Readers of the Random Treasure blog will know that I spend much – ok, too much – of my time wandering around charity shops in search of – well, in search of random treasure. More often or not, it’s a fruitless pursuit, and I return empty-handed and frustrated from my local rounds, or sometimes from visits further afield. I say to myself: why do I keep doing this? Everything here is trash. The era of bargain-filled charity shops is long past. Today they’re a mere shadow, a paltry remnant of the troves of yore. Surely I’ve got much better things to do with my valuable time than lurking in these shabby, smelly, depressing places?
In my regular haunts there have been particularly thin pickings over the last few months. Time after time, shop after shop, I’ve come home with nothing.
OK, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll survive for a week or a few weeks without having a new object to research or keep or sell or give away. Looking for bargains in charity shops isn’t strictly speaking an addictive habit, but if you’re deprived for a while of the satisfaction and joy of finding a new treasure, then you might find yourself subject to some symptoms which seem alarmingly close to withdrawal syndrome.
But then, suddenly, things can change. For no apparent reason, and at no predictable time of year, the charity shops will overnight start producing remarkable objects one after another. If you strike lucky, you can get yourself a fix which will dispense with your depression and jitters for a good while.
It happened like that two or three weeks ago. Here’s what I got from a few days’ searching in two towns in Scotland:
Exhibit 1: A pottery jug
Place: Charity shop A in location A (name and address withheld)
Price paid: £3.00
Description: A 19th century white earthenware jug, transfer-decorated in pale purple with a scene of a courting couple against a background of miscellaneous romantic architectural and landscape features. It’s a friendly-looking thing, a bit battered, with a big chip on the footrim and a few stains. Usually this kind of household ware is unmarked, so I was surprised to see the name DILLON impressed on the base under the glaze. I had never heard of Dillon, but there again I’ve never heard of most of the smaller Staffordshire manufacturers. Probably have never heard of many of the big ones either. According to the book (Geoffrey Godden’s indispensable Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks), the mark is that of Francis Dillon, of Cobridge, Staffordshire, and was in use in the short period from 1834 to 1843. So it’s not only a good-looking jug, but it’s from an uncommonly-seen factory and bears a short-lived mark.
Reason for purchase: Because I liked the look of it – and I would very rarely buy anything that I didn’t like the look of – and because I’m trying in my usual haphazard, undisciplined way to learn a little about English transferware pottery of the late 18th and early 19th century. So I’ve decided to buy a few of these pieces now and again in order to see what knowledge I can pick up.
Value: Not worth much. Nobody really wants this kind of stuff, there’s lots of it about, and the few real experts in this fascinating subject would be looking for better quality examples in perfect condition.
Disposal: It’s a keeper. There’s a high shelf in the utility room where I keep a selection of vases and jugs which are used regularly for fresh flowers. This jug neatly fills a small space created by the removal to the shed of a lovely honey-glazed earthenware jug made by Margaret Leach (no relation to Bernard) at Wye Valley pottery – lovely but leaky and thus no use for flowers.
Exhibit 2: A porcelain tankard
Place: Charity shop A in location A (name and address withheld – a second visit to the same shop a couple of days later because I happened to be visiting a hardware shop close by and you never know…)
Price paid: 50 pence, with a note on the price label saying it was reduced from £1.00 due to being damaged.
Description: A Chinese export porcelain tankard decorated in the famille rose “Mandarin palette” with panels showing a group of Chinese figures in a fanciful landscape. It was made during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign around 1765-70. If this description makes me sound as if I know what I’m talking about, let me disabuse you. Seeing it in the shop I could tell from my own very limited knowledge that it was a tankard, produced in China for export, and probably made some time during the very long Qianlong reign (1735-1796). All the other detail I got from the website of a very high-end antique dealer who had an identical tankard. But his was in perfect condition, and my charity shop purchase is quite a sad old thing, badly damaged and poorly repaired.
Reason for purchase: seriously now, if a charity shop is selling for 50 pence a piece of 18th century Chinese export porcelain in any kind of condition, would you expect me to pass it by?
Value: A perfect example would be valued around £800-£1,000. Even with all its chips and cracks and vile repairs, my one would still fetch £100-£200 in a local auction or on eBay.
Disposal: For keeping. As long as you don’t look too closely at the damage, the tankard looks very good on the display shelves in my living room, providing an excellent balance for my Wemyss pottery tankard.
Exhibits 3 and 4: Two Victorian plates
Place: Charity shop B in location B (name and address withheld)
Price paid: £3.00 for the perfect one, £4.00 for the chipped one (yes, I know it makes no sense)
Description: Two early Victorian dinner plates, each a little over 10 inches in diameter. Both have scalloped edges, and one has moulded decoration around the rim. Both are transfer-decorated with hand-colouring in overglaze polychrome enamels in a Chinoiserie taste. Although they don’t look very much alike, they are clearly from the same factory since both have an identical small rectangular impressed stamp on the base bearing the words “Improved Stone China”. In addition, the plate with the more complex brown transfer has a brown-printed cartouche on the base with the initials “M&B”, a pattern number “3316” inscribed in red, and a tiny “O” in red. The other has only the pattern number “N3810” and the letter “Y”, both in red.
Turning to Godden’s bible of pottery marks, I discovered quite quickly that M&B was Minton and Boyle of Stoke, Staffordshire, a brief partnership which lasted only from 1836-1841. If I had access to the Minton archive, I might be able to discover the name and date of pattern number 3316. Pattern 3810 presumably came slightly later, but I think it safe to assume that both plates were in existence by the early 1840s.
Reason for purchase: See Exhibit 1 above – I bought these plates for precisely the same reason that I bought the Dillon jug.
Value: Probably worth about the same as the amount that I paid for them.
Disposal: Undecided. I’d love to keep them and build up a collection of this beautiful ware, but have nowhere to display them. If I follow my usual pattern of behaviour, they’ll probably find their way into the attic, where they will stay.
Exhibit 5: A match striker
Place: Charity shop C in location C (name and address withheld)
Price paid: £3.00
Description: A charming little match holder/striker, made of solid glass in a slightly flattened spherical shape with a ribbed surface for match striking, with the holder insert and collar in hallmarked silver. Very close observation revealed that the body of the striker was in clear glass, while the ribbed surface was formed from an incredibly finely-applied spiral of cranberry-coloured glass. The combination of clear and rich cranberry-red resulted in a subtle overall pink effect which raised this modest object from the ordinary to the extraordinary and gave it a considerable level of style and sophistication. I can’t imagine what technique might have been used to apply the spiral ribbing.
The silver collar and holder were hallmarked for Birmingham 1896, and the maker’s mark was for Henry Williamson Ltd of Spencer Street, Birmingham. The object was in excellent overall condition except for slightly rubbed hallmarks and couple of scuffs on the ribbed glass surface.
Reason for purchase: Because it was a bargain. I could see at a glance that it was a beautiful and high quality object in fine condition, and I knew that match strikers are highly collectable.
Value: £141.02. I can be absolutely precise as to value because that’s the price that it sold for on eBay after energetic bidding among seven bidders
Disposal: The buyer lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA. The match striker was on its way to him by air mail less than a week after I bought it from Charity Shop C.
So, a good week, with some lovely things to keep, something to sell, a decent net profit, and lots of learning. More than enough to restore my faith in the continuing ability of charity shops to keep me excited and enthused.
That’s not quite the end of the story. The pleasure is not unalloyed. A sour note has crept in. When I proudly posted a picture of the damaged Chinese tankard for all to see on a Facebook interest group page, it attracted several very positive comments, but also this one: “It’s a charity shop and you robbed them”. Ouch!
I get quite upset by comments of this sort. But no, I don’t believe that I robbed anyone. In fact I have thought long and hard about this subject and have set out at length my views on the rights and wrongs of buying from charity shops in my book Random Treasure – Antiques, Auctions and Alchemy.
Having made a promise to myself that I won’t repeat anything in this blog which is already published in the book, I’m not ready to discuss my opinions here. But to give you a flavour, I’m going to bend my rule and provide a short quotation from Page 224 of Random Treasure:
“If you make big money from something bought from a charity for almost nothing, are you robbing the charity and profiting from its loss? Should you refuse to buy the item but let the shop manager know that it’s a valuable antique and encourage her to sell it appropriately? Should you insist on paying the shop there and then what you think the object is worth? Should you wait until after you have re-sold the item and donate the profit to the charity? All the profit or just part of it? And what if you wish to keep the item and not sell it? Should you donate the value to the charity from your own cash flow? In which case, what if you can’t afford to do so?
“Or should you tell yourself that the only reason that many people go into charity shops is to see if they can spot a bargain and make a profit, and it’s the urban myths about major discoveries that keep the shops full of paying customers?”
If readers of this blog wish to read my answers to these questions and my analysis of the issues involved, I encourage you to buy the book (well, I would, wouldn’t I?). You can do so through this link, and I hope you will.