Encountering Napoleon

Encountering Napoleon


Surprises are one of the best things about dealing in antiques. When you never know what will turn up, ever day is an adventure.

For instance, we once got hold of an easel that had belonged to the renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It was an old, wooden, Victorian easel that he’d used while travelling on the continent — we think it might have been in Austria or Germany. It was signed, so we were assured of its provenance. It had ended up in a savings and loan’s collection and became available when they went bust.

The old photograph at the top of this post shows Ben holding a Napoleonic decanter. We bought it from David Letham, one of Edinburgh’s most colourful dealers. He was old school, and in addition to dealing in antiques he’d been a sailor, and was a noted raconteur and bon vivant. He always had tons of things in his Figurehead Gallery, located in two Georgian Houses in Leith. One he lived in, the other he used as a showroom, filled with the most fabulous stuff.

He was eccentric. The prices changed every time you visited, depending on his mood. But that was just his way, for Letham was very, very knowledgeable and knew the true value of everything.

Like our father, Ronald, he was a man who simply bought and sold antiques. That was it. There was nothing else. You can’t really have that any more, because you have to run a business. That style of operating stopped around the start of the 1990s, and then with the financial collapse it really died. You could no longer go to your bank and say, “Look, I’ve seen this really nice jug but I need you to give me £2,000 to buy it.” These days they’d say, “What are you talking about?!”

The jug came with letters that seemed to assure its provenance, but to be fair, it didn’t attract much attention. We enjoyed the story more than the item itself, and it never made money. We sold it at auction many years later. We weren’t upset. If you think about it, there’s so much Napoleonic memorabilia out there. Imagine someone like the Queen, and how much she owns. That’s what Napoleon had. Can you imagine how many decanters there were in Versailles?