When Marc Allum talks about a 50p car-boot sale bargain that brought £1,500 at a Sotheby’s auction, it sounds like a typical Antiques Roadshow fairytale.
But this one describes how one of the BBC show’s experts on all-things miscellaneous, made one of his first ventures into the trade that has seen him become a regular on-screen valuer since 1998.
The 16-year-old Allum was already ‘a mad collector’ of things like fossils and old bottles for many years.
But his early-1980s unearthing of the valuable lot at a car-boot sale was, perhaps, a sign he had the sixth sense that is sometimes as essential as years of experience and training in the world of antiques and collectibles.
In this case, it was an art deco car mascot that he spotted — numbered and signed by an Italian designer — one of a couple of “quite good buying experiences” in his teens.
“It didn’t take long for me to find out exactly what it was. If you go back 30 or 35 years when boot fairs were in their infancy, these things were genuinely happening a lot, people weren’t quite as wise,” he recalls.
It is the kind of story that viewers of the Antiques Roadshow regularly hear recounted to Allum and fellow presenters; although, more often the car-boot and charity shop finds took the show’s visitors’ fancy more for their decorative appeal than the lure of a profit.
In Marc’s case, 35 years on from picking up the Alfredo Biagini owl, a good eye for the valuable still helps him to make his living.
After the sometimes-bass guitarist flirted with a career in sound engineering, he took the advice of his wife Lisa Lloyd and followed his heart into the antiques trade.
“She kind of got the measure of me, so I started doing a bit more market stall trading in Covent Garden and Camden Lock.At the time, those were the great historic markets in London for dealing antiques and I loved it,” explains Marc.
It was through that early foray into trading that he developed his taste for the quirky and the unusual, which sees him valuing and explaining the back-stories of items that do not fall naturally to some of his fellow-experts, on subjects like painting, ceramics, militaria or jewellery.
And with that open agenda, he gets to tell visitors to the Antiques Roadshow— and its TV audience which regularly tops six million in Britain and Ireland — about some of the most unique items.
Or, very often, about objects whose owners have taken them for granted: like an early 20th-century Louis Vuitton trunk left by an owner’s ex-boyfriend in her flat, which Allum valued last year as worth over £2,000.
From his many visits to some of Britain’s finest period homes, he will probably feel quite at ease talking about his latest book at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry House, on Tuesday, July 14.
In Allum’s Antiques Almanac 2015, he outlines some of the quirkier and pricier items that have gone under the hammer over the past year, as well as recounting some of those valuation experiences and anecdotes from his 17 years of auctioneering and his time on the ever-popular BBC programme.
It’s a publication he plans to produce annually, not unwarranted in an age where global downturns in many markets have failed to put the brakes on top sales in the high-end art world. He points to the Picasso painting that sold in New York for a record $179m (€158m), including auction fees.
“Every time I write one of my books, I think ‘God, is this record going to be broken?’ And sure enough, the next year it is,” he says.
His TV role often includes scouting larger items pitched by viewers to decide which are worth transporting to the lawns of whichever magnificent period home or castle is playing host next.
“You have to get the things to the show without telling them anything about them. We play a bit of a game with them sometimes.” He might see something really nice in the same room as a piece of furniture the owner asked to be appraised.
“So I might say to them, ‘I’m going to take the sideboard, and that clock will look lovely on the day, could we borrow that?’ And then you hit them between the eyes with the clock, not the sideboard.
“It’s all about spontanaeity and preserving that moment as much as you can, it’s quite a skilful game,”he says.
For each item that makes it into an hour-long episode, hundreds never make it beyond the valuation tables, but Marc loves seeing the cross-section of material that he regularly views, “everything from tribal art to glass, to modern design”.
“One of the joys is that, whatever it’s worth, I always have something to tell that person. So if they gave me a little bit of 19th century German porcelain worth just a few pounds, I’d be able to tell them where it came from, why it was made and give them enough information to go away smiling.”
Marc readily admits he has never specialised in collecting any particular type of object, and says his varied tastes and interests are reflected in his Wiltshire home.
“You could look around and see antiquities, 18th century English ceramics, portraits, and very odd things too. I have a passion for things connected to mortality,” he says, rather matter-of-factly.
“I like the house to be full of all kinds of religious objects and all sorts of religions.
"I’m not a religious person per se, but I like those kind of things — Indian bronzes, and gods and godesses,” says the 51-year-old. One such item, detailed in his book is his plaster cast death mask of Napoleon.
Marc also lays claim in his almanac to having appraised what was, for a time at least, the highest-value object sold after featuring on the Antiques Roadshow.
The 1932 Leica II Luxus camera with gilded body in a crocodile-skin case, is one of only four ever made. Valued by him in 2001 at over €6,000, it sold in Hong Kong in November 2013 for the equivalent of €460,000.
Marc is reluctant to even attempt a prediction of the next big thing in his trade, saying nobody could have guessed a little over a decade ago, how much the market for Chinese antiques would explode like it has.
His only words for those interested in investment is that there will always be demand for good jewellery, top-end furniture and the best quality in any market; but that functional and affordable items remain a good way to go too.
“I keep saying to people to buy brown furniture, kit out your house with it. You can put it into modern interiors too, it’s great value. You might not become rich, but you’re never going to lose any money on it,” he advises.
Of course, there will always be people who make unwise investments, like two men who brought along a 1936 Leica Olympic camera to the Antiques Roadshow.
Easily worth £30,000 or £40,000, he says, these cameras are also very often faked, so he had to explain that the supposed treasure for which they had paid just £400 was not the real thing.
“They really came pretty hyped up, thinking this was going to be the one. And when I broke the news to them in the most diplomatic way I could, they swore very very heavily.
“That one made the cut, after they edited out the swearing,” he laughs.
* Coffee and Chat with Marc Allum at Bantry House Tea Room, Tuesday morning, July 14. Booking and information: www.westcorkliteraryfestival.ie LoCall 1850 788 789
Allum’s Antiques Almanac 2015 is published by Icon Books.
I keep saying to people to buy brown furniture, kit out your house with it. You can put it into modern interiors too, it’s great value.
You might not become rich, but you’re never going to lose any money on it