Stewart John Antiques

The Phantom works best undercover (cue for much cloak-swirling, moustache-twirling and cackling of hideous laughter) so, its being tiny and my being not the kind that looks as though I buy antiques, even though I occasionally do, I waited before going into Stewart John Antiques until there was a family who was clearly interested in buying something that I could latch onto the back of and thus case the joint unnoticed…

From the outside, it looks tiny – situated on the south side of the covered market, its minute glass frontage is crowded with good-quality, high-priced items of dark wood furniture, golden clocks and crystal chandeliers – I was particularly taken with a pair of early electric candelabras. The family ahead of me was filling up the shop by themselves, so the guy directed them downstairs – somewhere I wouldn’t have noticed had it not been for them disappearing. I, of course, followed, chatting to the poor people as if I knew them.

Downstairs the furniture was less grand – but more practical. The guy told us (well – the family I’d adopted, anyway) that they make furniture to order and that this was merely examples of the kind of thing they do. The family seemed less impressed – and it did look fairly – well – ordinary to me. The quality seemed very good indeed but the designs I have seen time and time again.

The family seemed ready to climb back up the the stairs so I skulked behind them, so I could earwig. The guy told them that they’re a family business who have been going for 50 years. They have a warehouse out in Charlton on an industrial estate that the public can visit, where they keep the bulk of their stock. He told them that he wasn’t the kind that piled ‘em high, flogged ‘em cheap, and he was happy to wait for the right buyer. Fair enough.

The family was making moves to leave, so I nipped past them, grabbing a flyer with the address of the warehouse on it, and darted outside.

I went to the warehouse the next day, Sunday. The estate was eerily empty and although the map on the flyer was good, I still didn’t immediately find it due to some gates being closed.

Their bit of the warehouse is a couple of flights up. I wandered in to the abandoned room, filled from floor to ceiling with wardrobes, desks, bedsteads and bric-a-brac. Most of them had little labels with the price “restored” – they do their own restoration on the spot and only, it would seem, after you buy something, presumably so that they don’t waste time restoring things that don’t get sold. Dusty chandeliers hung from the ceiling and shelves of house-clearance-y bits and bobs lined the walls.

Those odd, strange items you always find in these places such as shop fittings and outsize theatrical props teetered on top of each other, jostling for position on the floor. It wasn’t all fabulous stuff – some of it would be better labelled ‘second-hand’ rather than ‘antique’ – but the good stuff was certainly worth checking out if you’re after something in particular – especially if you have a large house to furnish – there’s a lot of big stuff in there.

I was just about to leave when the guy in charge of the warehouse arrived – he’d obviously been having his tea break, hardly expecting anyone to actually turn up. A very friendly man, he made me welcome and told me that they make one-off pieces of furniture and, indeed, entire rooms full of items to commission, including upholstery – their upholsterer is well into his 70s and slower than he was but still an extremely fine craftsman. I got the feeling that it wouldn’t be cheap – but it would be good.

It’s not Bonhams. But it’s worth a peek, and though you’re probably not going to find a bargain, you may well discover something rather interesting.

Don’t forget to check the view out of the windows as you leave.

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