Interview with Alastair McPhie-Meiklejon

29th October 2013

When did you become interested in the antiques trade?

It's not something I just became interested in; it has been something I have grown up with and been surrounded by. My parents were into antiques and history, and I grew up in a 16th Century house. I learned the basics of antiques and how the business operates for a while, went away for a long time before falling back into it again.

How/where did you get started?

At university I had the fortune, or misfortune, depending upon how you look at it, to live with someone who was an antiques dealer. Unfortunately, he lost his driving license, so I used to drive him around the country to auction houses and started to pick up a certain amount of knowledge. I became more and more interested in it and gleaned a lot of knowledge about the industry, which I really enjoyed.

What was your first job in the antiques trade?

I was at John Taylors in Louth about four and a half years. I started there as saleroom assistant, but became assistant manager about a month later.

What do you like the most about the antiques trade?

It's probably the most used comment: "No day is the same and you never know what you're going to find". It's a bit like being Indiana Jones, where you go round and find the most amazing things in the most ridiculous places. The real fun for me is when you're going through an ordinary house, that is quite unremarkable and you pull out something fantastic. It might have been at the bottom of the wardrobe with no intrinsic value, but it's really interesting and you think "that's cracking". That's the exciting part of this job for me.

How has a History degree helped you in your career so far?

When I look at a piece of furniture, for example, I think to myself, "what does that sum up or say about the time it was built?" You can see how things are relevant to certain periods in time. Having an interest in military history and things like that is applicable to anything that comes in, and it is helpful to know exactly what period and date things are.

Do you have any antiques qualifications?

Not yet, but I will be doing my NAVA Technical Award in Chattels Auctioneering within the next six months. NAVA stands for National Association of Valuers and Auctioneers. It's a professional qualification and is a clear sign of expertise, experience, integrity and professionalism.

Do you specialise in any particular areas of antiques?

Cars, Automobilia, Horology - the study of watches/clocks- Music and Militaria. I think it's every small boys dream to play with guns. It is fascinating being able to document someone's entire military career by their medals.

As an automobilia specialist how does it feel to be working within the former BRM workshop buildings?

It's great. I mean as somebody who obviously knows BRM's history and everything from the V16 to the Fangio, and Graham Hill winning the championship, it's a nice feeling to be in a place with so much history. To think that some of those cars were created here, it's fantastic. It would be great to get something decent through in the car sales to keep the history going.

Do you collect any antiques yourself?

I have collected some in the past. I've got lots of penguin books and watches, and I like interesting things, such as moustache cups. They are special cups from the early 18th Century made especially for people with moustaches. They've got a little lip in them so you don't get your moustache wet when drinking out of them.

What's the most exciting antique you've found?

I found a Tudor watch once that was really sweet. It was in a box of bric-a-brac that had come in. It wasn't very clearly marked and the dial wasn't marked, but there was something about it. It took some time to investigate, but it happened to be exactly what I thought it was, and was particularly rare too. I think it made something like £1,500, which isn't a huge amount for a watch, but it was an 'Indiana Jones moment' for me.

What's the strangest antique you've found?

I found a bronze death mask of Joseph Stalin, which was phenomenal. They only made nine of them in Russia and three came to the West. I found it on a general valuation day. The woman who bought it in didn't know what it was, but I immediately recognised it was Stalin and did some research.

If you could travel back in time and meet an artist or designer who would it be?

I would probably say design wise, Charles & Ray Eames in the 1950s. I think any furniture from the 1950s, or even earlier Bauhaus period furniture, is fascinating. The 1950s period turned furniture design on its head. Charles & Ray Eames were producing the classic aluminium chairs, the ottomans, the loungers in just the most immense fabrics that you could possibly imagine.

You're talking seven or eight years after World War II, when people were still running around in demob suits and then suddenly from out of nowhere - boom! Someone described it brilliantly once, saying the 1940s were black and white and then as soon as the 1950s started people started experimenting with colour.

If you look at all the footage of America in the 1950s you'll see a lot of things exploding in colour - everything from wallpaper to cars. That periods was very, very exciting. Austerity was going out of the window and people were having money to spend on furnishing and cars and things like that.

But on the flip side of that, the turn of the 19th Century and the start of the Edwardian period, historically, was a really important time. The Empire was beginning to collapse and this is was when things really started moving. In terms of world history that was a very important time.

What are you looking forward to in your new role?

I'm looking forward to meeting new customers and the regulars we have here. Finding things that are out there and meeting people looking to auction or buy items. I'm also looking forward to the challenge of setting up the Bourne Auction Rooms, on the same level and reputation as Grantham and Lincoln.

We have the ability and space to have something that encompasses the finer elements of things, but we've also got the mainstream lots that still command a reasonable price.

What I've gathered from the short time I've been here is that the yard sales are well respected. People come from far and wide to buy specific items. To be all things to be all people is important for a saleroom such as this.

You've hosted your first sale recently - what were your impressions from the day?

It was good. It was the busiest sale we've done since the merger. Going to a monthly sale is a much better idea. We have more time to prepare the items ready for sale. The prices achieved were good too, and I think the general response from people to the changeover has been very positive.

What are your plans for the saleroom over the next 6-12 months?

To be honest at the moment what Bourne needs is the enthusiasm to keep the momentum going that has been built up since the merger. There are certain things that still need to be done to get it up to scratch - in particular lots of paintwork.

My ambition for the next six months is improve the saleroom's appearance, motivate the staff to help me improve it, take in items which will achieve good prices and provide a valuable service to all our clients.

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