Gallery (10 Charlton Place, Camden Passage; 7359-1055), owned by David and Sonya Newell-Smith, is one stunning standout in the northern borough of Islington. Specializing in high-style jewelry made between 1870 and 1960, the Newell-Smiths forgo mere geology in favor of outstanding design, focusing not on diamond-carat weights and snob-appeal labels but on jewels by such architects and decorative artists as Josef Hoffmann, Archibald Knox, and René Lalique. Prices range from an American Arts and Crafts silver-and-amethyst brooch for $500 to parures encrusted with semiprecious gems for many thousands. The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently bought a Vienna Secession brooch by Ferdinand Hauser—a gold and dark-blue enameled disc with a circular moonstone and a cascade of moonstone teardrops. Wunderbar!

More has been written about Jay Jopling, the enfant terrible of London contemporary art dealers, than about some of his young British artists. An undeniable genius at publicity, Jopling has ridden the wave of the future for more than a decade now, and he currently represents a who's who of the Brit Pack, including Damien Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, his own wife, Sam Taylor-Wood, and those aging bad boys Gilbert & George. But murmurs are surfacing: "Jay's a very good litmus test of the times now, but he's very difficult to deal with because he's seriously inefficient," says one colleague. "It's so much about hype and presentation, and not enough about art." Jopling's two galleries—White Cube in St. James's (44 Duke St.; 7930-5373) and White Cube2 in the hip outpost of Hoxton (48 Hoxton Square; 7930-5373)—are, respectively, claustrophobic and inconvenient. A larger gallery, in Mason's Yard, across Duke Street from White Cube, will soon give Jopling an expanded presence in the West End.

If Jopling is the king of contemporary art in London, then Victoria Miro (16 Wharf Rd.; 7336-8109) is the queen. "She is one of the most interesting dealers in Europe, and completely honorable," says Leslie Waddington, who is quite competitive with his peers. Her stupendous gallery, in a converted bed factory in Islington, is now the most dramatic commercial art space in the city. Earlier this year she mounted a breathtaking show of large-scale dreamscapes by painter Peter Doig, and she also represents such rising stars as panoramic photographer Andreas Gursky and painter Chris Ofili, whose controversial dung-bedecked Virgin Mary drove Rudy Giuliani nuts.

Sheila Cook Textiles (283 Westbourne Grove, at Portobello Rd.; 7792-8001) is a small but exceptional vintage-clothing shop that would make even the most jaded fashionista stop dead in her Manolos. Among the many Costume Institute-worthy relics are sprigged cotton frocks out of a Jane Austen novel, vibrant Victorian paisleys, and Egyptian Art Deco silk shawls so heavily woven with pure silver that they feel like liquid jewelry. The emphasis here is on the rare and the pristine, and rather than pander to stylists looking for something for Julia to wear to the Oscars, Cook does a greater service by preserving and passing on fragile treasures of cultural history.


Caveat Emptor

The two celebrated London outdoor antiques venues are BERMONDSEY MARKET, held on Friday mornings in Bermondsey Square, south of the Thames, and PORTOBELLO ROAD MARKET, convening on Saturdays along Portobello Road in Notting Hill. But neither event can now be recommended for any but the most hopelessly addicted shopping junkies. Indeed, junk is the operative word here. For the most part the quality at Portobello declines every year, with an increasing amount of newly manufactured stuff making it seem more like a discount mall than a true antiques fair. Bermondsey represents the nadir of the London antiques food chain, where low-level traders try to make a few quid with gleanings—from among the dented tea kettles, cheap glass, and chipped crockery—that have yielded the overlooked treasure from time to time. Don't bet on it. With so much of such superior quality available at low prices all over London today, you'd be wiser to sleep late.


Bringing it Home

Like deer stalking, the most fun in collecting is the actual hunt: Once you've bagged your quarry you have to deal with getting it home. Fortunately, London is well-equipped with expert shippers who will lighten your burden, both physically and psychologically. Do consider beforehand how much crating and sending a very large or heavy object will cost, as freight charges to the States can easily exceed those of a moderately priced piece.

THE PACKING SHOP (6-12 Ponton Rd.; 7498-3255) was recommended to me by Haslam & Whiteway. This efficient and reliable service will collect your purchase at the gallery, pack it, air-freight it, clear it through U.S. customs, and have it delivered to your door. (Insist that your shipper provide a customs broker at your end, or you'll have to go to the nearest international airport to pick it up yourself.) If a piece is small enough to check through as baggage (consult your airline for maximum dimensions), it often pays to have the item professionally packed and to take it home yourself. The Packing Shop has done this for me with smallish tables, picking them up at the dealer's and delivering them to my hotel in short order. Though a minivan taxi was needed at both ends of the trip, I still saved a bundle.

The best-known London full-service art and antiques shipper is GANDER & WHITE (21 Lillie Rd.; 7381-0571; www.ganderandwhite.com), and though I've never used them personally, dealers and collectors consistently sing their praises. They'll smooth the way home for even the most dauntingly immobile purchase. On that last score, I was happy to be told about the indelicately named HEDLEY'S HUMPERS (3 St. Leonard's Rd.; 8965-8733; www.hedleyshumpers.com) when I bought a half-ton Victorian cast-iron garden bench on a demented whim a few summers ago. They got the monster out to our country house faster than it takes four gardeners to lug it indoors each winter.

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