It was a Saturday afternoon in August and a young naval officer was standing outside John Tooke’s antique shop in Southwold, Suffolk, with him were his fiancée and her parents. Having mocked most of the stock that could be seen to the considerable amusement of his audience, he finally opened the door and said to John, “Do you mind if I come in and smell?”
Quick as a flash John came back with “Not at all sir, I’m sure you can’t help it”.
I used to help John in all of my school holidays and so began a journey through the art world that was to last for nearly 60 years.
It must have been the next summer when a lady who knew John well, came in into the shop with a carrier bag out of which she produced a black metallic plate of about 15 inches diameter. On it was 1 pound marked in chalk.
“John I just want to confirm that this is what I think it is, I think it’s a Charles II silver salver”
“You’re quite right,” said John, “how did you get it?”
“Oh it’s down the Scout Hall in a jumble sale and I will take it back and get it for 10 shillings at the end of the sale”.
So she duly took it back, risking someone else spotting it, bought it for 10 shillings and sold it in Sotheby’s for £1600, quite a considerable sum in 1957.
It was at about that time the next year that John took me on a trip to Lowestoft to do a house clearance on an old dentist surgery, when we got there anything of any real value had been removed and we were left with the junk. Under a bed I saw an old suitcase and when I opened it I nearly gagged and pushed it back under the bed.
“What was that,” said John.
“Nothing but old false teeth,” I replied.
“Into the van with that, that’s the only thing worth having,” responded John.
We spent the next three days armed with two pairs of pliers apiece pulling the teeth out. For what I didn’t know and John did, was that Victorian false teeth were fixed on platinum wire and we got £400 scrap value, not bad in 1958, for a few hours’ work.
They were sun filled, fun filled days. We had a large old barn just off the high Street which was used as storage, in particular for the stock that I used to put out in the market square on a Saturday. Such delightful items as 36 white chamber pots from a defunct hotel and a huge collection of Goss China, those horrid little lighthouses with the emblem of the town and ‘A present from the Needles, Isle of Wight’ printed on them. All these were, in those days virtually unsaleable, although now, I believe quite collectable. John put me in charge of the marketplace and one day an American couple strolled up and in the course of conversation I mentioned that John had bought a horse drawn fire engine and a brougham and they were in the barn. Suffice to say they were bought and it was later reported back to us that on the journey down to Southampton on a low loader for shipment to the USA the lorry had been flagged down no less than six times by people trying to buy them. The chamber pots incidentally sold out within six weeks. There was a wedding the following week and I persuaded the best man that a pair of white ‘goes-unders’ are just the thing to attach to the wedding car, soon every wedding car had to have them.
Thus it was that when walking down Bond Street with my father a couple of years later when we passed Sotheby’s I said I wanted to go in and have a look around. We sat through a porcelain sale and at the end I said to Dad that this is what I wanted to do. He managed to get me an interview with one of the directors, Richard Timewell, who was the furniture director. He wanted to know what I thought I could do for Sotheby’s. I said I could be a porter. Mr. Timewell said that the porters were professional porters not young men like me. To which I replied that when there was a vacancy in one of the departments, as I would already be working at Sotheby’s, I might be considered for the post. Three months later, just before Christmas, I was given the job offer as a porter. So I telephoned school and informed them that I would not be coming back next term. The headmaster said that I was mad, leaving halfway through my A-levels and then I was supposed to go on to Cambridge. To which I replied that another year at school and three years at Cambridge would give me the qualifications to be a porter at Sotheby’s, so I might as well do it now and save four years.