Melbourne Antiques Fair – Everything Old Becomes New Again

Look Up - The superbly imagined and restored painted decoration in the Great Hall, Exhibition Building, Carlton Gardens Melbourne

Great design that pleases the eye and connects with the soul in any age is worthy of our admiration and attention. The Melbourne Antiques Fair recently held in the only surviving ‘Great Hall’, which once housed a 19th century international exhibition, was a great success for both the dealers involved, who were doing a brisk trade, and the public who turned out in droves.

Set in ceremonial gardens,  The Royal Exhibition Building was the largest in Melbourne in 1880 when it opened. Its stylistic design influences, Byzantine, Romanesque and Italian Renaissance were gleaned from the pages of history. Today fully restored, it’s an atmospheric and very pleasing place in which to present a fabulous show of select antiques and art. Its painted decoration is in a rich jewel like range of colours and so a perfect foil for the wares showcased by members of the Australian Antiques & Art Dealers Association (AA&ADA).

Designed by accomplished 19th century architect Joseph Reed, the building was World Heritage listed in 2004 and is without doubt the most important cultural building in Australia.

Furniture, objects, jewellery, art, rugs and textiles on display were a mixture of various styles and came from many different periods of world history, mainly from the 17th to the mid 20th century, with some stylish early colonial Australian pieces as well.

Distinctive Tasmanian timbers caught my eye on Simpson’s Antiques stand; Andrew Simpson being a foremost authority on Australian furniture and co-author of the standard references on the early history of furniture making in this country, had some interesting pieces including a small and appealing ‘exotic’ wall mirror.

It was very quirky, quite delightful really ,and it was no surprise to me that it had sold quickly.

Made c1860 mainly from Tasmania’s fabulous tree the Huon Pine, it had inlays of the very rare Tasmanian Musk and of Red Cedar, which would have been imported from the mainland at the time. Flanking the mirror were whale ivory and baleen column like embellishments. (Baleen: similar to bristle comes from great whales). Hobart and Launceston in Tasmania were both very active centres for mid 19th century Australian furniture production, with a brisk trade back to the mainland.

The AA&ADA also had an interesting array of invited guests with stands, including a few dealers being considered for membership as well as some institutions that have been around for a while. Volunteers were all doing a sterling job, manning stands for the National Trust Victoria, The Antique Collector’s Club of Victoria, The RSL, The Hand Tool Preservation Association and The Furniture History Society.

With the great generational change happening they were actively seeking new supporters and to grow interest in their particular causes that support the antiques and art trade.

The RSL were there with memorabilia, promoting the fact that next year is the centenary of the Anzac tradition. They will need lots of volunteers to assist.

The National Trust Victoria had a flapper costume, courtesy of the ABC, that had been worn by that popular character Miss Phryne Fisher when solving mysteries and sure  to attract passers by.

The Trust is having a very hard time of it in Victoria, the so-called ‘home of heritage’ where people pride themselves on preserving the old and beautiful. So heaven knows how well it’s doing everywhere else? The fabulous colonial home and garden Como at South Yarra in Melbourne controversially closed its doors recently to the public. It is now only opened for those prepared to pay heaps to hire it for events. Apparently the income from tourists and visitors was not nearly enough to keep the doors open and the huge maintenance bill in check.

There is not an immediate answer for the house boasting one of Melbourne’s finest gardens and an impressive collection inside of antique Australian furniture that documents social and cultural change from the Gold Rush to the Depression and on to two world wars.

A very sad and sorry state of affairs.

The Hand Tool Preservation Association volunteer however announced that his institution was going from strength to strength, on the back of the growing attraction of DIY, which is supported by masses of TV shows.

A tiny stall packed with all sorts of fascinating tools, it had a huge crowd around its sole supporter, who looked very happy indeed as he handed out information and fielded all sorts of questions.

The Antique Collector’s Club in the United Kingdom was originally founded in 1966 and has been publishing authoritative books on art, antiques and collectibles since then.

The Antique Collector’s Club of Victoria was founded in 1978 and holds lecture events, which still seems to be attracting followers, at least according to the lovely ladies with the big smiles.

English Campaign Desk on Furniture History Society Stand at AA&ADA Fair

The Furniture History Society had a simply splendid display of fascinating pieces, one that caught my parties eye was an English ‘campaign table’ we were told was found recently in grand condition in Africa by an Australian collector.

Its interior leather and brass fitments were in great order, a most attractive collectors piece.

They hold lectures too, so they are a great source of knowledge for all their members, who are sent very informative newsletters on a regular basis.

Some really excellent dealers from Victoria Allpress Antiques, Valentine’s Antique Gallery and the Mossgreen Collection to name a few…were doing a great trade.

During the fair Mossgreen sent out an announcement of the new home they are relocating to from South Yarra to historic Armadale in Melbourne later this year. They were busy showcasing popular local artist Kate Bergin’s latest quirky art works.

On many other stalls, including guest interior designer Stuart Rattle‘s, contemporary art and great antiques was very much a feature.

Dealer Peter Valentine, of Valentine’s Antique Gallery situated in beautiful downtown historic Bendigo was very busy embracing the modern age when I visited his stall. He was having a great fair, both sale wise and exposure wise.

He had me busy immediately, wanting me to snap a photo of him standing against a wonderful array of his stock. Within a few minutes, he had posted the image to his Facebook site.

I learned before I left the building the interesting ‘pen’ display case he posed next to holding one of the many ‘boxes’ he specializes in had been sold, due to the instant exposure.

Someone had seen it within the hour and secured it by phone, along with other items on view; sold to his growing legion of Facebook followers. Good on you Peter.

So many dealers resist technological change, some with pride, which doesn’t seem to make good common or commercial sense to me. If dealers want to remain at the cutting edge of the trade, relevant and ‘savvy’ they need to get online. It is how younger people, many of whom are cashed up and wanting to collect, communicate.

Perhaps Richard Branson (Founder Virgin) summed it up best when he asked the question last year ‘Why Aren’t More Business Leaders Online? He said “Anyone who thinks new technology isn’t going to keep changing the world has got their head in the sand… embracing social media isn’t just a bit of fun, it is a vital way to communicate, keep your ear to the ground and improve your business”.

With over a billion users each day how anyone in business can continue to ignore this growing market is well beyond me. Sure it has a great many challenges and it’s about a big change, but hey, the very savvy smart Mr Valentine was busy proving it works.

George II English Oak lowboy, c1750 with wonderful patination

Jamie Allpress from Allpress Antiques of Malvern specializes in country style pieces. His delightful small George II English Oak lowboy c1750 was very much to my taste, showing some great ‘grain shrinkage’ on its rectangular top above one shallow and two top drawers. Just the sort of occasional piece of furniture that can make a modernist or traditional interior ‘sing’.

It had lovely long cabriole legs descending into pad feet, so typical of designs that originated during the reign of England’s Queen Anne (1665-1714).

In the English countryside at the time these designs extended for far greater periods as cabinetmakers copied city styles and continued to make them well into their own old age for a local clientele that embraced change only gradually.

Wouldn’t have minded the little stoneware jug on the top either. Would look so cheery piled high with blue cornflowers.

Antique textiles are not something that attracts a great following in Australia, as we do not have the extensive history of weaving that exists on other continents, in both east and western cultures.

Being an interior designer by trade I love them and have a few antique pieces everyone always comments on when they visit.

Textiles make wonderful wall hangings and provide a valuable record of family history, religious beliefs, historical events, a record of the development of learning and knowledge and an insight to the life and times of the workers who produced them.

Nomadic Rug Traders had a lovely silk embroidered textile from western India dating from 1700. It was originally very finely worked by hand by male embroiderers. It was finished in a simple chain stitch, in a very pleasant palette of colours, natural dyes including indigo and lac, providing the basis for a design that would have appealed to European buyers of the time.

The dyes being natural had ensured that over the years the colours had remained vital and vigorous.

Known as a ’Cambay’ embroidery after the port they were exported from via the East India Company, this splendid textile had a design ‘grotesque’ in origin.

This style of textile was apparently produced for both the Mughal court in India and the western market and as it was rather large, the mind boggled at how long it actually took the workers to complete.

The word ‘grotesque’ does not mean ‘ugly’ as in the modern interpretation of the word, but in fact refers to the design’s historicity.

During the Renaissance period in Italy when rooms were discovered ‘under’ the ground – grottos (small cavern room), at first they did not realise they were above the ground in ancient times. They were often found to have walls covered with painted decoration, so this form of decor appropriately became known as grotesques.

This ornament has a random structure and for that reason alone it can be used in any direction to fill a given space, although most compositions tended to be essentially symmetrical. The discovery of ‘grotesques’ had a profound affect on artists such as Renaissance favourite Raphael, who used them to great effect in his designs for the Villa Madama at Rome in the first two decades of the 16th century. They were carried out following his early death by Giulio Romano and Baldassare Peruzzi, who found them especially useful on larger planes and to adorn the difficult areas of the vaults in the loggia.

Grottos themselves became a popular conceit by the 17th century and for 100 years many were purpose built as follies, and sea shells became associated with their decoration. The shell designs then evolved and were produced in other art mediums including furniture. Four very smart matching hall chairs with great ‘shell’ backs were a special find at Richmond Antiques stall, complete with their charming hand painted detail

Jewellery dealers also abounded, including Martha Good of Goods Antiques from Brisbane and renowned expert Anne Schofield of Anne Schofield Antiques visiting from Sydney.

Anne had a select array of superb 18th and 19th century pieces that most of the women clamouring around her stall would have happily received as a gift I am sure.

Anne has always fielded the finest stock imaginable, and wonderful jewels of great historic interest, including the incredible 15th century Merchant’s ring she had on offer.

Alan Landis was also there from Sydney with cabinets of very fine ceramics, including one cabinet of antique Wedgwood his specialty, including some very fine Jasper pieces.

There was a simply splendid stand of silver from Kevin Murray of Victoria. I had been told recently that there was now a great deal of interest in English silver in particular from eastern cultures, but in talking to Kevin that has not been his personal experience to date. He had simply marvelous pieces, a chocolate pot in particular that I would have enjoyed my favourite beverage from on a regular basis.

There are a growing number of dealers now dealing only by appointment and so fairs such as this one are exceedingly helpful; the only way now that they can display any stock that they hold to garner new clients.

Such is the case for guest exhibitor Online Antiques, who were there with a large display of retro pieces that were attracting a great deal of interest as it was very different from what many of the furniture dealers were displaying, which was mainly English with some very stylish European pieces.

Large overheads caused by huge rents in recent years have caused dealers to explore new ways of doing business as consultants to collectors.

Shops in Queen Street Woollahra at Sydney or in the High Street of Armadale at Melbourne, which both used to be packed with dealers for the best part of the last century have all closed.

They were more or less all forced to leave as the fashionable label market moved in during the late 90’s and retail rents rose to alarming levels.

Congregating together in the past in one place for the antique and art dealers had been to their advantage and a great strength. Now spread all over the place they have become isolated in many ways, from each other and the public who has to go a lot farther afield to find them.

When I was a young mother busy collecting antiques I could make a day of visiting all the dealers, who had collected together in a few spots in Sydney and Melbourne and this made it all feasible in a busy day.

It is good to see them keeping the fairs going despite the hardships, because in the future that will be the best way of marketing their wares to the public, or otherwise together in great and wonderful warehouse spaces.

What is the future of antiques? It’s certainly complicated.

On one hand you have the BBC One Antiques Roadshow on TV being one of the largest rating shows in the world, as people clamour to know if things they own are going to fetch a fortune. Then, on the other hand, you have a large lack of knowledge as generational change causes a considerable loss of memory that will need to be regained by the current generation.

That could take a great deal of time if dealers and those involved in the industry don’t pass on the enormous amount of knowledge they have accumulated in a palatable and accessible way.

Does that have to be a problem, well no is the answer.

‘Just as a palate can be educated to appreciate fine wine so too can both the eye and the ear be educated to distinguish the rare from the ordinary, the exquisite from the mundane’*.

When we give ourselves up to any course of study we can feel elated or uplifted by it or, just as easily respond in a negative way. How we respond depends on our knowledge or, how our imagination is stimulated visually.

There is still plenty of books out there to read, many of them accessible for free in local libraries.

The only way I learned about antiques was to read about them, to view them, to touch them and to handle them, especially things like glass and ceramics. Then I became a dealer for just on five years at Brisbane and also lectured on the subject with colleagues for thirteen years.

I undertook many courses of study and attended countless lectures for years and years before that happened. It’s certainly not an ‘instant’ journey, but a lifelong interest.

You need to crawl under furniture and learn how it was constructed in each age to begin to understand all about it, although that’s only one aspect of what a dealer has to learn.

Going to auction viewings and then attending auction sales (without bidding), just like learning about real estate, will help you to get a handle on market values.

The timbers, the patina, the condition, the provenance, there’s a great deal to consider’

Dealers run workshops throughout the year in every state.

Please contact the AA&ADA directly, or any of their dealers singularly, for their program.

The Culture Concept Circle have produced an Introduction to Antiques 2013 for you to download FREE

It helps for you to know what era you are looking at so we are also currently producing a course of videos – EVOLUTION: Art, Design & Style – antiquity to modernity with sumptuous imagery and beautiful music.

Two series of twenty videos each 20 -30 mins long are grouped under the titles Civilised and Classic.

They are available now Online and cover the period from antiquity to the eighteenth century, the age of enlightenment.

The next series Cultured, from the Enlightenment to the age of Empire will be available soon.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

*Pare Keiha, Dean of Te Ara Poutama, Pro-Vice Chancellor M?ori at AUT University.

Watch our Video Introduction




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