SPENCER SWAFFER, Open for business seven days a week for thirty-eight years……..
Ask Spencer Swaffer how he got into the trade and he'll tell you: "It feels like I've always been a dealer! Even my dog is called "Dealer." Not my idea, it's his pedigree name that came with him!"
In fact the road to his 6,000 square foot Arundel, West Sussex emporium began just along the coast at Brighton ... at the age of eleven. Always a loner, the young Swaffer spent hours combing the hills around his home for Neolithic flints and shards of Roman pottery. When he wasn't trawling the ploughed fields, he'd inevitably be first in line for the opening of every jumble sale for miles around, in the days when jumble sales really yielded treasure.
His bedroom became The Swaffer Museum and, never one to miss a potential profit, he charged tuppence to get in! One of the early callers was Jack de Manio from BBC's Home Service who paid his tuppence and then interviewed the junior curator for the then equivalent of the Today Programme. The nationwide broadcast attracted a handful of fresh visitors, including a Brighton dealer in tribal art and antiquities.
He also paid his admission, but promptly offered Swaffer £50, an enormous sum for an eleven year old, for several pieces of ancient Egyptian pottery bought for pennies in a jumble sale.
"I suddenly discovered that I preferred the money to being a curator!" And so began a career began that has seen Spencer reach the very top of the roster of international dealers in the decorative and the quirky and his shop become first stop for most US and European buyers as well as the major source for many UK based buyers.
He started with a stall in a Saturday market in Brighton and by 15 years of age had a regular stall at London's Camden Passage. He said "I was in partnership with a rather strange girl with an old Morris Minor Stalls were allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, so we were always there by 5am! The partnership broke up when she grew a handle-bar moustache and took a girlfriend!" At that stage they had graduated to a shop in Brighton's Gloucester Road three doors down from another future star of the antiques world, Keith Skeel.
Spencer remembers "My mother came to see the shop and burst into tears at the sight of it. She thought I ought to get a proper job! So I was persuaded to take a year long course in journalism at Portsmouth. All this meant was that I had a different set of junkshops and auctions to trawl all week. I used to come back to Brighton on a Friday night in a taxi piled to the roof with the week's buys and sell them all the next day. Cranberry glass and enamel signs were big sellers in those days!"
The Brighton Evening Argus newspaper gave Swaffer a job ... and a Ford Escort motor car. "It was the only staff car with a roof rack! And that rack was permanently filled with furniture I was never any good with knots and stuff was always blowing off the roof at high speed. I'm still no good at knots ... but I employ men with vans these days."
When his parents died when he was 20 years old Spencer sold the family home, a bungalow near Brighton, for £17,500 and bought a freehold shop in Arundel High Street for £17,250. And Arundel High Street is where he has stayed, opening for business seven days a week for the past 38 years. In the early years most callers were European dealers seeking English oak furniture and brass and copper, but with the collapse of that market it was American dealers who filled the void and who remain 87 per cent of the business today.
From the early years Spencer has always sourced from far and wide, thinking nothing of driving to Edinburgh on a Sunday, being back in Sussex by the Tuesday, unloading, and then driving to Bath for the next day and then on to the Midlands, back to Arundel again and ending the week at the old Bermondsey market on a Friday. Today it remains just as hectic a schedule covering each major English auction and travelling to Europe at least once sometimes twice a week. For years he has been, superstitiously, the first person through the gates of the Flea in Paris before dawn each Friday. He is known in Paris as Le Fleaman and L'Inevitable: because it's inevitable he'll be there, and equally inevitable that he'll be first to the fresh goods.
He says "If you don't turn up, you don't get ... that's my philosophy. You have to be consistent, you have to be enthusiastic and you have to want to buy. If you're not, you might as well go out and get a job!"
Swaffer's rambling 6000 square foot showrooms range over four floors dating back to the late 16th century. The big walled garden backs on to Arundel Castle. An upstairs showroom was used as a cell during the English Civil War. Stock these days may be massive oak tables, delicate tortoiseshell, gilded armchairs, cheery sunburst mirrors, serious but quirky English brown furniture, crazy folk carvings, ivory boxes, rusted garden furniture, chandeliers and lanterns of all shapes and forms.
A piece of advice from this member of the antiques trade aristocracy "The only way to learn, is to buy something and listen to why dealers won't buy it from you. The professionals will tell you why they are not buying something, but they will never tell you why they ARE buying! You have to learn why. And that is “The Knowledge!"
Spencer Swaffer Antiques
30 High Street
Telephone: 01903 882132
Fax: 01903 884564
Arundel is 40 minutes from London's Gatwick Airport or 1 hour and 40 minutes by road from central London or Heathrow Airport.Trains travel direct to Arundel from London's Victoria Station and train journey time is also 1 hour and 40 minutes.