The Dealer: When a house clearance turns into a horror film

Antique super-sleuth Ian Butchoff shares one of his tales from the collector’s crypt

Back in the dark ages of the 1970s, many antique dealers found their stock through house clearances. These were often commissioned by banks or solicitors winding up an estate, as well as private individuals downsizing or raising quick cash.

If nature had taken its course in a timely way, those deceased in the 1970s would probably have furnished their homes around 1915 and would have possibly refurnished again after the Second World War - assuming they had been bombed.

Now, assuming they hadn’t been bombed, the house would likely be filled with Edwardian and Victorian furniture they had bought themselves plus Georgian furniture they had inherited.

In all probability the house would be massively over furnished by today’s standards, full of sentimental tat and nicknacks.

“Her face appeared at the small window in the door and with a sly grin and a laugh she said “I’ve got you now”.”

So the trick to all this was persistence and early on you learnt that there is something worth having in every house, however unlikely that might seem at first glance; you just have to look, look, and look again.

Around this time my friend Peter received a letter from a seemingly grande dame lamenting her removal to a house she believed to be well below her “station in life” along with a list of furniture and items that she wished to sell.

He flicked through the list and made an appointment to view.

In due course he set off for the address on Windmill Avenue, and as he approached the house there was something incongruous in the front garden. To this day he can not remember quite what, perhaps a pair of prams abandoned to rust, or a lawn mower where there was no grass, either way he should have read the warning signs.

Instead, he duly rang the bell and spoke to the lady in question through a tiny gap in the door. Eventually, she recalled their earlier conversation and let him in.

It was a double fronted house with rooms to each side of the hallway. As he got his bearings he became aware of a huge number of cardboard boxes all over the house.

He began in the room on the left and started to sift through the contents of said boxes. Carefully wrapped in tissue, newspaper or corrugated card, our grande dame had packed single beer mats, odd glasses, a dirty ashtray, a well used egg cup and a number of once fashionable handbags.

As he went through his task, aware that he must look and look again for the one treasure that every house has. Throughout the process he had a running commentary from said owner.

“He tried barging the door open”

It went something like: “don’t think you can fool me young man, everyone knows antique dealers are dishonest rogues and villains, if my husband were here he’d have the measure of you and be careful with these treasures – I know how much they are worth.”

Peter kept his composure and got on with the job. He says he must have looked through at least 600 boxes that afternoon, whilst being berated, and eventually considered calling it a day when she mentioned the Welsh dresser in the garden shed he had yet to see.

Ah ha, he thought. There is my treasure for today, there is my reward for having my ear bent by this mad old bird.

Keys were found, more complaints and platitudes dispensed, and off they went to the wooden garden shed at the bottom of the garden.

She fumbled with the lock, Peter stepped into the gloom, compost and cobwebs and BANG she slammed the door and locked it quick. Her face appeared at the small window in the door and with a sly grin and a laugh she said, “I’ve got you now.”

It should be noted that most dealers who hear this story pipe up at this point, “Yes, but what was the dresser like?”

Peter, a normally sanguine and calm chap, had watched Psycho only the night before and had real visions of her returning either with a hatchet or a can of petrol and matches.

He tried barging the door open, but as we all know that that only works in films, and ended up breaking a side window, scrabbling clear and running down the garden to vault the wall at the end into the alleyway that ran behind the house.

He approached his car from the passenger side vaulting into the drivers seat, scared that she might spot him and went straight home and called the police.

A bored sounding desk sergeant took his details and on ascertaining the address of said house remarked in a languid voice, “last week it was the milkman.”

And if you are very lucky, next time I will recount the story of when Peter was met at the door by a naked man certainly old enough to know better.

Or the time when he was arrested trying to hand in ammunition he had found in a commode he had bought at auction.

It’s all fun this dealing lark!

Ian Butchoff is the founder and owner of Butchoff Antiques, located on Kensington Church Street . He entered the trade aged 11 and is today recognised as a leading authority on 19th century furniture. He is a co-founder and board member of the dealers’ association, LAPADA, and will be writing a regular column for Londonlovesbusiness.com.

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