Friday, 31 July 2009

I hate 'word clouds'

* They look like something has gone terribly wrong with the website.
* They do not demonstrate linear thought patterns.
*They are confused and confusing.
* They are a typical, pretentious Web 2.0 gimmick.
* My eyes and head hurt when straining to read the smallest fonts.
* Half the population don't know what they are.
* Clouds are gaseous, nebulous, amorphous, opaque, and lack substance - hardly attributes that good content should take.

Okay, rant over.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Prehistoric Designs on Modern Ceramics & Glass

Having seen so many prehistoric, neolithic and paleolithic designs on modern ceramics and glass, I've often wondered how much these were inspired and driven by the discovery of some caves. In Summer 1940, four French teenagers out walking their dog in the Dordogne discovered a cave, the walls of which were covered with prehistoric cave paintings of animals and hunting scenes. Archaeologists soon found that this was just the start - there was a whole network of caves, all with perfectly preserved prehistoric art.
The sleepy French village of Lascaux became world famous instantly. In fact, by 1955, over 1,200 visitors arrived every day to see this ancient wonder, dating back some 16,000 years. The caves were closed in 1963, with a replica opening nearby in 1983. Much local pottery is decorated with similar motifs, and mades great souvenirs. But I think the inspiration spread further than tourist wares. Consider Eric Hoglund's designs for Boda, some Vallauris patterns, and particularly this 1960s-70s West German Scheurich 'Montignac' range vase, which really does resemble the original cave art. And to tie this example in even closer, 'Montignac' is the nearest town to Lascaux.

The state of the market

My co-author, colleague and friend Judith Miller was recently interviewed by the prestigious Times newspaper on the state of the antiques market today. Contemporary up and traditional down? Read her opinion, and the opinions of other experts in their fields, by clicking here.


Last weekend was spent in Berlin, visiting friends, but also indulging in more than a little hunting around the flea markets and vintage shops of this trendy city.
First stop was Deco Arts in Motzstrasse, in the Schoneberg district. I had passed this shop many a time, and each time it was closed. Thankfully, this fourth (or maybe fifth!) time round, I was lucky, and the door was open. Charming interior decorator Marie-Pascale certainly has an eye for mid-century modern, and her smart shop is packed with treasures from around Europe, including furniture, lighting, ceramics and glass. One reason why I was so keen to look around was the price point there's plenty to buy at well under 100 euros, and prices in general are very sensible and excrutiatingly affordable. I was tempted by a rather lovely Ceramano vase at a bargainous 25 euros, but as the weekend was still young and hand baggage was tight, I grudgingly left it behind. I really do recommend a visit to this Modern, and Modernist, palace - I'll be back for sure.
Saturday continued with a visit to the famous flea market at Strasse des 17 Juni, near the S-bahn station at Tiergarten. Billed as Berlin's biggest and best, it had a lot to live up to. And meet it, this place did. Four long avenues of stalls selling all manner of merchandise offer something for every one, dating from the 18th century to sometime last year. Prices are all negotiable, but be polite, as a demand from a tourist that is perceived as rude will only end up with the seller clamming up completely. I saw it happen!
My two tips for this superb market are to look out for Turkish stand holders, who seemed to have the best stuff, and also to make sure you leave time to look through the book stands. There were plenty of incredibly good reference books for sale amidst the many on militaria. Throwing cares of the size of hand luggage to the wind, I bought what I consider to be a highly exciting object. The quality is very high and it's not something I can put my finger on. I even asked a fellow glass expert, and he had no idea but agreed with me that it really is very good. More on that one later
Desperately in need of some lunch, some four hours after I should have had it, I caught the S-bahn into east Berlin, only to be derailed again by a fantastically interesting shop called Fundus Verkauf, just of Freidrichstrasse, on Behrenstrasse 14. This emporium sells costumes, furniture and even partial sets used in Berlin's operas and theatre productions. A place to find something a little bit 'different' as a souvenir, it's also filled with tourists giggling as they climb into a silver sequin covered spangly jumpsuit, or try an 18thC dandy's costume on for size. Prices can be high, but it's not surprising as every piece is entirely unique. This twice life-sized harp and enormous gilt wood swan on wheels (above) were surely essential souvenirs!
I also popped in to the Berlin Antikmarkt, in a series of railway arches under Freidrichstrasse's rail station. I come here every time I visit the city, and always walk out empty handed. It's not that the 30 or more stands have nothing good, in fact quite the reverse, it's just that prices and quality are generally very high - too high for my pocket. Although the centre's focus is very much on the 'antique', I always enjoy a walk around Karin Schabel's beautiful stand where fine 20th century items are beautifully displayed.
Sunday saw a visit to the considerably smaller, but no less worthwhile, flea market at Arkona platz, in the Mitte district of east Berlin. Mitte is largely populated by trendy twenty-to-forty-somethings and, as you would expect, this market caters towards their 1950s-80s retro tastes. Many stallholders put a little more effort into their displays, and vintage technology makes an appearance amongst the usual lighting, furniture, ceramics and glass.
I bought a couple of things, including a Roth Keramik vase. It's small, and far from being the rarest piece, but for 10 euros, I could hardly leave without it. Prices for this desirable range have more than quadrupled over the past 12 months, so I think my investment is safe - this would fetch around £40 if sold online today. A cooling glass of wine and some delicious dim sum finished off a relaxing, and successful, weekend before the flight home.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Frank Thrower & Dartington Glass on Sky TV

Filmed during the first ever retrospective celebration of the life and works of Frank Thrower in Summer 2006, the documentary film of Frank's life, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", will be shown on the the Sky 2 Arts channel on Sunday 9th August at 7pm.
This fascinating documentary was filmed and produced by Nigel Edwards of InHouse Productions, and was co-directed by Graham Cooley, the foremost collector of 20th century decorative arts in the UK. Graham also acts as the focal point during the film, which also includes interviews with members of Frank's family, many of his colleagues at Dartington Glass, glass experts including Charles Hajdamach, and I.
You can also see exclusive footage of the legendary FT15 'Ship's Decanter' being made, which are nothing less than spectacular. If you love glass and 20thC design, you'll love this film, which draws to a truly tear-jerking end.
Tune in to see what I mean.
Copies of the film on DVD can be bought at £12 + P&P by emailing the Glass Association, who funded it, at If you're interested in reading about Frank and his globally successful designs, you can buy the book, written by his daughter Eve Thrower and I, for £12 + P&P by emailing And don't forget to make a note in your diary for 8th August at 7pm - I can guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

...and Wales made three

July has been a busy month for me. In addition to my usual jobs, this month I enjoyed three Antiques Roadshows in nearly as many weeks. I wrote about Melrose below, and that was followed up a few days later by an event at Bletchley Park, just outside Milton Keynes. If you think you recognise the name, you probably do. Bletchley was home to the talented team led by Alan Turing who broke the code used by Hitler's 'Enigma' machines. Without this breakthrough, the course of World War II would have gone very differently, and our home computers may not be where they are today.
Over 3,500 people attended the event on a sunny Sunday - not quite a record, but up there with the busiest Roadshows, so I was told. The image above shows the house as all the specialists arrived at 8am, and the image here shows the queue as it began to build shortly afterwards. It stretched across the entire lawn, round the lake and into the distance for most of the day, but everyone saw a specialist.
Only a few days later, I was on a train bound for Llandeilo in South Wales for an event at the beautiful Aberglasney Gardens.
Originating in the late 15thC, and restored in the early 1990s, the house and gardens enjoy breath-taking views of the rolling Welsh hills. Arriving mid-afternoon gave me a few hours to explore the town, where I stumbled across The Works Antique Centre, near the railway station. If you're passing through or holidaying nearby, I can certainly recommend a visit to this rabbit warren of rooms packed with things to see and buy at very reasonable prices. Amongst the things I bought were these two 1980s Rosenthal plates designed by Dorothy Hafner (below). Very postmodern in style, I think they were a good buy at £10. While you're there, I can also recommend The Mount Antiques Centre in nearby Carmarthen, found again near the railway station.
Many people associate Wales with rain, and while the day I arrived was hot and sunny, the day of the event was true to form, with the heavens opening for most of the day. I don't mind getting a little bit wet, but this was something else. Anyhow, I had an umbrella to shelter under - it was those in the queue I felt sorry for. But camaraderie and cheer was strong, and we worked through the queue as fast and politely as possible, before we were all moved into the marquee to carry on. I filmed a spot, so keep your eyes peeled when the series airs to see what I found.
Although there are more to come, Aberglasney was the last Roadshow of this season that I'm scheduled to attend. I'll miss all my colleagues greatly, and will look forward to seeing them again next season. In the meantime, I'm preparing for an exciting new project, more about which later...

Saturday, 11 July 2009

I saw Sawbridgeworth

It's rare that I find myself at a loose end, with a day to myself. Even then, when I do, I find myself strangely drawn to the idea of going 'antiquing', as they call it in the US. A couple of friends had mentioned that Sawbridgeworth in Essex was well worth visit, so I decided to take the advice and take myself off there for a day.
Only 40 minutes by train out of London, I discovered a real treasure trove at the Maltings. Literally next to the station, not one, nor two, but FIVE antiques and collectables centres can be found, each crammed to the gunnels with all manner of goodies.
For the real bargain hunter with time on their hands, I can really recommend the first two nearest the road; Herts & Essex Antiques Centre and Riverside. You'll find something to suit every pocket from £1 to over £1,000. I was particularly tempted by a 1930s Webb vase, containing a network of bubbles and a gentle lilac tint. At £20, it looked like great value, but on closer inspection the condition didn't quite meet with my approval. Save some of your budget to visit Acorn Antiques & Collectables (above) at the furthest end of the buildings from the road. Arranged over three truly enormous floors, the place was humming with activity, and I could understand why. The selection is truly unparalleled in this part of the world, and I left with two bags full of treasures, having spent under £50.
At the top of the tree sits Cromwells, with its beautifully laid out interior containing hundreds of cabinets filled with a superb selection of identified and 'vetted' items from Doulton to Whitefriars. I spotted this rather fantastic 1930s Art Deco cabinet, which was on sale for around £500. In great looking condition, the veneer was both undamaged and unfaded, and its Art Deco appeal cannot be disputed. It'll make a great centrepiece to someone's Deco or 'modern eclectic' living room.
My only advice for the would-be visitor is to allow enough time. All the centres here are huge and arranged over many floors - each could easily take an hour to explore fully. I had to go around twice to make sure I'd seen everything - and take a breather to enjoy a restorative cup of tea half way through!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

West German Pottery at a charity auction

I've just got back from a charity auction held to benefit the Prince's Trust at the Guildhall in London. Alas, I am empty handed. Eric Knowles, my friend and colleague on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow, is taking part in another series of 'Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is' for the BBC. Here, two well-known antiques experts are pitted against each other, buying antiques and collectables, and then selling them at a profit later. They use their own money, so the stakes are high! Eric knows I'm partial to a bit of West German pottery, and had bought a large early 1960s vase (shown here) that he thought I might like to add to my collection. Designed by Hans Siery for Scheurich in 1958, "Yes, please!", I said. At over 20inches (50cm) in height, and estimated at a punchy £150-200, my chequebook and bidding arm were ready, and Eric was enthusing on the rostrum. But I didn't prepare myself for a room full of 20-40-something design fans, and I was soon outbid, with the vase selling for a fantastic £270. Well done Eric, but in my case, I guess you can't win them all!

Monday, 6 July 2009

Michael Jackson 1958-2009

The grateful guest of a law firm to see Madonna perform at the 02 arena in London on Saturday night, I came across this poignant tribute to the undisputed 'King of Pop'. Scheduled to perform some 50 concerts at the arena during July and August, it's possible that the mental and physical strain these caused contributed to his untimely and tragic death.
Over the past few days, a fair number of people have asked me, or made comments, about the value of Jackson memorabilia and merchandise. A little ghoulish maybe, but I guess the interest is understandable.
Every case needs to be treated differently, particularly as values are likely to be falsely inflated for a few months by (arguably even more ghoulish) speculators. As such, I'd be inclined to wait for a few months before buying that must-have piece of memorabilia, as you may find it more affordable after some of the media hype has died down.
I also think that, as ever, the same core rules to collecting rock & pop memorabilia apply. Mass-produced, poorly made commemorative objects are far less likely to rise in value than something licensed and more special, or even something owned or used by the man himself. It sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people expect their old copy of 'Bad' to contribute to the mortgage. It won't - Jackson was the commercial success he was because he sold millions of records, and yours is just one of those many millions. The same goes for much of the raft of commemorative memorabilia that was produced during his career. To state the obvious, for something to rise in value, demand has to outstrip supply.
Also consider items that visually represent the man at his best - those that show him in characteristic pose, looking his best and from his best-loved songs. Think 'Thriller', 'Bad' and the like over 'Remember The Time', for example. Also keep a close eye on 'limitless editions' - the smaller the size of the limited edition is, the more it's likely to rise in value.
If you're wealthy enough to invest in something directly connected to the singer, make sure the provenance (the story behind it that proves what it is) is cast iron. A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to handle one of the famous fedora hats he wore in 'Billy Jean'. It's part of an iconic look that could only perhaps be beaten by a sequined jacket, red Thriller outfit, or a glove. Acquired from a central London auction house, its provenance was cast iron, and it was also signed by Jackson. As I carefully handled it, little did I know that the man who flicked its brim up in front of millions would be dead mere weeks later.

Antiques Roadshow in the Scottish Borders

And I bought a hat specially too! Having experienced the blazing Summer heat the UK is experiencing on past Roadshows, I thought I'd come prepared this time. You can imagine my annoyance when both the Met Office and BBC weather both predicted rain and thundery showers. Well I should have trusted my instincts - not a single drop fell from the blue and sun drenched skies.
I was told by one of Judith Miller's relatives that it's all a fix - the sun always shines in bonny Scotland, and all those rainy soaked shots are just a myth intended to keep everyone out! That may be stretching things just ever so slightly, I think......but the idea is nice.
Our location this time was Abbotsford, the Victorian castle built by poet Walter Scott in the 1820s. The event kicked off with drinks on the lawn and a private tour of the castle and its contents before dinner was served indoors. The library, one of the best in private hands then and now, was a particular highlight. We were staying in nearby Melrose (above), a pretty and well-kept small town with a beautiful abbey and even an antiques centre to keep us entertained before the following day's proceedings.
The Roadshow started bright and early the next day and we were kept busy for the day examining all manner of objects from spinning wheels (wool was important to the area), to fine porcelain, sparkling jewellery, textiles, toys, and more. The weather was as warm as the reception we enjoyed, and everyone went away smiling. The shot shown above shows the day as it began to wind down, at a still balmy 5 o'clock.