Over the years people have asked me how I got into the business of being an international antique dealer specialising in collectables between London, Paris and New York. A career that spanned thirty years until the arrival of EBay which effectively 'killed' the business as I worked on the international culture gap having hundreds of enthusiastic clients worldwide. I was the only link culturally and linguistically for these private collectors and small niche private and public museums for at least 20 years without any competition. The digital age had not yet arrived. The digital revolution that made or broke people.
In the early 1970s I lived at 2, Warwick Mansions, Pond Street, South Hampstead, North London above the famous cafe, Prompt Corner where intellectuals played chess on the clock, including my artist companion Maurice Sumray. There was a blue plaque on the wall commemorating where George Orwell of 'Animal Farm' fame had lived and worked. Julian Huxley, brother of Aldus Huxley of Brave new world fame, also had a house on Pond Street opposite where they were, in my time, building The Royal Free Hospital. I watched it being constructed bit by bit. My florist friend June had the flower shop inside the entrance with stories to tell like myself like how she came to supply The Sultan of Brunei.
I rented a cute bedsit in a large Victorian flat from Brian Sewell a highly qualified English language teacher for adult foreign students. TEFL courses had not yet happened so he was ahead of his time. He rented me a room where I lived with my handsome French fiancé Philippe Amos, speaking French every day, Anne who led a hippy life smoking pot with her bloke having inherited money from her aunt, my dear friend Barbara Costa from Brazil who I had befriended in Rio in 1970/1 and who had a brief affair with the famous film music score writer Stanley Myers and sexually hungry promiscuous Trisha Hooker (yes, her real name), who was from time to time into modelling, waitressing and sex but without charging for it! And one large grey fluffy pedigree Persian cat owned by Trisha who was never the same after persons unknown dossed down for the night in the kitchen with the cat!
Anne had a part time job in a health food store in Hampstead village and was underpaid. Because of this we were invited to 'lift' whatever we wished off the shelves, like olive oil or unusual foreign bio products, unheard in the 70s. Well, the manageress helped herself openly, so why not Anne? A funny feeling to take something without paying for it!! I did not feel guilty. In fact I thought it was a fun thing to do.
Anne scurried around every Saturday to church jumble sales sourcing pieces of vintage lace and textiles. She had become quite an authority on textiles and her idea was to stockpile and sell on a stall 'under the bridge' eking out her living when her i heritage had run out. Under the bridge was the cheap end of the Portobello Road flea market, after pushing through crowds buying fruit and vegetables from stalls on Friday mornings. One had to know that this was where one got stuff for pennies not pounds!
I bought my first flat and moved to West Hampstead, 8 Alexandra Mansions on West End Green. At 25 I had become a property owner having had a Trust Fund set up by my father who, in his wisdom, had probably thought that by 25 I would have married and 'settled' down to a conventional domestic family life. It was my dowry so to speak! Of course property is a better investment than a husband and I was certainly not looking for one of those.
I worked in Oxford Street as a travel agent in the beginnings of tourism but eventually after three jobs over several years, was made redundant. I felt useless. No aim in life, no goals, no money in the bank. In fact I was forced to 'sign on'. I felt disgraced and ended up in the labour office seeing a far sighted careers officer who asked me what was my interest in life. All I could say was travel and languages. I was immediately offered a three month TEFL training at International House in London. They would support me from September to January, pay for my keep and rent during the training and the teacher training course. This changed my direction for a few years but that is another story about my life as a teacher of English for foreign adult students of all classes and ages worldwide. Meanwhile I got a temporary job selling American Express credit cards on a commission basis to the whole of the Mayfair and ended up selling to all the stall holders in the Bond Street Antique Arcade. My first selling experience of an intangible service that was a new way of taking sales money in London and presumably the UK.
My dream, when I got to Paris in 1977, after Mexico and the US, was to be like an English Art Nouveau glass dealer I had been introduced to in Paris. The woman invited me to her flat and showed me her glass stock sourced in Paris and thence sold in Portobello Road Market in London. She had valuable Daum, Galle and Lalique collectable pieces. I was hooked.
Even though I loved these treasures visually, I knew this niche market was not for me but the idea of travelling, buying and selling plus the freedom and independence that came with being self employed thrilled me. How I longed to escape the routine of working at the OECD in Paris from 9.00 to 5.00. Walking in dog shit every morning. There had to be better way. But how could I enter this international, no borders, world without liquid money and knowledge? It was a dream which infiltrated my subconscious.
I had been introduced to the Portobello market as early as 1969 one Saturday by a Greek psychiatrist called George. A never to be forgotten day. I had always loved craft and flea markets but never imagined that I would one day have a stand of my own for 25 years. A quarter of a century!
How did all this happen to an adventurous girl from Liverpool?
One day I was on holiday in London for a couple of weeks before returning to my job in Paris in chic La Muette, 16em where the pavements were full of dog shit instead of gold.
Walking up West End Lane, West Hampstead near my flat, I ran into my old friend Anne. 'Come to my stall under the bridge on Friday', she suggested. We would then be able to have a fun morning catching up on life. I also arranged to meet Pat, an old teaching colleague, in the famous tourist pub at the top end of Portobello Road 'The sun in splendour' at 1.00 for a typical pub lunch of bangers and mash washed down by a lager.
I arrived 'under the bridge' (The Westway) to see Anne in all her glory standing on a wool rug, but no chair to sit down on, behind the six foot trestle table loaded with interesting junk found at jumble fairs and charity shops for pennies. She wore a leather school satchel round her neck and was wearing a big smile. Everything on the table was 50p to £1. In 1971 England had gone decimal and people were struggling to adjust to the new currency. What a load of interesting rubbish she had collected!
We chatted standing on the half moon rug. It was made of wool and I recall making several as a hobby when I first left home at 19 so I had recognised the make - Reddycut. You had a special wooden apparatus to pull the tufts of cut wool through the holes on the stamped design canvas. I knew the time it had taken to make. Hours!!!!
A woman came by. Obviously French from her heavy accent asking, 'How much is zeeee rug?'
'Oh no, not for sale', said Anne.
'Why?' I asked. 'I need something to stand on.' was the curious illogical reply.
'Do you want to sell it?' I asked her, puzzled at her logic as she had paid for the table in order to sell her wares.
'I don't care because I only paid 40p in Oxfam for it!'
With that I grabbed the rug, speaking in French, bien sur, of the complete history of the rug, hand made pre 1945 during the war in England. Feel the quality without saying the width! She touched it!!!
'It's a steal at £5.50.'
'I'll take it!'
The woman, on questioning her, had a rug and carpet stand in the Paris flea market Clignancourt and had just got herself the bargain of the 70s.
I, on the other hand, had an epiphany. I realised I had the gift of the gab. I knew I could sell ice to the Eskimos. I experienced a shudder coursing through my body from my head to my feet.
Hang on, I thought. You buy for 40p and sell for £5.50. Why aren't i doing this and making a huge profit? I can buy in London and sell in Paris. But what I had no idea yet but I was going to have fun finding out!!! Anne was stupefied. Nothing she had could be worth more than £1. So she thought. How wrong she was.
My motto has always been in life. If you don't ask, you don't get.
Eureka! I had found what I wanted to do in life. I was going to follow my original dream and go back to Paris to be an antiques dealer!
My Jewish instincts must have risen through the decades of time from the world beyond. My grandfather Abraham Lyons from Swansea had been a specialist in Georgian silver, having two shops, while my grandmother Augusta had specialised in small furniture and porcelain. I had never met either of them unfortunately but had seen lots of sepia photographs of their portraits. I had even inherited a sepia professional photograph of a pair of Mathew Boulton George 111 candlesticks with the inscription on the reverse written in ink - Gillian Tessa. My birth name.
Fate had taken over. I was destined to become the Gillian Tessa, the antique dealer later to become known professionally as Jilliana.
I raced up to my meeting with Pat in the pub elated.
'Somethings happened to you. I can see it in your eyes. They are alive and sparkling'. She observed.
'Yes', I replied, 'I'm going back to Paris to be an antiques dealer'.
And that my friends, is another story how it came to pass.
Written in Aegina, Greece, September 2015.