Antique Dealers: the British Antique Trade in the 20th Century, a cultural geography

Queen Mary visiting Blairman antiques

Queen Mary visiting H. Blairman & Sons Antiques, London, c.1930. Courtesy of Martin Levy, Blairman & Sons.

The ‘Antique Dealers’ project was the first time that the history of the modern antiques trade has been subject to sustained academic study. This 32 month research project started in September 2013, and was funded (£231,592) by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) one of the leading research funding bodies in the UK. The project was based at the University of Leeds, and was led by Dr Mark Westgarth as Principal Investigator (PI), with Dr Eleanor Quince, University of Southampton, as Co-Investigator (CI) and Elizabeth Jamieson, Research Fellow (RF) University of Leeds. The project sought to map, contextualize and critically analyze the antiques trade as it evolved and developed in Britain in the 20th century.

The project assessed the cultural geography of the trade in antiques in a British context, with consideration of its international dimensions and the relationships to European and North American markets.

Antique dealer invoices.

A selection of Antique Dealer invoices. Private Collection

Using previously unexplored archives, the project investigated the evolving business practices of the trade, placing these practices into social, economic and cultural contexts and mapping these practices against the changing landscape of the broader consumption of antiques. The project assembled a large corpus of quantitative and qualitative data, with the help of crowd-source research, and mapped the changing locations of dealers and the relationships between various segments of the trade. It also aimed to map the trajectories of the antiques that passed through the trade, tracking, where possible, the current locations of those objects in public museums in the UK, Europe and North America. ‘Antique Dealers’ compiled an evolving database and interactive website with potent visualisations of key relationships between dealers, objects, and museums – see the antique dealers interactive map website.

Part of the catalyst for the project was the rapid transformation of the antiques trade over the last few years of the 20th century. The late 20th century was a turbulent time for much of the trade, with many high profile dealers retiring, or significantly modifying their trading practices. As part of the research objectives the project undertook an ethnographic study, interviewing many retired, semi-retired and working dealers. The result of these interviews form an oral history archive.

Blairman Antiques, Grosvenor House Antiques fair 1960s.

Blairman & Son Antiques, stand at Grosvenor Antiques Fair, 1950. Copyright, Blairman & Son Antiques. Courtesy of Martin Levy.

As well as these web-based and oral history archive outputs, the Antique Dealers project held a public Conference focused on the history of the antiques trade, took place on April 14th & 15th 2016 at Temple Newsam House in Leeds.

Project News

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We screened Quinneys at York Picture House, York on Wednesday 24th November 2021 for invited guests, and again at the...

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SOLD! The Great British Antiques Story, staged at The Bowes Museum in January to May 2019 was the first time a public museum has staged an exhibition devoted to the history of the antiques trade. This ‘In Conversation’ event brings together the guest curator, collections manager and exhibitions officer to reflect on and discuss the development and staging of SOLD!, to consider the challenges and opportunities that the SOLD! exhibition presented, and to highlight some of the behind the scenes activities that went into the exhibition.   The discussion between the panel will be followed by a Q&A with the audience. FRIDAY 10th December at 6.00pm - 7.00pm - for tickets please visit The Bowes Museum website - The Bowes Museum > What's On > Events > Event Detail

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Locating the Jewish Art Dealer in London: cultural and spatial geographies This keynote lecture from Dr Mark Westgarth forms part of the Jewish Country Houses’ project workshop: Jewish Dealers and the European Art Market, 1850 – 1930.

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The Furniture History Society have organised a seminar focused on the antique dealer archives, generously donated by leading antique dealers to the Brotherton Library Special Collections at the University of Leeds.  These archives have brought together, for the first time, an extraordinary range of historic business archives of several well-known antique furniture dealers such as Phillips of Hitchin and Ronald A. Lee.  This event, chaired by Dr Mark Westgarth, brings leading dealers Jerome Phillips and Martin Levy in conversation with Joanne Fitton, Head of Special Collections, and Karen Sayers, lead archivist, at the Brotherton Library Special Collections, to explore the riches of these archives.  The event will highlight key items in the archives, some of which date back to the 1880s, as well as outlining their history and how they came to Leeds.  There will also be an opportunity to direct questions to the participants and to hear about plans for the future of these increasingly important resources.

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