London: Portobello Road a collector's heaven
Most anyone visiting London from Paloma Picasso and Madonna, to curators from American museums and the idly curious go to Portobello Road.
Although the street has been well known as an open-air fruit and flower market for the past 130 or so years, in the last five decades it also has garnered a reputation as an antique lover’s heaven. Probably more serious antique business is conducted here than anywhere else in London.
The fruit and vegetable and flower vendors remain, although they set up shop farther downhill from the antique dealers. And beyond them is Portobello’s junk market, where one literally can pick up someone’s old kitchen sink for a song.
Still, it is the antiques that draw the crowds, and frequently the new trends in what is deemed desirable to collect originate here.
Located in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Portobello Road is in the heart of the Notting Hill neighborhood. The road takes its name from Admiral Sir Edward Vernon’s nearby farm, which celebrated his victory against the Spanish at Mexico’s Puerto Bello in 1739.
The antique wheeling and dealing takes place primarily on Saturday, drawing serious collectors as well as the tourists.
As one heads down the street, the shops beckon from the left, while, the right-hand side of the road hosts the temporary stalls. It’s estimated that on the weekend, the number of dealers tops 1,500. While the shops stay open throughout the week, the stalls only spring alive on Saturday.
Frequently, those conducting business in the stalls find themselves so successful that they end up moving into more permanent quarters. As a result, Portobello Road is constantly re-creating its landscape.
Among the sites to check out is the Red Lion Antiques Arcade, which got up and running in 1951, just as the area was getting serious about collectibles. And, according to dealers, some of the original Red Lion merchants remain.
The list of what one can purchase is nearly endless: jewelry, with a seeming abundance of cameos; engravings and advertising memorabilia; sealing stamps; thimbles and buttons; bottles; textiles and antique clothing; deeds and maps; postage stamps and coins; dolls; wooden golf clubs; prints from the London Illustrated News; paintings; film memorabilia; and Wedgewood and woolens.
For the most part, dealers have specific areas of expertise. Sheila Cook is known for her antique textiles and costumes, while Rudolf’s specializes in vintage, autographed photos of movie stars, and antique chess sets are the provenance of Garrick Coleman.
In the case of David Baks, proprietor of Denbigh Cigarette Cards, it is cigarette cards. Begun by American tobacco entrepreneur Henry Duke in 1888, the fad soon hit England’s shores. Cigarette manufacturers would determine a theme — flowers, for instance, or film stars, frequently being of a risqué nature — and print up a dozen or so cards.
The object was to collect all of a series before the company moved on to another theme. Of course, no one knew what card would be in an individual pack of cigarettes until the seal was broken.
“The competition between cigarette manufacturers was fierce,” says Baks. “They all rushed to hire the best artists and the best printers.”
Several series were aimed at children, such as the “Alice in Wonderland” series, in the hope that the tykes would browbeat their parents into smoking a certain brand of cigarette.
There was a series commemorating Boer War battles, which originally was planned to have 50 cards. As the war raged on, the cards continued — eventually reaching more than 120.
By World War II, the passion for the cards began to fade, largely because they were seen as frivolous when the watchword of the day was patriotism. But an interesting thing happened before they disappeared from the scene around 1940, Baks says.
“Someone noticed that a series of British battleships, which included considerable detail about the ships themselves, was being purchased by a collector at far above the going rate,” he says. “British intelligence did some checking and discovered that the mysterious collector was, in fact, German intelligence, which was using the cigarette cards to identify the British ships, as well as educate themselves about England’s naval power.”
British intelligence issued a new set of cards, complete with inaccurate information.
Portobello shoppers would do well to take Caveat emptor — “let the buyer beware” — to heart, and not just when buying cigarette cards. There’s plenty of junk and reproductions here, although certain dealers have taken steps to maintain the integrity of their wares.
Indeed, many of the dealers fiercely defend the quality and authenticity of their wares. Kenny Kaneko, assistant owner of the Silver Fox Gallery, has gone out of his way to ensure that the dozen or so jewelry dealers in the gallery are reputable, stable and selling only antique pieces.
There are certain items that are devilishly hard to fake, says Tim Collins, whose business consists of selling documents, primarily mortgages and indentures from the early 18th century.
The key, he says, is that such documents were written out by hand on vellum — a fine parchment — adding that they are particularly popular with attorneys, who frame them for their office walls.
“Today, you simply can’t get enough vellum to fake these,” he says.
Although the markets open at 5:30 a.m., most of the buying and selling that takes place from then until 9 a.m. or so is between the various dealers.
By 9, it’s possible to leave the Notting Hill tube station and merely follow the stream of individual collectors heading for the market. An hour later the streets are dense with people, looking for bargains, or at least something interesting to take home.
For more information, log on to the Portobello Road Antique Dealers Association Web site, www.portobelloroad.co.uk. However, mind your manners, the site urges dealers to report “weird browser behaviour.”
There’s also a guide — Saturday Antique Market: Portobello Road & Westbourne Grove — published by the Portobello Antique Dealers Association that lists which shops specialize in what.
— Mary Medland is a freelance writer living in the United States.