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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 93 - A rare treasure in an island awash with antiques

SOMETIMES, as I rummage through the archaeological layers of my attic, I sense lost opportunities to make a small fortune. Could that neatly-constructed object that I discarded after using it as a DIY hammer, have been a clockwork-adjusting, jewelled, pocket sundial by Fabergé with opal-rimmed eyepiece through which Daguerreotypes were glimpsed of Rasputin blessing the Russian royal family and lecturing on morality to gypsy women?

Was there a high value in that clock, given to a temperance organisation jumble sale, that may have been an English, William III timepiece, perhaps constructed by Thomas Tompion, in which the hands ran backwards with a sepulchral tick and a nasty emphasis on the tock?

Should I have dustbin-tossed my grandfather’s meerschaum pipe, with its tiny, intricate carvings depicting the working classes displaying deference to their betters and the operation of a Victorian charity soup kitchen inside a workhouse?

Such searing thoughts assail me as I watch the Antiques Road Show, in which purse-string pilgrims bring examples of Britain’s rich artistic and craftsmanship heritage for assessment by experts who, I suspect, deliberately torment owners with long-winded information, even though they sense the unspoken and impatient question: "How much?"

To judge from the road show and others like Bargain Hunt, Britain is an island awash with antiques in which enthusiasts splash out to swell their collections or focus on the main chance of a resale profit. All seems well in the excitingly-varied world of long-case, Alexandrian water clocks, Etruscan, rosewood, dining chairs, Viking cake stands, and Ming Dynasty menu holders.

The reality may be different. A survey by LAPADA, Britain’s largest association of dealers, revealed that 55 per cent of its membership suffered a turnover decrease in 2003. The decline is attributed to a dearth of American customers after 9/11 and young people being more interested in minimalism when furnishing their houses and lacking the collecting and connoisseurship passion of their parents.

While sales of inanimate objects may be dropping, I am pleased to report an increased interest in human antiques, an often undervalued group. Recently, I attended the annual Golden Wrinklies Show at the Mechanics’ Hall, Grimness, where a hand-shaking, heart-warming, affliction-information-exchanging, good time was had by all among the hiss of ephedrine inhalers, whistling of deaf-aids, emergency loo queues, drip-feed entanglements, portable oxygen tents and the throb of motorised Zimmers.

On exhibit were this year’s top ancients shuffling briskly down the catwalk, some as old as Aesop’s aunt but, despite needing some restoration and judicious applications of anti-aging moisturisers, all were highly-collectable and ready for use as typical examples of a generation that once maintained a long-vanished, character-different Britain and who could still be employed as listed and, in some cases, listing, mobile ancient monuments by tourist towns, appreciative of their human heritage.

Highly popular among enthusiasts with a bent for bemedalled military relics, were old sweats who had served in imperial hot spots. With their traditional ramrod-straight carriage, their sloping Lee Enfield arms and machine-gun, bipod-type legs, they could still change step on the march when not in their half-track, air-cooled, bath-chairs.

Also on display was a genuine old-time teacher, complete with immaculate provenance, leather-elbowed sports jacket and flannels and wielding, with the accuracy of a chameleon’s tongue, a 1930s Lochgelly belt who aroused much interest among American punters although an export licence could be denied.

A genuine, ex-trade union leader (circa 1975) still able to move motions and suspension of standing orders, attracted interest for custodian duties in union museum circles but a neatly-suited politician of proven integrity, not so much an antique as an almost extinct species, failed to convince the smart money about future use.

Lastly, as the show catalogue reveals, there is the Albert Morris exhibit: "A rare, late George V creation of a standard citizen (the mould unfortunately broken). Observe the finely-tapered legs, the well-upholstered seat, slight bay window, well-fitting drawers, tungsten-laminated spectacles’ frame and gale-resistant cloth cap. While the patina lacks vitality and joints occasionally creak, the Morris, if fitted with castors and laid down sideways, will continue to mature and could be used as a site of special scientific interest."

How much? A small fortune, but beyond the price of rubies. I call it a bargain.

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