With a stuffed heron on his left and a Second World War uniform on his right, Ian Richardson reckons TV antiques programmes have a lot to answer for. “Some of them give the wrong impression of the trade,” he says. “They give the impression that dealers are greedy.”
Take “a guy who came in the other day and wanted an £80 item for £15”. Richardson, a Sheffield antiques dealer, was having none of it, but the customer said he’d seen such knock-down tactics work on TV. No sale.
Richardson, a man with forthright opinions, has a stall at Langton’s Antiques & Collectables, one of the three-dozen businesses making up the Sheffield Antiques Quarter. They’re scattered around a triangle of busy streets in the inner-city areas of Heeley and Abbeydale; some occupy former banks, chapels and workshops; and between them they cover all aspects of the antiques trade: retro, vintage, salvage and collectibles.
We need to define our terms here. “Look at this,” says Richardson, pointing to a 2ft high carving of an elephant priced at £150. “Made from volcanic ash; it’s not an antique, it’s a collectable.” Where to draw the line? “Anything over five years old now is suddenly vintage,” says another dealer wryly. Yet another shakes his head about the fashionable concept of “shabby chic”: “You get a decent piece of Victorian furniture and you make it ‘shabby-chic’: why?”
I’m at the start of an afternoon’s wander round the Antiques Quarter, with its businesses offering “upcycled” items, “eclectic artefacts” and “lifestyle inspiration”. The afternoon will take in Lambretta motor scooters, a 1970s drop-leaf kitchen table, a clutch of Vera Lynn LPs, a lot of chamberpots, and a truly vintage can of lager.
Here at Langton’s, in one of the Quarter’s six antiques centres (some housing dozens of traders) – well, you name it, it’s here somewhere: cigarette card albums, Toby jugs, Rupert annuals, crystal chandeliers, Beanos, Dandys, school geometry sets, framed photographs of Wayne Rooney.
Yesterday’s commonplace has become today’s collectable, though some items, you suspect, are rather less collectable than others; second-hand Danielle Steel paperbacks and The Wonderful World of Max Bygraves don’t look obvious best-sellers.
Unlike a cabinet of much-coveted Dinky Toys from the Fifties and Sixties: an Austin saloon car at £175, a Morris van at £220, both with one careful owner (and immaculate boxes: packaging is important). “People collect all sorts of things,” says one dealer. “Whistles, cigarette lighters, oil lamps...” Which is fine if you’ve got them to sell, but some people come to browse rather than to buy, to ruminate rather than rummage.
“People often come in on a Sunday,” says Ian Richardson. “They want to get out of the house for a couple of hours and they come to pass the time. We’re almost a museum for them, but we don’t have any subsidy. You hear them saying: ‘We used to have one of them’ or ‘We threw one of those away’.”
The Quarter was launched three years ago, after stallholder Hendrika Stephens saw the marketing potential of bringing together existing businesses under a collective banner. “I thought it was crazy that we weren’t getting together as traders,” she says. “It creates a destination.”
With organisational support from Sheffield Council, traders clubbed together and produced a useful flyer-cum-map, now in its third edition. Vintage markets, based at the former Abbeydale cinema, a gleaming white 1920 landmark, were launched (the next is on April 26) and more recently, a fundraising campaign raised £17,500 to pay for street signs, banners, information boards and murals by local artists, all due to be unveiled shortly.
Nostalgically (and nostalgia is what a lot of this is about) the Antiques Quarter revives the Abbeydale area’s reputation in the Seventies and Eighties, when it boasted a cluster of busy antique and secondhand shops, with the gloriously named Junkerama the most celebrated of them. It was a time before car boot sales – which many dealers reckon have made customers expect low prices – had really taken off.
“Local” is very much the Quarter’s watchword, promoting independent businesses beyond antiques (including design shops, “artisan producers” and cafés), consolidating the community and resisting the big-chain homogenisation that has overtaken many shopping centres.
“Everything in the standard high street is about the new,” says Stephens, who chairs the Antiques Quarter group. “But we’re talking about recycling, reuse and reclaiming.”
Nowhere more so than at one of the Quarter’s more offbeat and specialist businesses: On 2 Wheels, which restores and repairs classic scooters and motorcycles (Vespas, Lambrettas, Yamahas, the great names). Finding a bit of empty space in his small garage-cum-office, which lures enthusiasts from all over Britain, owner Tony Cartawick perches on a handy Kawasaki and discusses an AJS 350, a celebrated trial bike he’s currently working on.
“It weighs an absolute ton,” he says. “It was one of the bikes to beat in 1955. Eight hundred mile road trips: a trial of man and machine.” We move on to Lambrettas, “with their tiny wheels that made it difficult to go through mud”. Here’s a 1959 model – “untouched, unmolested, original paintwork”.
Didn’t a Lambretta have a starring role in the Fifties romantic comedy Roman Holiday? “That was a Vespa,” says Cartawick. “Quadrophenia – that was a Lambretta. I’ve got one from Rotherham, still with its original log book.”
We move on to “bikes that don’t sound like sewing machines; they sound like living things” and his mission to preserve authentic colour schemes. He clearly treats restoring bikes with the dedication picture restorers bring to restoring a Botticelli or a Tintoretto. And no, he says, bikes aren’t a cheap hobby. And they attract collectors with no interest in riding. “They buy bikes and stick them in their garages as investments. Some scooters go for 50 or 70 grand.”
Around the corner is the memorably named Swifties & Potty Pauline’s Emporium. Working from a yard piled high with roof tiles, garden furniture (statues, bird baths), chimney pots, coal scuttles, fire grates and heaven knows what else, Trevor Mills and his daughter Tracey specialise in reclamation. Reclaiming what? “Anything that will make a profit,” says Trevor.
He is standing next to a stack of wooden boards. “Look, somebody’s just brought this shed in; it’s been pulled down.” Oh yes, there’ll be a customer.
Tracey leads the way to the vintage storeroom, past a 1940s washing machine and an ironing board best described as “old”. Theatre companies – including the Sheffield Crucible – come here to find period props. “If I haven’t got it, nobody’s got it,” she says. Next to a mincing machine is an unopened can of Harrods lager with a January 1997 sell-by date. “It’s not for sale,” says Tracey. “I bought it years ago when I went to Harrods. It was the cheapest thing in the shop. 50p.”