A Conversation with Tom Smith, Dovecote Antiques

Industry expertise

Antiques Dealer, Porcelain & Silver

Tom Smith of Dovecote Antiques stands out as one of the youngest dealers in porcelain and silver, but it is his encyclopaedic knowledge that hypnotises any interested party. He can recall from memory entire catalogues of famous workshops whilst making any viewer appreciate even the smallest of details.  One of my favourite memories of Tom is when we were both at the New York edition of The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in October 2019: we were on a stand and he was explaining a porcelain set to me and we suddenly turned around to find five other people, including someone who was working at the gallery, listening to his explanation.  He was surprised, but I knew that it was his magnetic personality and enthralling descriptions that automatically made others want to listen.

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Tom Smith, Headshot

Fine Porcelain, Silver and Jewellery

How does a twenty-one year old decide open a business, Dovecote Antiques, and start dealing in porcelain and silver out of his parents’ kitchen?

What can I say? I was always a weird child! I have collected porcelain since the age of 12 and Minton porcelain since I was 18 so by the time I was 21 I had a sizeable array of objects dotted around my parents’ house. After graduating university with a degree in International Politics and History I worked for the National Trust, but as and they closed during the winter months it presented me with a hiatus before the new season. Sitting around and doing nothing was never an option so I had to find something to do. It was actually my mum, Helen, who suggested I should do a bit of buying and selling. I don’t think she thought that 10 years on it would be a fully-fledged business, but I have her to thank for the idea.

Stately Home Interiors

Having done a Masters in Decorative Arts and Historic Interiors at the University of Buckingham in partnership with The Wallace Collection, during which you had to study the diverse range of Stately Homes in this country, how do these interiors inspire you and your taste?

That’s a really interesting question as taste is such a subjective word, good taste vs bad taste, commercial taste vs personal taste. I have always favoured the late 18th and early 19th centuries, architects like Robert Adam and John Nash, but I think that my masters allowed me to explore and understand in more detail how it all fits together. Whether it’s the French Rococo movement of the 1730s or the English Aesthetic movement of the 1870s, nothing happens in a vacuum and all style revolutions are brought about by a confluence of external factors. If I had to choose a place to go and live it would depend on its history and its architectural importance vs comfort. Blenheim Palace is a marvel, but I wouldn’t actually want to live there!

Royal Worcester blush ivory bamboo aesthetic movement trio, designed in 1886. Belleek porcelain Neptune shape teacups, c.1900, with a Brownfield clam shaped teapot, c.1880.

This is Dovecote Antiques’ tenth anniversary year; how has your taste evolved or changed since you first started dealing?

When I think of some of the pieces I sold right at the very beginning I smile to myself, as some of them I wouldn’t dream of selling now. That being said, there are pieces that I would buy back ten times over and will probably never see the like of again. I think the most noticeable difference is my appreciation of older pieces. 18th century porcelain is dreamy but it takes a bit more understanding than later pieces, where the design sources and factory marks are much plainer to see. I recently purchased a First period Worcester chestnut basket that dates from circa 1760 and just the mere fact it made it out of the kiln in the first place fascinates me. It isn’t the flashiest or most refined piece of porcelain you will ever see but it helps you to understand the material and the process on a whole other level.

Antique Porcelain & Silver Buying Process

What is the process that Dovecote Antiques uses to buy a new piece?

My approach has shifted quite significantly in light of Covid-19. Before March 2020, we used to do three major fairs per year as well as a small amount of online trading. That has now done an about-face and, as a result, it has influenced how I buy. I might have previously bought a piece as stock and shown it at a fair, hoping someone would like it, now I tend to try and buy with particular clients in mind in order to keep my surplus stock levels low. When you don’t have to furnish a stand with 300+ items there really is no business sense in keeping items packed up in boxes. That being said, I will never pass a good piece of stock by and if I can see a profit in the not too distant future or the piece is such a pleasure to own, then I will go for it.

Minton Majolica jardiniere and column, c.1865. George Jones sculptural vase, c.1875

As a residential interior design studio, Designed By Woulfe constantly works with clients who are enthusiastic about marrying the old with the new. What advice would you give in aide that creative process using the pieces that Dovecote Antiques sells?

Unlike 20-30 years ago when there were definite styles and trends, I think now people are much more individual. Gone are the days of Country House style or French 18th century style, it is now all about the pieces itself, as a one-off artwork. This is both a blessing and curse as it means that the traditional way of collecting by just buying variants of pieces in order to acquire as many as possible, has changed. Antique porcelain presents particular challenges, as a traditional collector will hunt out the unusual rather than the fashionable. On the plus side, I  think it means that you can get away with a lot more in your home: if you like a vase, plate or other object then that’s all that matters and you can style it with your Skandi sideboard or Heals rug. For dealers it might mean that you only get to sell one or two pieces to a client, but for the buyer it opens a wealth of options to choose from as you are not limited to the more meticulous way of traditional collecting. There is a universe of objects out there and it’s up to you to decide what you like and how you want to display it…what could be more fun?!

Table set with early 20th century Minton porcelain, Georgian sterling silver and Edwardian English cut glass.

How can a new client learn to develop the knowledge that they need in order to feel confident to buy a piece of porcelain or silver?

Read! There are so many wonderful books out there, be it the Compendium of British teacups or the Jackson’s Hallmarks: English, Scottish, Irish Silver & Gold Marks from 1300 to the Present Day, each one will help you broaden your knowledge as well as honing your eye.

Silver is a good thing to start with as hallmarks are clear identification to a piece’s history. From four legally stamped marks you can tell where it was made, by whom and when, allowing you to research the piece or start a collection based on a number of different themes. The same goes for later 19th or early 20th century ceramics where back stamps and markings make it much easier to understand what you are buying. This goes back to what I was saying about developing an appreciation for earlier pieces, once you understand the later objects you can branch out and learn about the more nuanced earlier pieces that are less well marked. The other thing I would suggest would be to visit the ceramic galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum because you will see pretty much every shape, style, movement and make of porcelain the world has every produced and it allows you to directly compare them with each other all in one room.

Building An Antiques Collection

Much like Designed By Woulfe, Dovecote Antiques have clients who are trying to build collections whilst also making certain that they fit within the space. How does Dovecote Antiques work with clients who are looking to build collections that also relate to everyday living?

More and more I have clients who want to be able to use their collections, whether for afternoon tea with friends or just as a way of documenting their life on social media. This is not any different from the original commissioners and buyers centuries ago who used porcelain and silver as a status symbol back before we had supercars and iPhones. The key thing to remember is condition – if you want to be able to use a piece then you need to be sure it will stand up to the rigours of what you plan to do with it. Whether that is putting coffee into your demitasse coffee cup or having Christmas dinner on an 1830s dinner service. There is no reason why you shouldn’t use it but any cracks, chips or damage will run the risk of getting worse if not handled properly. As long as you are careful, these items have lasted for hundreds of years and there is no reason to think they won’t last for another few centuries. Always feel you can ask the dealer as they handle these items all the time and are best placed to advise you on how to care for them.

Table set with early 20th century Minton porcelain, Georgian sterling silver and Edwardian English cut glass.

What does your own dream collection look like?

Minton porcelain, lots of it! Minton were the most important English factory of the 19th century and I have collected them now for over a decade, I must have getting on for 300 pieces but there are so many gaps in my collection it looks like a block of Swiss cheese. The thrill of the hunt is in the chase!

Who is your ideal client?

A couple who are both in love with collecting. If you have a couple where one of them is interested but the other isn’t, it makes the sale all the more difficult; if they both have the same enthusiasm then they egg each other on and it’s a pleasure to see the happiness a new find can bring. If you can’t have them then you want two friends who encourage each other regardless of what their respective spouses might say. My grandmother was one such collector and my grandfather was left in no doubt as to when his opinion was wanted, or in most cases not wanted. She and her friend had a ball, grandpa was allowed to carry the bags to the car…and pay!

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Set of Limoges porcelain coffee cups with and American Lenox porcelain silver overlay coffee pot, c.1910 Pair of Royal Doulton demitasse coffee cups, c.1910
Guest Interviewer

Tova Ossad

Designed By Woulfe has invited Tova Ossad of Ossad Art Management to interview a range of art world personalities. Her fifteen years’ experience working in that sphere has exposed her to many artists, auction specialists, art advisors, conservators, and gallerists, thereby giving the Design Journal fresh insight in the fundamentals of art. This series will explore buying, selling, appreciating, and everything in between.

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Tova Ossad of Ossad Art Management

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