In January of 2010 Tony Johnson, a retired solicitor, was clearing out the attic of his aunt and uncle who had recently passed away. Among the piles of possessions he was sorting through, he noticed a number of antique artefacts, brought back from his uncle's travels in the Far East. 

Not knowing what any of the pieces were, or what they were worth, Johnson enlisted the help of a small local auction house. When the valuer, Luan Grocholski, was handed one of the pieces, he could not quite believe what he saw. 

It was an 18th Century Chinese vase produced for the court of the Qianlong Emperor himself. Johnson consigned the piece to auction, where it sold to a Chinese buyer for a staggering £43 million.

The well-known story of the Qianlong vase was widely covered in the media at the time - it is, after all, the ultimate treasure-in-the-attic story. But perhaps the story illustrates something deeper about London's relationship with antiques. 

Many of the most important and beautiful pieces ever created, like the Qianlong vase, have spent time in London at some point. But why is this the case and what is it about London that sets it apart in the field of art and antiques? 

This blog will uncover the secrets of London's past and chart its evolution to that of global leader in the fields of art and antiques. 

The Renaissance, collecting and cabinets of curiosities

London is over 2000 years old and has a rich history: perhaps it's unsurprising, then, that many great treasures have been created and brought to this great city. But there have been certain moments in history which have contributed more than others to the flow of antiques into London, and to establishing London's position as the antiques capital of the world. 

The first important moment in the development of London's antiques market was the period known as the Renaissance, between roughly the 14th and 17th Centuries, when a new fashion for collecting decorative pieces emerged. 

The desire for learning during the Renaissance saw a new fashion emerge among London’s upper classes for collecting decorative, anthropological and scientific objects.

These objects would be displayed in rooms known as ‘cabinets of curiosities’, and were evidence of a new desire among London’s elite to collect for meaningful, well-crafted and beautiful objects.

chamber of art and curiosities by frans francken the younger 1636

A 17th Century Cabinet of Curiosity: Chamber of Art and Curiosities (1636) by Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642)

Collectors in London were among the most important globally: the late 17th century naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, after whom Sloane Square in Chelsea is named, collected over 71,000 objects from trips to Jamaica and Japan which he then left to establish the British Museum.

Renaissance collectors would have a major impact on the development of London's antiques market, in several ways.

The objects that they collected would help to build the museums, galleries and other parts of London's world-class antiques market infrastructure.

They increased the flow of goods into London, including some of the most important historical treasures ever to have been produced.

And, they kickstarted a new fashion for collecting beautiful objects.

The Grand Tour and the movement of goods to London

It was with this spirit of hunger for beautiful objects and thirst for knowledge, which had begun in the Renaissance, that London's Grand Tourists set out to Europe in the 18th Century.

The Grand Tour was a long trip around Europe, normally undertaken by the sons of aristocratic families, in the hope of learning about the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. Interest in these civilisations reached its peak in the 18th Century, as a number of archaeological excavations and new discoveries were made in this period.

This desire for learning about ancient Greece and Rome was known as Neoclassicism and it had important effects on the art and architecture of the 18th Century in Europe.

Importantly, the Grand Tourists also set out with the intention of bringing back souvenirs. Indeed, the modern idea of a 'souvenir' was born in this period.

A few of these souvenirs were genuine ‘antiquities’, classical relics collected in Italy or Greece, while others were contemporary objects and artworks made in the classical style.

englander in der campagna by carl spitzweg 1845 Grand Tour

A 19th Century painting showing Londoners on the Grand Tour.  Engländer in der Campagna (c.1845) by Carl Spitzweg

The popularity of the Grand Tour would ensure a significant increase in the flow of artefacts into London, which would provide the basis for the growth of London’s antiques market, and cement London's position as a global centre for important luxury pieces in the coming centuries.

The origins of the antiques market in London

In the 18th Century London's aristocrats were accustomed to descending upon the city for the regular sittings of Parliament, which meant that London gradually became an important centre of elite sociability, learning, fashion, and art.

Many of the Georgian terraced houses built in the 18th Century, for which London is famous, were quickly filled with art and antiques collected on the Grand Tour.

Additionally, London’s upper classes commissioned famous designers from all over Europe to design decorative items for their houses, items which would later be collected as fine antiques. The 18th Century was indeed the ‘Age of Decoration’.

The Neoclassical architect Robert Adam, for example, used statues collected in Europe in his interior designs for many of these new houses, including that of Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square in Mayfair, the then-residence of William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne.

Likewise, the famous Spencer House in London was first decorated in the 1780s by the architect Henry Holland, using Neoclassical marble columns and large mahogany doors. Holland also redesigned nearby Carlton House in the same period. 

throne room and carlton house, london by henry holland

The Throne Room at Carlton House, London, designed by architect Henry Holland

And of course, some of Britain's finest artists and makers, such as Thomas Chippendale, were operating in London in the 18th Century.

The demand for fine decorative items among the upper classes of London society was therefore expanding. London's collectors started to find that they no longer had to go abroad to find the best pieces, and that they could buy and sell within London itself.

It was perhaps no surprise that it was during the 18th Century that several enterprising individuals set up businesses buying and selling art and antiques to meet this growing demand. These businesses grew, over the centuries, to be important London antiques institutions, and several are still operating today.

One of these was the firm Spink, which started life in the 17th Century as a goldsmith and pawnbroker based in Ladbroke Street, London. Today it is a dealer in collectibles, especially coins and stamps.

Another important London antiques institution was the auction house Christie’s. Founded by James Christie in Pall Mall in the later eighteenth century, one of the house’s very first dealings was the negotiation of the sale of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole’s art collection to Catherine the Great of Russia.

Similarly, Sotheby’s was established in the 18th Century, though known as Baker and Leigh at the time.

christies auction room 1808

A depiction of an auction room at Christie's in 1808

The auction houses were important suppliers of antiques to the market throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, but their growth owed in no small part to a huge increase in demand for antiques which took place in the 19th Century.

The rise of the antiques consumer in the 19th Century

The Renaissance, Grand Tour and 18th Century development of London's antiques markets were mere precursors to the real boom in antiques buying which took place in the 19th Century.

While the previous centuries had established London as an important centre for luxury goods, it was the 19th Century which saw increasing numbers of people able to afford them.

The Industrial Revolution changed Britain forever. The middle classes of British society began increasingly to find themselves with greater disposable incomes and more leisure time, which they spent by furnishing their new homes – in London and elsewhere – with luxury antiques.

Four important and interconnected social changes, connected with the Industrial Revolution, helped to fuel demand for antiques in the 19th Century.

The growth of middle class aspiration and luxury

On one level antiques buying was purely a result of growing affluence, a consequence of higher incomes, bigger houses with more space to fill, and a desire to show off one’s newfound wealth.

Yet on a deeper level, London’s had always been an aspirational culture, and antique buying was evidence of an enthusiastic aping of aristocratic fashions among those who suddenly found they could afford to buy what had previously only been available to the upper classes.

Mass production and the desire for craftsmanship

The 19th Century was the era of mass production, of goods made at low cost by machines in large factories. This was a concerning development to many contemporary observers, but to many others, who looked forward to an era of technological improvement and greater comfort to all, it was something to be celebrated.

Old, handcrafted, luxury antiques became popular in this period in some senses out of a deeply nostalgic yearning for the simplicity, craftsmanship and beauty of the past in comparison to the productive uniformity of the industrial era.

But in other ways, handcrafted antiques were popular precisely because they complemented new mass-produced goods. Consumers bought factory-made items as well as luxury antique ones, not necessarily seeing that there was any contradiction between them. The old complemented the new, just as the new bolstered the appeal of the old.

Democratisation and the rise of mass national identity

Antiques buying in the 19th Century was also tied up with democratisation. As more sections of society were given the ability to vote throughout the 19th Century, a new, more democratic feeling that art should be open to the public began to spread. London positioned itself as a leader in public art and design, hosting the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace built in Hyde Park, which aimed to showcase the best in British design and technology.

crystal palace london great exhibition

The Crystal Palace, the site of London's Great Exhibition, viewed from the north-east in 1852

London’s Great Exhibition demonstrated that a new materialist spirit had taken root in British culture, a feeling that the modern citizen could be defined by the things he or she made and owned, a feeling that good quality design and craftsmanship was important.

It also demonstrated that buying antiques was tied up with celebrating Britishness: consumers were sold, through the antiques they bought, a powerful sense of place and identity.

Expertise, refinement and materialism

Displaying antiques in one’s home was also a chance to demonstrate one’s own expertise.

For middle class consumers – especially men – collecting antiques was an opportunity to demonstrate to their neighbours, friends and family sophisticated knowledge about the techniques and materials needed to make luxury pieces. It was the same spirit of collecting which had infected the Grand Tourists before them, and the Renaissance collectors before them.

The reasons behind the growth in demand for antiques in the 19th Century were therefore complicated and varied. One thing that was certain was that demand did grow, and rapidly. It was therefore not surprising that new sellers would emerge to meet this demand.

The retail boom and the expansion of London’s antiques market in the later 19th Century

London in the late 19th Century had become a self-fulfilling market. Where previously Londoners had had to travel – to Europe or the colonies – to find antiques to furnish their homes, buyers from all over the world suddenly found themselves travelling to London in search of the finest pieces.

The result of centuries of antiques flowing into London was its newfound reputation for housing some of the finest pieces in existence and buyers could increasingly find these pieces in London’s rapidly expanding retail sector.

Additionally, even more antiques arrived in London as a result of the expansion of the British Empire throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries. Antiques made from precious and rare materials from all over the world flooded into London’s markets.

London: the shopping capital of the world

Shopping was perhaps London’s greatest contribution to the nineteenth century. By the turn of the 20th Century, London had established itself as the shopping capital of the world.

Department stores such as Harrod’s in Knightsbridge and Selfridge’s on Oxford Street, the great ‘cathedrals of commerce’ were born in this era. By the beginning of the 20th century, both stores had started selling antiques, hoping to capitalise on the growing market for antiques as luxury goods. 

The beginnings of bric a brac and the establishment of London’s antiques markets

At the same time that the sale of antiques as luxury commodities flourished, a new demand for more basic antique objects at more reasonable prices started to take hold. Once again, this new development – the beginnings of flea markets and bric a brac – spoke once more to the democratisation of the possibility of owning goods which were invested with a cultural and emotional significance, even if these were not 'luxury' antiques.

In 1855 Prince Albert opened the Metropolitan Cattle Market, situated off the Caledonian Road in Islington. Over the next decades the Caledonian Market would become one of the most important street markets for antique goods, before moving south to Bermondsey during the Second World War.

caledonian road market in 1855

A contemporary etching of the original Caledonian market, opened in 1855

Bermondsey market today still operates in London. It gained notoriety in the early 1990s for its connection to the theft of priceless works by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds from Lincoln’s Inn and their subsequent sale at Bermondsey market for less than £100 each. Incredibly, not one trader was prosecuted, due to an obscure medieval law known as ‘marché ouvert’ which made legal the sale of stolen goods during daylight hours. It was as a direct result of this theft that the law was changed.

Like Bermondsey, Portobello Road market in Notting Hill has grown to become another of London’s famous antiques markets. The exact date it opened is unknown, but like many other London markets – including Camden Passage and Pimlico Road – it developed from selling food and necessities in the 19th Century to selling bric a brac and antiques by the second half of the 20th Century.

London’s antiques market in the 20th Century

The first half of the 20th Century was dominated by two world wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The antiques market therefore underwent a period of transition in these decades, as Britain itself began to transform from a ‘consuming’ society in the early 20th Century, to a full-blown ‘consumer’ society by the end of the century.

Nevertheless, some important developments did take place in the period between 1900 and 1945 which contributed to the development of the antiques trade in London.

One of these was the beginnings of the flight of the middle classes away from city centres and towards the new suburbs, where their homes were larger and more spacious – and so had more room for antiques.

Another development was the continued improvement in communication and transport technologies, including steamships, air travel and telecommunication, all of which allowed for easier and faster movement of not only goods but people, thereby enabling London to start attracting increasing numbers of international buyers.

The globalisation of London’s antiques market

Increased movement of goods and people in the first half of the century owed, in no small part, to the continued strength of the European empires, which functioned as ready-made global markets. The wave of globalisation in the second half of the century, however, allowed for an even greater flow of antiques across the globe.

So when the antiques market grew very rapidly in the 1970s, it was by this time a truly global market. The commercialisation of air travel and its low costs had opened London up to new buyers from developed countries all over the world. Fuelled by these new international buyers, it was the London institutions which operated at the forefront of the global market.

As the popular global appetite for antiques increased in the 1970s, the decade saw new galleries open and progressively more antiques dealers begin trading all over the capital, in particular London’s West End.

Indeed, several London streets have become famous for being the home of a high number of antiques shops. These include Mount Street in Mayfair, Kings Road between Chelsea and Fulham, and Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill.

Alongside the proliferation of antiques galleries in London, antiques fairs, temporary exhibitions in which dealers could display their finest wares, became important fixtures in the antiques calendar.

Fairs such as Olympia in Earl’s Court and Grosvenor House in Mayfair maintained a strong presence in London throughout the 1980s and 1990s and attracted buyers from around the globe.

kensington olympia london

Olympia Exhibition Centre in West London, the site of Olympia Art & Antiques Fair, viewed from the outside. © Kenneth Allen via Wikimedia Commons

Antiques in the 21st Century

The opening up of London’s antiques market to a global audience in the later 20th Century meant that London’s antiques dealers in the 21st Century increasingly looked further afield for new markets in response to changing demands.

International buyers were now the main customers for London’s antiques. While the Grosvenor House Antiques fair opened for the last time in 2009, new fairs such as Masterpiece in Mayfair, founded in 2010, and Frieze London in Regent’s Park formed in order to attract consumers of art and antiques from all over the world.

The success of even more specialised London art and antiques events such as Asian Art in London Russian Art Week, Mayfair Art Weekend and London Design Week have all proven the continued attractiveness of London’s antiques to international buyers.

They have also shown that London remains equipped with a world leading infrastructure for the buying and selling of art and antiques.

Because of centuries of antiques coming into London, the city has developed world leading institutions which will allow the antiques market to flourish in years to come. These institutions include some of the most important private collections, museums which are second to none, cutting edge education resources, and, of course, a large art industry.

In the future, then, stories like Mr Johnson and his Qianlong vase may not be so exceptional. Because of London's rich and long history, some of the finest treasures the world has known have passed into the city. 

Some of these are well-known, but many have yet to be discovered.