Sotheby’s: You opened your first Gallery in 1964, whilst still completing your Physics degree at Kings College in London. How different was the market back then?
Adrian Alan: Well, very different but what I did not realise or appreciate back then was how good the timing was. The 1960’s was the beginning of the boom in the antique business. The world was opening up and people were beginning to travel to more and more places. There was a worldwide appetite and demand for antiques to satisfy. We were perfectly placed to be involved in this rapidly expanding market.
In those days it was a continual process of buying and selling, often in what now seems unimaginably large quantities. Whole collections were bought and then sold on, often within days to other dealers and collectors. With no internet and no information, I covered the country driving more than 1,000 miles every week in my search for pieces for my clients.
The trade was full of many eccentric and colourful characters. They were so happy to impart some of their experience to a young man like me, just starting out in the trade. We would all regularly see each other in the auction rooms dotted across the country. With their help, my knowledge in all sorts of areas grew exponentially as vast numbers of fresh pieces were continually coming to the market to view.
S: What are the key criteria for you when you are buying?
A: It is a simple rule that has always stood me in such good stead, ‘only buy the best’. Mediocre pieces will always be mediocre, but the best is always very special … and who would not like to own the best?
We carry an incredibly eclectic range of mainly nineteenth century pieces, offering a huge diversity of items to our clients – but this one criterion of only selecting the best is consistent across everything I buy.
S: How would you define the Adrian Alan style?
A: Our style has changed over the years and it’s hard to believe now, but in our early days we sold 17th Century Flemish and Dutch furniture in oak and walnut, usually of enormous size. I still love these pieces, but times have changed and we have focused on French furniture of a rather more delicate nature for decades now.
Whilst we work with many clients furnishing a traditional interior, it gives us great pleasure to work with clients and decorators who are able to place a wonderful piece that would have graced a Louis XV interior in very modern settings. The effect can be absolutely astounding!
S: What is your personal taste led by? What items do you like to collect yourself?
A: In the early days my taste was very much driven by my admiration for the complexity and incredible workmanship that had gone into the creation of some pieces, that were so close to perfection. I was in awe of the ambition and the skill of the craftsmen that could produce such intricate work.
I still get a real buzz handling these pieces and contributing to their history, with their careful restoration, re-instating them to their former glory, then placing them into a new home.
I have always thought that a dealer should not be a collector. I can remember in my early days many in the trade preferred to keep the best pieces for themselves and sell the lesser items. But I have always believed that the best should go to your clients, as they are the driving force of the business.
As I see it, all these pieces are part of my collection, but they are also available to sell and pass onto new owners, who will hopefully enjoy them as much as I have.
S: You were instrumental in taking the François Linke’s market to great heights and in placing him in his rightful place in history of the Decorative Arts. What attracts you towards his work and what makes him so special?
When I first discovered and started buying Linke’s work I was blown away by the sheer quality of all the elements, but essentially what makes Linke such a genius is how he manages to elevate a functional item of furniture into an amazing work of almost pure sculptural form. Of course, much of it has to do with his fruitful partnership with the sculptor Léon Messagé. Together they took something ordinary into the extraordinary and their legacy is truly phenomenal.
S: What is your favourite piece from the items that you have curated for the sale?
A: I have many favourite pieces but if I had to choose just one piece, it would be the Louis XV style lacquer bureau plat after the Du Choiseul model by Dubois, now at the Louvre. It stands so well and is supremely elegant … beautiful from whichever angle you view it…. I think I can hear it talking to me.
S: Any amusing stories to tell or items bought or sold?
A: Too many stories, but one that comes to mind was the time I bought a very rare Boulle cabinet - originally one from a pair, presumably separated many years earlier. I advertised it and received some interest, but also a telephone call from a very irate gentleman asking me why I was trying to sell his cabinet. I calmed him down and explained it was my piece of furniture and of course, it turned out that he had the missing cabinet - the pair to mine! Eventually, after much negotiation, I persuaded him to sell his cabinet to me and reunited them.
We subsequently sold the pair to one of our clients and they now reside together in a very important private collection.
I also recall one of my early clients who came from Stockholm and only ever bought grandfather clocks. His name was Bo and he travelled in a converted bus with the windows painted black. He would take the movements out of the clocks he had bought, put them in boxes in the bus and then load up the cases. When he ran out of space, he would load the remaining cases on the roof, irrespective of the weather and drive back to Sweden. I often wondered what he did with them as Sweden had such a small population. I had a mental picture of every Swedish home having at least ten grandfather clocks stacked together in a corner!
One day he bought one hundred Grandfather clocks - there were so many that I could not fit them in my gallery, so we lined them up outside the shop on the sidewalk.
S: How do you see the future for your Gallery and the market in general?
A: I am extremely positive going forward. Whilst we are in uncertain times, with increased use of the web as a marketing and selling tool, the potential to interact with new clients has expanded enormously.
At present, the lack of footfall is more than offset by increased online activity and we are looking forward to when travel restrictions are eased and visitors return to London. We will continue to provide an extensive selection of wonderful antiques and personal service to all our clients, whether face to face or online.
The desire to own beautiful pieces is stronger than ever and will not diminish. We are fortunate that we are in a privileged position to source the best and offer it fresh to the market. We have wonderful clients who appreciate quality and we are honoured to furnish their homes with pieces that they will enjoy for many years to come