I read that you grew up with an entomologist father?
I did indeed, although he wasn’t doing entomology when I was born, that was in his previous life, so to speak. He’d been an explorer with the British Museum’s Natural History department, he’d done two trips to the Brazilian jungle where he literally went into the jungle all by himself, armed with a machete, looking for butterflies, moths and bugs. That curiosity he had was sort of injected into me, it started there. After the war, he opened a shop, dealing porcelain, in Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge, then one in Brighton. So I was in and out of those two places as a child. Later on, in the very early 1960s, he took a lease on a building at the top of Kensington Church Street, and as I had just come out of school, I was plonked in there to look after it. Which was no bad thing.
And what was in the shop?
At that point, there was a lot of demolition in London, and we were getting fireplaces from houses and architraves. He was also buying religious sculptures on the continent, haute époque - early furniture and sculpture. In 1962, we moved to Portobello Road and did more and more with sculpture and wood carvings and that interested me. And I was also getting interested in hard stones - marble and things like that, so we started buying that as well.
But there was a clash between us. He was a marvellous dad in many respects, but we didn’t see things the same way and being fairly headstrong, I wanted to do my own thing. My father was never a collector – whereas I was always a frustrated collector, but had to be a dealer, just in order to be able to keep back a few things. But specialising - that just wasn’t for me. So that’s partly why I left working with my father when I was 34, having worked with him since the age of 17.
So you've never really primarily defined yourself as being a dealer?
No -from a dealer’s point of view I always think people think two things about me – I mean, some people can’t stand me but that’s beside the point – I was always a frustrated collector, more than a dealer. I don’t think I was ever a very good dealer. Some people say otherwise. And then they say, but you’re an expert, and I have brought my expertise to bear at times, I’ve vetted on committees and things. But I know a little bit about a lot because I’m too interested in too many things
'I know a little bit about a lot because I’m too interested in too many things...'
So, over the years, I occasionally sold off pieces of my collection, but in 2000, I really started concentrating more on collecting. I closed my shop and worked from home. People would visit and they’d want to buy things and I’d say no, no, no, downstairs is where you can buy, but upstairs, this is all mine, yes. But of course, those were the pieces they wanted to buy!
Which is what we have here, I understand. This is your personal collection.
This is absolutely my personal collection. None of this has really ever been for sale. Occasionally along the line, I did sell, in order to be able to buy the next piece or something like that. And it was also part of a learning process. For example, I had started with two or three African neck rests in the 1970s, but I only really started collecting them at the end of the 1990s, as I became more interested in ethnic art. Then, I moved more towards Polynesian, Fiji, Tonga, the Marquesas, etcetera.
What is it about these neck rests that especially that attracts you?
With most of them, it was about patination and form, they were usually non-figural. But if you go to Congo, for example, they quite often have figures on them - animals or something. Yet, I’ve always been into seeing surfaces, whether a wall, a floor or an object. Surface is for me, important. And most of those have a surface that’s quite interesting and also there’s the form. I have had a couple of other neck rests that I’ve sold that I didn’t want to keep, but mostly, I kept these Zimbabwean ones.
The part that cradles the neck is so, gorgeous, so smooth.
Absolutely. Particularly the Shona ones. In fact, I loaned some to an exhibition in 2009 in Brussels called La tête dans les étoiles: Appuie-nuque d'Afrique et d'ailleurs. I guess people they thought the people lying on the neck rests were looking up at the stars.
Exactly. We don’t need to lie in the gutter and look at the stars; we can lie on a neck rest and look at the stars.
No, we leave that to Alan Bates and people like that [laughs]
Would you use them? Do you think they’re particularly comfortable?
I’ve tried them, they’re not uncomfortable at all.
These neck rests are just a tiny part of your collection. You seem to move constantly, immerse yourself in one place, gather some fine examples and then move on.
I could never concentrate on any one thing for long. For instance, after I focused on African art, I started going to Japan again in 2013 when I started to buy Japanese things. As a collector, I was curious, again, it’s that word – ‘curious’ - which I keep coming back to.
'I didn’t get the examinations you needed to do to get to university, so I fell into being an antiques dealer - but a frustrated one, who wanted to collect'
That makes sense when you talk about your own past. From what you’ve told me of your back story, your evolution as a dealer has been quite an organic, instead of an academic, pursuit.
Unfortunately, yes, you’re totally right, but that’s for another reason. I’m highly dyslexic. University was not on the cards for me. Probably luckily, because I would have been an architect or something like that, that’s what my mother wanted me to be. I didn’t get the examinations you needed to do to get to university, so I fell into being an antiques dealer, but a frustrated one, who wanted to collect. Something like that.
But imagine if you’d ended up as an architect though, we wouldn’t be talking about this wonderful collection right now.
Well, we might. Although yes, it might look different.
We might be talking about your magnificent buildings, towering over a skyline somewhere. Anyway, I’ve been looking through the lots in the sale and pulled up one of the Japanese items. I’m just looking at it now, a gorgeous box, with the abalone shell.
Oh yes, that has a funny story. I bought that from a friend in Brussels, but he had bought it in Kyoto. And when the lady I now live with first came to my house a few years ago, she saw it and said - that was mine!
No way! It had been hers?
Yes. She didn’t really want me to sell it.
There’s just so much here, but I have a few especial favourites. For example, there’s this miniature casket from India, the 17th century one, with these wonderful illustrations on it. What is the story behind this piece?
Well, that’s based on Safavid Persian art. Mughal India was highly influenced by Safavid art. And as far as I know that is a unique casket. I got the former director of the museum in Réunion islands to write it up for me, and he'd never seen one like it. Or Amin Jaffer, who used to be a specialist at the V&A, he said he’d never seen a casket with that decoration on it before. The only thing I’ve ever seen like it was a Persian box, which was almost certainly 19th century, and most likely a fake, copying something made earlier. But this one is unique. And it’s wonderful – I love those cymbal players, on the top, the birds inside. For me, this is probably the most important object in my collection.
And what would these boxes be used for?
I would think that at that size, they’d be used for jewels. But yes, even though it comes from Sindh, it was highly influenced from Safavid Iran. I’ve always thought of them as the princess and the philosopher. It was a great find, when I saw it, I had to buy it.
It is absolutely beautiful. I love the rabbits.
That’s sweet. The rabbits are more typical of the Indian influence, part of it from Sindh. That’s absolutely typical of that region.
Its these tiny details that can reveal so much, these markings and symbols.
Yes and although I’m not academic in any way, part of the way I’m able to learn is with a visual memory. But I also have at the moment, about 115,000 photographs and bits of information on my computer. I make screenshots, I take photographs. I’ve been doing it since the 1970s, just filing things away. And one of them is Indian, Mughal boxes and Uzbekistan boxes. In fact, years ago I sold one to the V&A - a marvellous one with jugglers on and dancers on and so on and so on. But this one, I have never seen the like.
How do you feel letting pieces like this go? It must be emotional, seeing it go up for sale?
Well, it was a complicated decision to sell but I’m beginning to feel the burden lighten. I’m hoping to get on and do other things in life, travelling more. Which I’d started to do pre-Covid. I’d been travelling through Japan, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and so on. And now, I hope to travel more again soon. So, selling this collection is like lightening a burden, because a collection can become a burden, physically and mentally. A collection is not about only you looking at it yourself, it’s also about sharing it with friends, other people, children. Kids are always fascinated by a collection like mine.
I find it completely fascinating! So much so it’s difficult to know where to begin when interviewing you? I mean, where can you start?
At the beginning!