English antiques. John Bly is bullish on selling pieces of the past

JOHN BLY thinks it's a great time to be ``in antiques'' in England. He finds there are vast stirrings of interest in the objects of the past and lots of new money around with which to buy them. Antiques are a multimillion-dollar business on this side of the Atlantic, and Mr. Bly is probably one of England's most versatile dealers. He is a member of the British Antique Dealers' Association and has a shop in Tring, 36 miles north of London, which specializes in 18th-century furniture.

He is a popular speaker at antiques symposiums, and appears as a furniture expert on ``Antiques Road Show,'' a BBC1 Sunday evening television show that has been on the air for 10 years and attracts some 15 million viewers each week.

Bly also satisfies the British thirst for more knowledge and know-how about antiques through his own weekly TV show, ``Heirloom.''

For every ``Antiques Road Show'' program (filmed at various sites around the British Isles), he says, at least 3,000 people turn up with carrier bags full of personal and household treasures to await appraisals and comments.

Only about 5 percent of what is brought in turns out to be of top quality, Bly says.

Most are ``good old things'' that are attractive but not fine. And a lot are utilitarian household items distinguished only by the fact that they were made a long while ago.

Bly explains why England will probably never run out of antiques.

``For the past 400 years,'' he says, ``this country has both produced and imported prodigious amounts of art and furnishings of every type. Nobody knows exactly how much was made nor how much survives, but one thing is certain, it is a great deal more than anybody ever thought.''

In the category of ``general antiques,'' which makes up the bulk of the business, he says, ``we are talking about the goods and chattels from millions of middle-class homes in the Western world during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There were approximately 10 million such homes in England alone in 1800.

``We not only imported things, but people - craftsmen, silversmiths, woodworkers, tapestry weavers, glass workers. Creative people from all over the world found employment in England, and they influenced our designs and shared their expertise with us.

``Great workshops, producing furniture, ceramics, porcelain, silver, jewelry, and pewter, flourished in major cities all over England.''

In 1850, he says, 50,000 people were employed making furniture alone, and many thousands more were employed making only knives and forks.

And for centuries, when fortunes were made, the successful English built country houses and filled them with great collections of paintings and fashionable furnishings.

Acquisition, says Bly, knew no bounds, and each successive generation added to collections already formed.

When the fortunes that built those great houses were lost, the contents were rarely sold to wealthy and titled people, who felt ``it would never do'' to attend such sales, but to yeomen, and middle- and working-class people looking for modestly priced ``secondhand'' furnishings.

So, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, the contents went down in their social surroundings each time they were sold. They disappeared into country farmhouses, cottages, and village homes, to be cycled and recyled years later through the English antiques market.

Contents of great houses continue to go on the block, but today they are sought by dealers and wealthy collectors from all parts of the world.

Sotheby's auction house in London lists four such sales this fall, including the on-premises auction at Tyninghame House, home of the Earls of Haddington in Scotland. It is estimated that its contents of silver, paintings, and furnishings will bring more than 2 million ($3.28 million).

It has been estimated by the Victoria and Albert Museum that over 1,600 great houses were lost over the past century. Hundreds of others were demolished, gutted, or became ruins in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Their contents are probably today commanding very high prices on the international antiques market.

``But it is a myth to think that all good English things are going abroad,'' Bly says.

``That's nonsense. They are not. English buyers are again very active in every collecting field.

``And a lot that has gone to the US is now coming back, because English dealers are going over and buying it back.''

He is, however, respectful of the ``English country house'' look that has been promoted by some leading interior designers in the United States over the past decade. Bly points out that the popularity of this look has also promoted the enduring and lovable qualities of English antiques.

He concedes that ``America has proven to be an enormous market.''

``We used to laugh when customers kept referring to `my interior decorator,' but we don't anymore,'' he says. ``We've come to recognize their skills.

``I must say, I enjoy working with them, and making a house look as if it has been lived in for 150 years!''

Together with Lady Victoria Leatham of Burghley House, Bly created a film company that made the TV film series ``Treasure Houses of Britain.''

Last year he wrote a book, ``Is it Genuine? Or How to Collect Antiques with Confidence'' (the British title), which was subsequently redubbed ``The Confident Collector: How to Know an Authentic Antique'' (Prentice-Hall, $19.95) by his New York publisher.

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