Armouring up at Grosvenor

Peter Finer began dealing at an age when most of us were barely out of our pushchairs. ‘My parents, collecting me from school at the end of term, were invariably plagued by an irate mother bemoaning the fact that young Johnny had been swindled out of his pencil case for the second time that year,’ Mr Finer A few years later, after a ‘truly fascinating’ stint as a porter at Sotheby’s in 1964, he followed his passion – encouraged by his father’s influence (he clay pigeon shot for England) – and has since become the word’s leading dealer in antique arms and armour.

Fairs are a vital source of exposure and income to dealers like Mr Finer, who don’t have a showroom. Beyond a stunningly designed biennial catalogue, these events are the only occasion when potential clients and – just as importantly – other dealers have a chance to view the stock.

‘Very few people make it to Ilmington,’ [the intoxicatingly-pretty Warwickshire village where the business is based], ‘so the great thing about shows is that it encourages collectors to come and chat to us while they view the pieces.’

This is the second year that Mr Finer will be exhibiting his wares at Grosvenor. The cancellation of the Winter Antiques Show in New York, following September 11, meant that the Finers were encouraged to look for clients closer to home.

‘In the past, we thought we had enough on our plates with the two New York shows, Palm Beach and Maastricht. It’s funny though: I’ve been exhibiting at shows around the world since 1989 but when I called up my mother last year to tell her about Grosvenor, she was delighted. I think she finally thought that I’d arrived.’

One aspect that makes Grosvenor undeniably attractive to British dealers is convenience.

‘It’s enormously enjoyable as it’s not thousands of miles away, which means that if some glass shelf breaks while we’re preparing the stand, it can be fixed quickly and, if I want to, at some stage during the week, I can go and spend the night in my own bed.’

The fair also carries considerable kudos (not only with Mr Finer’s mother).

It is still the premier antiques fair– especially in the minds of the older generation. Andoverseas visitors love it because it ties in so well with the start of the season: Olympia, Henley and Ascot all tumble along soonafterwards. But the other great thing about exhibiting at Grosvenor is that most of the visitors know what a piece of armour means when the see one. Elsewhere, that’s not always the case. A lady in Florida famously asked me once: “Tell me, how did theseguys manage to sleep in their armour?”‘

No fair is ever guaranteed to draw in a series of memorable sales: by their very nature, these events can be a bit hit and miss.

‘But on the opening night at last year’s Grosvenor we sold a fantastic, very rare 15th century painted sallet (helmet) for a six figure sum within the first fifteen minutes of opening (right). The helmet was one of two – the first appeared in the catalogue – and was extremely visual, painted in black and mustard yellow.’

This year, the Peter Finer booth takes a commanding position over the exhibition hall, standing at the foot of the Great Room stairs. Before this happens,days of preparation go in to assembling the display, which consists of between two and three hundred pieces. ‘Much of the stuff we’ll pop away into drawers once they have been vetted,’ explained Mr Finer. This ‘minimalist’ design tip was the genius of his son, Redmond, who joined the business five years ago.

‘I used to call my stand “Pete’s Bazaar”‘, he explained, dropping into a rather convincing Moroccan souk-seller’s accent, ‘”Come, my friend. Come look. Very nice. Not to buy, just look,” but Redmond has shownme that less is good.’

When Grosvenor opens on June 11, the star pieces on the Peter Finer stand will include a pair of cased English flintlock pistols by Durs Egg(above), complete with the original receipt written out to one Col R King for the princely sum of ?21.78. ‘We’re now going to sell them on for a little in excess of ?30,000,’ added Mr Finer, with a hint of mischief in his voice. Other gems to look out for include some very good German field armour (probably Brunswick), circa 1560, and an extremely rare Austrian pavise, from the town of Klausen, circa 1480.

Of course, the main worry about Grosvenor this year – especially when core clients come mainly from North America – is whether people are prepared to travel. But concerns such as this seem to be the norm rather than the exception to the life of a dealer.

‘There’s never a really happy balance. It’s the perennial dealer’s dilemma: either you have too much stock and not enough cash or not enough stock and too much cash, which isn’t of course a good situation when clients are expecting you to produce great things. But that’spart of the charm and it can’t be good all the time.’

After all this, one might wonder, who exactly would be interested in buying cumbersome suits of armour or heavily-gilded swords. As ever, Mr Finer has the answer.

‘Nobody needsa suit of armour like they need a dining room table and some chairs. However, once you’ve acquired one, there’s always the danger it might become terribly lonely and the temptation is then to buy a few swords to decorate around it and then. perhaps it needs a friend to chat to?’

The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair takes place at Le Meridien Grosvenor House, Park Lane, London from Wednesday, June 11 to Tuesday, June 17, 2003. For more information,


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