Antique dealers and interior designers on the objects they would never sell

When wonderful objects come into your hands on a daily basis, how does something become so special that you couldn't bear to be without it? Arabella Youens spoke to some of Britain's best antiques dealers and designers to discover the answer.

Richard Green — Alfred Munnings reading a sonnet by Harold Knight (about 1910)

Credit: Peter Brady / Richard Green Gallery

I would never sell this painting both because of its intriguing history and its connection to my career in the art world. I met Sir Alfred Munnings in the 1950s, when I was a teenager; my father, James Green, was then one of his dealers. Over 65 years, I have bought and sold 491 paintings by Munnings.

This portrait of him reading a sonnet was painted by Harold Knight when he, his wife, Laura, and Munnings were part of the artists’ community at Lamorna in Cornwall before the First World War. It then disappeared until 2009, when it was discovered beneath a work by Laura Knight, which had been stretched over it.

No one knows why. Laura was very fond of Munnings and Harold disliked him, so perhaps she hid the portrait, a large study for Harold’s lost Royal Academy work, The Sonnet, to preserve it from destruction.

Anyway, it’s a wonderful evocation of Munnings’s energy and charisma and it gives me great pleasure to see it in the Richard Green Gallery’s permanent collection. This summer, the painting will be on loan to the Penlee House Gallery’s ‘Munnings in Cornwall’ exhib-ition in Penzance.

Recommended videos for you

Will Fisher, Jamb — Early-19th-century bust of Greek philosopher Chrysippus

Simon Upton / Interior Archive

Credit: Simon Upton / Interior Archive

I bought this bust when my son, then three, was hospitalised with meningitis. My wife, Charlotte, and I spent a month by his bedside. As the business was still operating, I continued to look for things to buy when he was resting and bought it online from a country-house sale in Dublin. As a rule, I never buy what I haven’t seen in person, but there was no way I could leave his bedside.

When it came, not only was it charming and untouched, but I discovered that Chrysippus was a Stoic philosopher. It became synonymous with Monty and his stoic behaviour towards his sick-ness and subsequent recovery.

Simon Phillips, Ronald Phillips — A mahogany drum table

This table was originally in the private collection of Roy Baxter, of the Sussex-based English furniture specialists H. C. Baxter & Sons fame. It was in the Somerset House Art Treasures Exhibition in 1979, a selling exhibition that took place as there was no Grosvenor House [the precursor to Masterpiece] that year.

We purchased the table and sold it privately many years ago, but when I was offered it back a few years later, I bought it immediately and took it home the following day.

Dating from about 1790, it’s much smaller than standard drum tables; the top isn’t even 20in across. It has four hidden drawers in the frieze. It resides in my study and, hopefully, it won’t be going anywhere in a hurry.

David Messum, Messum’s — A 16th-century figure of St Francis

I saw this figure of St Francis, which dates from the 16th century and is made from carved ivory or bone, at an art fair many years ago. I was drawn to it because one of the artists we represented at the time, John Miller (1931–2002), was a lay Franciscan. He was a great human being and we were very fond of each other (he was godfather to one of my children), but we’d just sadly fallen out for professional reasons.

I had the idea to buy the figure and give it to him as a talisman of our friendship, but, in the end, this never happened as he died soon afterwards. I kept it and have had it on the chimney-piece of my study ever since.

Just recently, as sometimes happens in life, things have come full circle. At the funeral of Rose Hilton, another Cornish artist we represented, I met up with John’s former secretary and executor, who now manages his estate. She asked me if I would be interested in being involved in looking after his studio estate, to which I answered ‘yes’.

I felt, at the same moment, that, although I wasn’t able to give John this ivory figure in his lifetime, it had looked after our friendship.

Andrew Singleton, Suffolk House Antiques — A 16th-century limewood cow 

I dearly love this 16th-century limewood cow I found when my wife-to-be and I went to see an old dealer friend in Cambridgeshire. I asked him to hold it for a couple of days and, when I rang to buy it, he rather hesitantly confessed he’d sold it. I was furious, said that I’d never buy anything off him again and put the phone down.

A few minutes later, he rang me back and said that he wasn’t sure what to do, but explained that Amelia, my wife, had bought it for me as a wedding present!

Julia Boston — A pair of early-19th-century French gilt-bronze candlesticks

I spotted this pair of early-19th-century French gilt-bronze candlesticks of a fantastic quality at an auction in France. Several people have asked to buy them — having spotted them on Instagram posts of my dining room at home in London — but I couldn’t bear to part with them.

The columns are like Trajan’s Column in Rome. We use them often, alongside other candlesticks. I love to mix them all in together with lots of flowers.

Max Rollitt — Antique cutlery tray

I’d never consider selling a cutlery tray I bought from the dealer Robert Hirschhorn, which dates from about 1830. It was love at first sight. I think it was made by a lamplighter in Bristol. At each end is a legend, one of which reads: ‘May you keep your lamp always bright.’

Its character and its homespun naïve charm appeal to me enormously and I would never sell it because it’s mine now! I love having it in our kitchen at home and use it every day — it’s part of my world.

Simon Khachadourian, Pullman Gallery — Sterling-silver Asprey model of Blue Bird (1931)

This is a finely detailed sterling-silver model of Blue Bird—the 1931 land speed record-setting car driven by Sir Malcolm Campbell. It was given as a present by Campbell to his friend and benefactor, the eccentric heiress Marian ‘Joe’ Carstairs.

Campbell was running out of money while trying to build Blue Bird and explained his predicament to Carstairs. She immediately wrote a cheque to the sum of £10,000, an astronomical sum of money in those days. As a result, he was able to complete the project and set the record. To show his appreciation, Campbell commissioned Asprey to make this model and dedicated it to her.

About 10 years ago, it came up in a small country auction in Florida in the USA. I assume it must’ve either been pinched from Carstair’s belongings or been left to someone that she knew. At times, I’ve thought about selling it, but I’m so pleased that I haven’t as it’s a beautiful object, in perfect condition and unique.

Marc Weaver, Guinevere Antiques — Early-20th-century African carved figure

As I’m a second-generation antique dealer, everything usually does have a price, but an item that I’d never let go is an early-20th-century carved tribal figure, probably from the Ivory Coast. When I was a child, my mother, who established Guinevere, gave me carved African animals and I’ve been drawn to them ever since.

I bought this figure from the estate of Rob Hunter and the details of the specialist he bought it from are marked on the bottom. Rob started working for my mother in the 1960s, but he died in 2009, just before retiring. Today, the figure stands on my chimneypiece among other things from Africa, as well as India, and reminds me of him.

Matthew Hall, Panter & Hall — Welsh Farm House, John Piper

This caught my eye when I was looking for an engagement ring at Christie’s in South Kensington back in 2010. My wife had railed against the idea of a wedding list as we were both rather late in getting to the altar and we’d thought about a painting that friends could contribute to instead. Until that moment, we hadn’t found one we both liked, but there happened to be a picture sale going on at the same time.

This Piper resonated: first, as a Welshman, but, better still, it had belonged to the Modernist architect Sir Frederick Gibberd, whom my mother had articled in the 1950s. She’d been very fond of him and that sealed it for us. We bought the painting — and the engagement ring, too. A very expensive day all round!