I meet Jonathan Pratt FGA FRICS and his senior director, Iain Rushbrook, in one of the viewing rooms at The Red House, Hyde Street in Winchester. The room reminds me of the Cast Room at the V&A or perhaps the Hogwarts ‘Room of Requirement’, overflowing with treasures. While we talk, Iain is unwrapping yet more items.
Memories of the auction houses of my youth are of stuffy (can you really afford to be in here?) rooms filled with items you dare not touch. Thank goodness that times have changed! Whether you’re browsing the beautiful collections on Bellmans’ website, or sitting amongst them, one thing is clear: all the items, from the largest piece of furniture to the smallest ceramic, are treated with reverence. For Jonathan and Iain these are much-loved pieces, with a quality of craftsmanship and history which only experts like them can really know; monetary ‘value’ is almost secondary.
Jonathan came to Bellmans Winchester via a complex route: from Phillips in Edinburgh where he worked as a porter in the mid-90s, to Sotheby’s in Billingshurst in Sussex. He now lives in Petersfield where he loves to walk his dogs along the lanes to The Harrow pub in Steep, near Petersfield.
He became Managing Director of Bellmans in 2005, commuting to the Sussex saleroom, and now spends one day per week valuing and cataloguing jewellery in Winchester. Jonathan specializes in jewellery and makes regular appearances on the BBC’s Antiques Road Trip, Bargain Hunt and Flog It, yet you get the impression that he is most at home surrounded by wonderful antiques in the Bellmans’ salerooms.
Iain and Jonathan seem to be Yin and Yang; while Iain methodically unwraps, inspects and gently places each new article, Jonathan overflows with unique and infectious enthusiasm for much-loved items of the past.
“I simply don’t understand why people would buy new, spending their hard-earned incomes on cheap, poorly made furniture that won’t last!” He gesticulates around the room. “Yes, of course some antiques can be expensive, and people buy them as collectors’ pieces or as an investment. But if you want reasonable, very well-made furniture in an array of beautiful woods, you don’t have to spend a fortune. One could easily furnish a small terraced house for a thousand pounds. The furniture you choose says something about you as an individual – your sense of design and style. These pieces around us here have a history; they were much loved and are just waiting to be again! Sir David Attenborough has said we should all be recycling to ensure our future, that’s what we do here; we up-cycle.”
Jonathan points to a stunning rectangular mirror, with a fretwork frame: “I’ve got my eye on that, it’s exactly what I need for my bathroom. It will probably fetch £40 – 60. It’s George II. Where could you find that quality for that price on the high street?”
Iain feels likewise: “I have a stunning bureau in my hall at home and every time I walk by it I have to stand and admire, it gives me such pleasure.”
Jonathan is acutely aware of the heritage of his profession.
“Prior to the millennium many of our market towns and smaller cities would have had antique shops and an auction room from whom people were happy to buy. But the rise in consumption of new furniture meant that many antique businesses closed. Everyone wanted to go modern, it seemed. Now we are beginning to see the upturn in buying good quality and pre-loved items; in an age of recycling they are very much in vogue. There is a danger, however, that anyone can call themselves an ‘auctioneer’ without even being qualified. Here at Bellmans we pride ourselves on working with the very best specialist valuers and auctioneers, offering the utmost in professionalism.”
“There are a multitude of reasons why people want to sell items, not least because of bereavement, so it is crucial that people can trust those that come to do valuation and house clearances. We are in such a privileged position that our customers trust us completely, that is so very important to us.”
Jonathan glances down to the mirror again, “I really do want that, it’s perfect!”
Is there a dream find for Jonathan?
He laughs, “Yes a blue diamond! But that’s highly unlikely!”