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by Bob Brooke


A cane vendor on Pembroke Road in LondonAntiquing is a worldwide phenomenon. But nowhere in the world is it more a part of the social fabric than in England. It had been some time since I surveyed the British antique market, so a recent trip not only refreshed some fond memories but gave me some new incites as well.

It's not just the artifacts of any particular period which carry a premium. Olive Branch Antiques of London typifies the kind of bric-a-brac shop where the non-specialist may go to browse and touch. "Customers," said the salesgirl, Angela, "like to look under tables and reach on top of cupboards. I don't mind." It would be difficult for anyone not to pick up something or other: old keys, cups and saucers, hickory-shafted golf clubs, or a lace tea-tray mat selling for no less than $20.

"Olde Worlde" serendipity? Perhaps, but England isn't the place to go bargain hunting in hopes of making a financial killing. Values of most antiques are known, as they are here at home. It's much better to trust to instinct and buy what you like if it's affordable. Prices at some of the better-known flea markets, such as London's Portbello Road, are in the stratosphere. More of a tourist trap than an antique-lovers' paradise, it offers lots of reproductions, especially of Staffordshire dogs and other high-priced items, which to the unwarry shopper look like the real thing.

But there's something especially British about antiquing here, regardless of the prices. British antique dealers, on the whole, are tolerant. They don't pressure their customers to buy. Michael Golding of Huntington Antiques of Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds accepts his role as an impromptu guide with good grace. "Visitors," he said, "treat us like a museum. They tell us that they've seen more here than in Warwick Castle."

That isn't so surprising, since his stock may include anything from an early English, Gothic bed at $145,000 to a Limoges enamel book cover, one of only two known to be in existence. Of course, there are items of lesser cost, such as a 16th-century polychrome wood mortar and pestle for about $4,000.

Even in the most impressive surroundings, the price on the ticket is no more than the starting point for negotiations. Customers rarely hear the word "firm" in an English shop. Antique buying and selling is played by bazaar rules. The trade price is always at least 10 percent less than the marked figure.

The greatest difference between antiquing in England and here at home is the broad division between the higher-end market and the provincial shows and shops. "I would say that it is more stratified here," said Pat Wilson, a dealer in the Stratford-upon-Avon Antique Centre, "there being a vast social gulf between the up-market London dealers and those scratching a living as "knockers," who go around knocking on doors asking if the householder has any antiques for sale."

To keep ahead of the market some dealers have taken to "making" antiques or to restoring pieces in such a way as to make the piece no longer valuable as an antique. In some ways this also is much like it is here in the U.S., but in England it's becoming even more widespread due to the country's antique reputation and the demand for fine pieces.

Even so, Britain is still the world's greatest antique treasure store. Across the country, any day of the week, there may be several dozen auctions and shows taking place. Even a small town will boast a couple of shops. In historic centers like Bath, the numbers run into the hundreds, not counting the stallholders packing specialty markets like Guinea Lane.

But by far the hottest antique trail in England is the Cotswolds. More top dealers set out their wares here than anywhere else outside London, and they're less formal than their London colleagues. The towns of Stow-on-the-Wold, Cirencester and Tetbury have barely changed for centuries. Cheltenham Spa retains more than a vestige of Regency chic. Burford's High Street, lined with limestone houses, is dotted with antique and refinishing shops.

The types of British antique venues are as varied as their locations. Superb antique galleries abound on London's Kensington Church Street, Bond Street, and Belgravia, where high quality pieces are displayed in an exclusive atmosphere. Other areas that are prime antiquing centers include East Anglia with Woodbridge, Long Melford, and Bury Saint Edmunds.

While there are antiques shops and shows just about everywhere in England, the avid antique buyer may want to consult either of the two main trade papers, the Antiques Trade Gazzette or the Antiques Bulletin, both available by subscription only, but occasionally available at shows. A service unique to England is Dial-a-Fair, which can be used to locate fairs and shows on a weekly basis (Tel: 0891/446865).

On my last trip, I returned home with my bags and arms loaded with antique and collectible purchases. This time, however, I bought little, forsaking the high prices in British shops and markets for the lower ones back home. 

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