Nick Fulford is managing director of Cancan Communications
Nick Fulford ambles through Europe's largest indoor antiques market in search of his lifelong calling
Possibly, like me, you have occasionally fancied yourself as an antiques dealer. You may have shared my own personal fantasy of pottering around the countryside in a classic car spotting bargains at far-flung house clearances and antique auctions across the land. Choosing your own hours, wearing what the hell you want, your expert knowledge and cunning eye would allow you to spot the deal that a posh chinless wonder back in London would pay a fortune for. Sounds fun, eh? A cross between Lovejoy and that orange-looking antiques bloke David Dickinson. Yet the reality is somewhat different. A world of hard work, hard bargains and hard money, as I discovered on my first trip to Alfies Antiques Market.
Many Marylebone residents don't realise that Europe's largest indoor antiques market is located on their doorstep. Contained within an art-deco exterior on Church Street, Alfies' five floors contain over 75 dealers specialising in everything from Victorian thimbles to oh-so-sexy 1960s Italian designer furniture. Alfies has been going for over 25 years and in that time has built up a strong following amongst 'those in the know' and a celebrity crowd that includes Kate Moss, Hugh Grant and Brad Pitt. Converted from an original department store called Jordons, Alfies was the first market of its kind to bring together so many antiques dealers, literally under one roof. Surely this would be the perfect place to research a downsizing life-change to antiques dealing.
As you enter and begin to wander the myriad of interconnecting corridors, stairs and floors that make up Alfies, it's easy to get lost. Whilst heading for the vintage film poster section you can regularly find yourself deposited at the end of a corridor inhabited by silver antique watch dealers. One noticeable feature of Alfies is the lack of the high street crush.
Many of the dealers can quite happily survive on just one sale a day (or in some cases a week). As a novice wandering the floors it appeared to me that many of the dealers spend their days drinking endless mugs of tea, filling in crosswords, gossiping with their neighbouring dealers and listening to 'You and Yours' on Radio 4. However, the bubble burst as I met my first dealer.
Tony Durante has been selling accessories, jewellery and 20th century collectables for over 30 years and has known no other job. Tony, who originally came over from Italy to the UK to be a student, entered the antiques world by buying and selling second-hand clothes and bargain hunting at jumble sales. From humble beginnings he has built up a clientele that includes Joan Collins and Michael Caine.
He doesn't recommend new recruits following his original route into the industry. "Its completely different nowadays. The new generation of antique dealers have a much harder life due to the enormous amounts of competition. Unless you can find a new type of product that people want then it's difficult to make a good living. A lot of people get into antique dealing, but quickly get out, mainly because they don't like the early mornings."
Hang on a minute. This doesn't sound like Lovejoy! Tony observed me pitifully. "Don't believe what you see on TV about being an antiques dealer – it's only entertainment and never reality. However, if you do have a good eye, money and motivation then it's a job that's easy to fall in love with. Just don't get hooked on buying antiques yourself or you're screwed!"
The antiques business may be starting to sound a little tougher than I had originally thought. Maybe my next Alfies dealer might be a bit more optimistic about my chances...
Manley J Black arrived in the UK in 1965 and, as a Jamaican endured racism and hostility as he built his career in antiques. "I was told by some antiques firms that they wouldn't work with Negroes! I would take them to the cleaners today, but the 1960s was another time." Now Manley owns a stall selling beautiful and striking Victorian and decorative objectives. The eccentricity of his stall reflects his own personality. He is the sort of avant-garde individual that you'd like to work with. But could Manley help me to break into antiques?
"Don't get into antiques for money, but for the love of antiques. If you love it and become good then the money will follow. If I were starting today, I would try to work in someone's shop or stall in order to learn the trade. I would try dealing in 1920s, 30s and 40s antiques as a good starting point.
"There are more people coming into antiques all the time but they usually get their fingers burned and don't last long. But if you can stick it out then it's a fabulous career. I love being my own boss and having my own hours. But mostly I just love the antiques."
My last potential mentor is an Italian who made the switch from human rights journalism in Mexico to antiques dealing. Here was someone who had proved it was possible to make a real career change.
Monica Glerean sells 1950s, 60s and 70s designer Italian furniture. Her numerous successful stalls on the ground floor cater for the boom in urbanites wanting the fashionable 'Austin Powers' look. So how did she go about making the difficult transition?
"I fell in love with an antiques dealer! Luckily I had always loved art and antiques so not only did I fall in love with him but also his profession. He taught me how to become a dealer, but I had the enthusiasm and passion for more modern antiques. We started with one stand and we have now expanded to about 30 stands selling modern furniture, painting and sculpture.
"If you're starting out then you obviously need to find antiques to sell. But it's difficult, you need to get up really early in the morning and visit all the markets you can. Car boot sales don't really have the bargains any more. It's the smaller shops and markets where good deals can still be found. Contacts are everything. Just visiting a few markets isn't enough. We have a network of people in the UK and Italy who are looking for us and will send us pictures of items we may be interested in. It's a circle of buying and selling that never stops. My husband and I split the selling and the buying so we can cover more ground."
As I left Alfies, I considered my options. Lacking money, knowledge, an expert eye, antiques experience, a network of celebrity clients or the passion that seems to be a prerequisite to success, I may not be cut out to be an antiques dealer. I think I may leave it to the professionals and stick to being an antique buyer and lover instead. But, meeting the dealers has led to a new found respect and admiration for the antiques profession. So next time a Lovejoy repeat comes on UK Gold, I shall scoff knowingly at its lack of realism, switch off the TV and go shopping at Alfies instead.
Unless of course I fall in love with an antiques dealer, in which case my wife may have one or two words to say about it.