Adventurer who brought the world to his doorstep

IT was 1989, and Gordon Reece had been travelling through the Himalayas, buying antique artefects from Tibet and Nepal for his gallery of unusual finds in Knaresborough.

He flew from Kathmandu to Kabul in Afghanistan, and asked a taxi driver to take him straight to the Iranian Consulate, so that he could apply for a visa.

The taxi driver didn't want to take the fare, but Reece offered him double. The driver reluctantly agreed, saying that he would drop his passenger not at the door of the building, but at the end of the road.

On arrival, the traveller was met with hostility, and when he eventually was admitted to the building, security guards slammed him up against the inside of the door with his legs and arms splayed, so that he could be stripped and body searched. The butt of a Kalashnikov rifle was stuck up his nose.

He was then marched into a room and a revolver was held to his head while he explained that he wanted to travel around Iran on a buying expedition. "'It was absolutely terrifying," says Reece. "They told me 'we are issuing no more visas', and I was packed off out the gate.

"I went to the British Embassy looking for an explanation, and was told that a fatwa had been issued against the novelist Salman Rushdie the day before."

The death threat had been declared over the alleged blasphemy against Islam in Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses. In the ongoing crisis, the writer had gone into hiding and car bombs had exploded outside the British and American embassies in Kabul, killing a guard.

"I think they had probably taken me for a suicide bomber, sent on a revenge attack. I got the hell out of there very fast."

For more than a quarter of a century Gordon Reece spent part of each year in wandering between Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Burma, Bhutan, India, Thailand, Nepal, Tibet, Borneo, China and Japan... and eventually Iran.

When The Gordon Reece Gallery opened in 1981, it was the first of its kind in the UK. It created a new market in antiques, alerted the public to the beauty and history of everyday objects from Asia and helped to encourage a new breed of traveller. It also spawned a whole new fashion for "ethnicity" in the world of interiors.

Reece had spent eight years from the age of 13 at different art colleges and then became a teacher, before getting involved in curriculum development at Leeds, York and Cambridge Universities.

But the lifelong collector – it started with stones and cigarette cards as a child; he went on to renovate old houses and collected a garage full of period staircases – eventually became burned out by education.

His friend Alastair Hull was selling interesting craft and antique items he'd bought in Afghanistan on a Cambridge market stall. They sold well,

but Gordon felt his friend's

wares could be marketed much


A plan was hatched. Reece left his job and returned with his late wife Sandra and two children to their original home near Knaresborough (naturally one of the oldest houses in Nidderdale). Gordon had a "silly offer" accepted on three empty houses and the nasty old night club in Finkle Street.

The three houses were done up as rental properties, and the club became a gallery. Alastair went back to Afghanistan to source the artefacts he knew would appeal to Gordon, a mix of furniture, textiles, ceramics and jewellery.

After the first pantechnicon of items arrived, via Kabul, Moscow, Leningrad and London, the Gallery opened its doors to The Tribes of Afghanistan, the likes of which had never been seen in Yorkshire.

"I could see the wood for the trees,"says Gordon. "While not everyone would want to buy a tribal mask, everyone does need floor coverings, so rugs were important." The collection of friends and museum curators who attended the opening were wowed, and the show sold out.

Reece soon realised that he would have to do the travelling himself, if the "purity" of his idea was to be sustained. "I wasn't after items made by Asian craftspeople but conforming to a Western idea of a jug or chair. I wanted items that had been in everyday use by people in remote places."

The exotic price tags reflected not only rarity but the massive cost of transport, and the fact that many items were antiques. He led the trend for finely woven kilim rugs (often used in Asia to wrap more expensive carpets), and he is probably responsible, too, for the explosion in copies of items like heads of Gods or tribal masks that now adorn so many suburban mantelpieces.

It was a journey of discovery and learning for Gordon, bringing together the artist's aesthetic and his passion for education. His business dealings across Asia created a network of "gatherers" who found artefacts for him, and a local market for antique goods.

"One guy I met in Ahmendabad in Gujerat took me to a backroom in a house that was full of old ornate Gujerat furniture. I began dealing with the owner, and he is now the king of Indian architectural antiques, employing 600."

Where Reece led other British dealers followed, often literally tracking him from village to village.

A love affair with India was followed by wanderings in Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and China. Once, while staying in a hut on the Thai/Burmese border, he came down with dysentery and was nursed back from a coma by kind local people.

On another trip, he was in the same region when he got caught up in a night attack on the Burmese Karen National Liberation Army by Thai Army helicopters. "Battle commenced, people were running around with rifles, and we just left everything and ran into the jungle."

The intrepid Reece wasn't deterred, and a later trip to South East Asia led to marriage, having met his French wife Olivia at a remote temple site in Cambodia in 1993.

In 1997, he opened a gallery in Mayfair to wide acclaim, and four years ago closed the Knaresborough operation to concentrate on selling higher quality (and priced) items in London.

Having seen off the opposition and still riding the crest of the wave despite the present fashion for minimalism, he has now left behind the pressurised business of nine shows a year by closing down. He says the time is right, and today the remaining 600 items from his wondrous collections will be auctioned at Bonhams in London.

His travelling isn't over – he's just got back from Iran, and enjoyed discovering Andalucia and Cuba this summer, strictly as a tourist. "I've been to India dozens of times, but have never seen the Taj Mahal..."

He leaves the business (but won't quite say he's finished entirely with it...) with his head high. "I'm pleased to say my reputation is unblemished.

While the things I bought and shared with the West are special and very beautiful, they were not national treasures that I was covertly removing from their homeland.

"If an item was even remotely 'borderline', I would point it out to the export officials. If they were not sure, I would offer them the piece for a museum. I wasn't interested in stripping other cultures of their history."