Portobello Road is the place for antiques and 'junque'

Almost everyone visiting London - from Paloma Picasso and Madonna to curators from American museums and the idly curious - goes to Portobello Road.

Although the street has been well known as an open-air fruit and flower market for the past 130 or so years, it has only been over the course of the past five decades that the area has garnered a reputation as an antique lovers' heaven. Probably more serious antique business is conducted here than anywhere else in London.

Nevertheless, even today, the fruit and vegetable and flower vendors remain, although they set up shop farther downhill from the antique dealers, and beyond the greengrocers comes the last part of Portobello's offerings - its junk market, where one can literally pick up someone's old kitchen sink for a song.

Still, it is the antiques that draw the crowds, and frequently, the new trends in what is deemed desirable to collect often originate here.

Still going strong is the Red Lion Antiques Arcade, which got up and running in 1951. The area took on additional cachet in the swinging 1960s, becoming almost as well known to the hip as Carnaby Street. At the same time, it became the place to head for those seeking vintage military-style clothing, a la the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper.

As one heads down the street, the shops beckon from the left, while the right-hand side of the road hosts the temporary stalls. It's estimated that on the weekend, the number of dealers tops 1,500. While the shops stay open throughout the week, the stalls spring alive only on Saturday.

The list of what one can purchase is close to endless: from jewelry (with a seeming abundance of cameos), engravings, advertising memorabilia, sealing stamps, thimbles, bottles, textiles, antique clothing, and deeds, to dolls, maps, wooden golf clubs, prints from the London Illustrated News, paintings, stamps, buttons, film memorabilia, coins, Wedgwood, and woolens.

For the most part, dealers have their particular areas of expertise. Sheila Cook is known for antique textiles and costumes, while Rudolf's specializes in vintage, autographed photos of movie stars. Antique chess sets are the province of Garrick Coleman, and Battersea Pen Home's focus is vintage fountain pens, as well as their repair.

Buyers would do best to take to heart the motto, caveat emptor. There are plenty of reproductions and junk here, although certain dealers have taken steps to maintain the integrity of their wares.

Indeed, many of the dealers fiercely defend the quality and authenticity of their wares.

Of course, there are certain items that are devilishly hard to fake, says Tim Collins, of Stall 28. His business consists of selling documents, primarily mortgages and indentures from the early 18th century.

The key, he says, is that such documents were written out by hand on vellum, adding that they are particular popular with attorneys, who frame them for their office walls.

"Today, you simply can't get enough vellum to fake these," he says. Of course, one has to have a pretty good eye for vellum.

It's not just collectors seeking such documents, but often historians.

"With so many buildings destroyed during [World War II], these deeds to houses often allow historians to reconstruct what previously existed on, say, that parking lot there," says Collins.

For more information, log on to the Portobello Road Antique Dealers Association website, www.portobelloroad.co.uk.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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