Born in Middlesbrough, he grew up in a family that was always collecting things. He is now one of the nation’s favourite antiques and collectables pundits, and intends to carry on that fine old family tradition.
David is one of the BBC’s stalwarts in long-running (and ratings-topping) shows like Antiques Road Trip, Celebrity Antiques Road Trip, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is and Bargain Hunt.
He was little more than a toddler when the family left behind a life in the UK for a new one in Zimbabwe, where David’s dad had been appointed managing director of a big firm. They returned to Britain a few years later, before returning to Africa for much of David’s remaining time at school (he left formal education at the age of 17).
“I wouldn’t class it as a ‘culture shock’, switching between the two countries,” he says today. “It was far more of a ‘cultural experience’, and that is very different. It was a very strict school over there, that’s for sure – we got punished for trivial things like not having your socks rolled correctly at the top.
“It was a place – all boys – where discipline ruled. But that wasn’t a bad thing, because one learned respect. Respect for others, and self-respect as well.”
But where did his interest in objects and antiques come from?
“I think that may all have started when my mother and father used to take me out into Yorkshire on day trips as a lad, where they would scour every place they could find for furniture and antique objects. They’d bring the prizes back home and enjoy them, and then, inevitably, they’d want to move to another house, and a few bits and pieces came with us, but the rest stayed behind.”
He still believes that Yorkshire is the best county when it comes to antiques and bric-a-brac shops run by interesting characters. “There’s a great sense of fun, a no-nonsense attitude, and a lot of experience out there. I’ve loved it since I was a boy and I love it still now.”
These days Harper lives in Barnard Castle, in County Durham, but still likes to hop over the border. “There’s no greater pleasure than getting in the car when I have a little time off, and driving over to somewhere like Leyburn, and, after a wander around, perhaps ending up in the Blue Lion Inn, at East Witton”.
Harper says from the minute he left school he wanted to be self-employed. “I knew that I could make a living out of buying and selling cars – which I was all right at – and dabbling in antiques.”
And that’s what he did. “I made a little money, sometimes I lost some, and everything was a learning curve. The first time that I’d ever done any real research on an antique was when my mother came home and brought with her a chaise longue that she’d bought, and she told me this piece of furniture had once actually been owned by no less than Lord Nelson. I was fascinated and determined to find out more about it.”
He studied the castors, the arms, the fabric and joints and even the tacks that held bits in place. “Well, the upshot was that I was able to inform my mother, without any shred of a doubt, that it had been made a full 25 years after the hero’s death. I was triumphant. She, of course, was furious.”
It was, he admits, an invaluable lesson. “Never take anything at face value, always research everything, and don’t be enticed by a rather good yarn, or the phrase ‘It’s said to have been…’. Don’t trust anything until it has been proved without a shadow of a doubt,” he adds.
“You never stop learning and yes, of course, I make mistakes. Who doesn’t? But when you don’t want to learn more, when you get complacent, that is the time to give up completely. And, with me, that isn’t going to happen – trust me.”
Harper comes across as colourful and upbeat on the box and he is the same away from the cameras.
He still wears brightly-coloured trousers and his signature glasses, all, he says, “from a marvellous little place” in Harrogate.
Affable he may be, but Harper is not impressed by dealers who don’t find out the background of what they are selling.
“There are some people who really haven’t got a clue about what they have on their shelves and cabinets, and some of the prices are outrageous. They’ll label something as ‘Art Deco’ when it is really a reproduction from the 1970s, and then to cap it all off they’ll spell it ‘Art Deko’. I’d offer this as a thought: If you can’t spell it, don’t sell it.”
Harper enjoys doing the TV programmes and says one of the great joys of Celebrity Road Trip is the people you meet. “Some don’t collect anything, but just get so charmingly engaged with the show and others are terrific enthusiasts. I wish I could have stored up all the energy when we had Anne Reid and Thelma Barlow as guests. They were both in their eighties, and they just buzzed at the time.”
And Harper says they never know just what they might find as the cameras start to roll. “We have researchers, of course, but it is a pretty small team. What they do is to check the permissions to film from the dealers in their shops and arcades, and make sure that we have names right. It is up to me, and whoever I am paired with, to find the pieces that we take to auction. There’s no subterfuge at all.”
He loves doing the shows for several reasons. “It fulfils several things for me. Meeting people, which I enjoy, handling interesting objects and adding to my understanding of social history. At the moment, I love watching the BBC’s brilliant The Repair Shop, because it ticks all my boxes. You get to find out about an object, what it does and who it belongs – and belonged – to.”
He is married to Wendy and he admits their house contains some pretty eclectic bits of bits and pieces.
“I can’t always recall how much I paid for each of them but I’ll always be able to tell you where I bought it, probably who sold it to me, and what sort of natter we had. And, yes, I do haggle a bit over prices. But only if the label says that it is over £50.”
Heaven forfend that there should be a catastrophe at home, but – apart from Wendy and Rosie, their Yorkshire Terrier – what would he save and take with him? “It would be a small Georgian gaming table,” he says without hesitation. “It’s a little wobbly but it is 280-years-old and beautifully patinated. It was one of the first to be made of imported mahogany.
“It’s not of any vast value, but because of all the stories it could tell, the people who have sat around it, and the glasses of wine that they’ve put down on it, I find all that kind of thing endlessly fascinating.”
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