An Interview With Ian Harris

Posted on: 27 August 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Ian Harris takes 50connect behind the scenes of the Antiques Roadshow.

You may recognise Ian Harris as one of the original experts on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow, who examines jewellery, silver and precious metals.

His TV career began even before that on the antiques quizshow Going For A Song with Arthur Negus, and he also joined the panel on more recent programmes.

Away from television, Ian Harris has run N. Bloom & Son Ltd., the London-based jewellers and silver dealers. He entered the family firm at age 16 to begin dealing with antique silver, Sheffield and Victorian plate, and oversaw the company's diversification into old jewellery during the 1960s.

On Friday 5th and Saturday 6th September, Ian will join the resident panel of antique professionals in the Antiques Valuation marquee at the ICHF Weald of Kent Craft Show at Penshurst Place near Tonbridge. Visitors can bring along up to two items to discover their value and some of the history.

Even after doing the Antiques Roadshow for 30 years, Ian never knows what he will find at valuation days, and the craft show should be no exception.

"I'm sure they will turn up at least one interesting thing during the day because they almost always do. I did a charity roadshow a year ago near Reading, and it was mostly junk, but one woman turned up with a Lalique brooch that she'd bought for £8.50 in a church sale, that's probably worth about £20,000. She had no idea what she was buying, she just thought it was pretty. That certainly was a good find, so these things do happen."

"What keeps us going is never knowing what's going to come out of the box or bag."

Ian describes the Roadshow as a sort of club, that's even more exclusive than the House of Lords.

"There's a pool of about 70 or so specialists - they call us that now, we're not experts anymore, I don't know whether it's an upgrade or a downgrade - and it is like a club. Most of the people have been doing it for quite a long time."

"Out of those people there's probably 15 to 20 that I've become friendly with over the years. We all have dinner beforehand and chat with our mates. There's a lot of newcomers but often they come along for a show or two and then don't seem to stick the course. There's a hardcore of old timers like myself who have been doing the programme since the first series, and a lot of people who have been doing it for 10-15 years."

Seeing those familiar faces is part of the appeal of the inviting Sunday evening programme. Then of course there are the weird and sometimes wonderful items, with their owners.

"I don't think it's the value that is so exciting as the object itself. They don't have to be valuable to be unusual or interesting. Of course the programme-makers like things that are valuable, because they love that response from the owner when it's revealed that what they thought was a worthless bit of junk suddenly turns out to be worth a great deal of money, but I'm interested in the object."

While filming the current series, due to air at the end of August, Ian hasn't seen masses of exciting items but there are always highlights.

"On this last recording I did there was a good collection of Russian enamel pieces, which have gone up in value enormously since the Russians started buying all their own stuff back."

"There was also a very interesting silver card case, which the owner didn't even know was silver. He was more interested in the coat of arms on it than the actual object. He presented it to me with the coat of arms side up which is actually the back side, and the front side was engraved with the Scott memorial so it's really quite a rare one."

With at least 3,000 people and 12,000 items coming through the doors at an average Roadshow, the BBC cannot film everything, so much of what Ian discusses with visitors isn't filmed.

"On an average day I probably see about 1,500 items and I might record three of them on a good day, it's a tiny percentage. I usually get a lot of stuff because jewellery and so on is very portable, compared to a wardrobe for example."

The recording process for the show takes a long time and is rather a juggling act.

"It's quite a performance. We have to book the thing into the recording schedule which gets filled up quickly and our producer has to interview the owner, so I must make the decision; is this worth recording, is it interesting enough? Sometimes earlier in the day I think, this is quite interesting but not that interesting, and then later in the day when nothing better's come in I think, I wish I'd tried to record that, so it's a bit of a gamble."

"Often something really nice comes in at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and it's too late because all the recording slots have filled up, unless it's something mega wonderful in which case they will dump something else, because filming ends at 7pm."

Of course, although someone might know they are going to be filmed, they have no idea about the value until the camera is rolling.

"Obviously we want to keep the element of surprise."

Thanks to Ian's many years of experience, he has been able to enlighten many Roadshow visitors about their antiques.

"If I listen to myself talking I'm quite surprised at how much knowledge I'm throwing out all the time, and it's amazing how much information I can give people about even quite uninteresting or unvaluable things. I don't have to look a lot of things up because it's in my head - I know the London silver letters and lots of the makers' marks, so I don't have to waste time. Sometimes I know what things are almost before they've unwrapped them."

"I'm quick, but polite, because people have sometimes been queuing up for hours. One of my fellow specialists has said to people, don't even bother unwrapping it, which isn't really the right approach. In a way the Antiques Roadshow is a public service."

Many people treat the Roadshow as a day out. Not everyone realises that they can come along and just watch, so there's no need to take along any old junk.

"They hunt around the house for anything that they can bring that could conceivably be something, even a piece of porcelain which they present to the expert looking hopeful until he points out that underneath it says 'dishwasher proof'! The sort of things I get on the Antiques Roadshow are 90 per cent rubbish and 10 per cent interesting. But it's fun."

Before appearing on TV, Ian began his career straight from school. He joined the antiques trade simply because the opportunity presented itself.

"I had no idea about it at all. I was just bored. I didn't want to stay on at school, didn't fancy going to university, and we still had National Service so I might have been got for that. When I was just under 16 I thought if I went through the expected course then I'd be about 25 before I actually started to do anything."

"My parents asked if I would like to join my uncle in the antiques business and I said why not," he laughs. "So it was for want of anything better really."

N. Bloom & Son Ltd., established by his grandfather in 1912, was a wholesale silver dealer when Ian joined.

"We sold only to the trade. We exported a lot - my grandfather was based in New York and we used to buy Victorian silver and plate here and send it out there. We tended to sell nicer pieces of Georgian silver in England. We had a really run down old dump of a showroom and our own workshops in the City of London."

The firm diversified from silver under Ian's influence.

"I decided it would be nice to have somewhere in the West End so we opened a shop there in the early sixties."

"We were still only silver and silver plate and I suggested that it might be a good idea to have a little bit of jewellery because most women walk straight past a window full of silver without much interest, but if we had a few pieces of jewellery then women might stop and look in the window. My uncle agreed this was a good idea so it was more or less left to me to buy the jewellery and that became my job."

When Ian's uncle died in 1971 he took over the business.

"We turned to jewellery more and more. We moved premises several times, eventually finishing up in a much smaller antiques centre in Bond Street, in 1993, when I decided silver really had to go because there just wasn't room for it. From '93 onwards it was all jewellery."

In 1978 Ian seized the opportunity to appear on television. He wanted to raise the profile of his company among the public as it expanded its retail operation. A PR agency asked Ian if he had ever been on television.

"I said no. There wasn't the plethora of programmes that there are now so they got me on Going For A Song. I did a programme a year with Arthur Negus for about five years until the series stopped."

"Then I was on the BBC's books for anything antiques related, so when they started the Antiques Roadshow I was one of the people that they approached."

"Also they didn't have many independent dealers because their first thought when looking for experts was to go to the salerooms, so they had lots of people from Bonhams, Christies, Sothebys and local auction houses. That changed over the years so now there's quite a few independent dealers as well which is a good thing."

In addition to raising his profile, Ian gains many other benefits from the Antiques Roadshow.

"It's exciting to find something that's really outstanding. I like the travelling, we go to all parts of the UK, and I've also travelled all over the world as a result of doing antiques shows. We've been abroad quite a lot, I've been to Canada, Cyprus, Malta and all over the place with the Roadshow."

Though the antiques business is unpredictable, it suits Ian, who says it's wonderful in the good times but ghastly in the bad times.

"I'm my own master, I can adjust my lifestyle, holidays and working hours to what suits me. No-one would ever employ us anyway. We're too independent minded. I've never had a job interview in my life. I buy beautiful things and with a bit of luck sell them to usually very nice people. I've been into homes and houses I would never have had access to. Now I'm semi-retired, still doing a bit and having a nice time, so I've had a pretty enjoyable life really."

While many antiques are bought to decorate a home or as an investment, Ian has specialised in something that's normally bought to use and wear.

"Collecting is a different thing altogether. There are collectors of older jewellery from the 17th or 18th century, but most jewellery is bought to be worn. I tried to do my best to stock things that I thought were wearable because that's terribly important if you're trying to sell it."

Although fashions have changed in jewellery, there's always a vintage era that's in vogue.

"When I started we sold a lot of Victorian jewellery such as diamond stars and crescents, Maltese cross brooches and so on."

"Nowadays people have moved up the chronological scale so 20th century jewellery is much more saleable than 19th or 18th century jewellery."

"It's also generally much more wearable because people are less formal, and don't go to grand dos where they can wear diamonds and tiaras. In my last few years of trading we sold much more 'inbetween' jewellery that could be worn in the day and carried on into the evening, like 1940s gold and gem set jewellery, which can still be very attractive and even valuable, but it's not just a mass of diamonds."

You might expect the credit crunch to hit the antiques trade, but the whims of fashion are a greater risk according to Ian.

"The antiques trade's been having a hard time since about 2001 and I think it's more to do with changes of fashion than shortage of money."

"The people that make lots of money in the City generally aren't what you might call the traditional monied classes so they haven't really been brought up with antiques at home, and don't have the tradition of buying old things so they don't know anything about them. If you've got no background of your own you want to create it."

"They think that antique dealers are all villains that are going to rip them off. Whereas if they go along to Linley and buy a super piece of very expensive new furniture they feel that's a statement."

Ian is certainly dubious about the merits of modern art.

"When you get to be super-rich and you're buying million pound paintings by people like Damian Hirst, or Cy Tombly for $15 million hanging on your wall, it's a statement of how much money you've got. Can anyone actually like that stuff?"

"Magazines discuss the contemporary look and clean modern living, showing the insides of super duper flats in Docklands with bare brick walls, but I'd die living in that sort of surrounding. I like to be surrounded with antique clutter."

By Cherry Butler

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