Thursday, January 22, 2009

"A colony of bats would have been better protected": Antique dealers an endangered species as Anthropologie muscles in

There was the unmistakeable whiff of the sepulchre about Antiquarius this morning following the news that the Grade II listed Arts & Crafts period building on the Kings Road will be occupied later this year by wealthy US fashion giant Anthropologie. (See my earlier story here).

Fifteen minutes after opening time this morning there was barely a dealer in sight, the only activity coming from the on-site greasy spoon that serves the dealers who show here. The handful of traders who had bothered to turn up looked as if their world was about to end as they wearily unlocked their stands. Most were unprepared to talk. Perhaps they fear that publicizing the imminent closure of the centre could dampen what little business is left to scrape together before everyone is finally evicted in a few months time.

The deal that now looks almost certain to go through would allow wealthy US fashion chain Anthropologie, (which also sells antiques and decorative objects from its 100 stores across the US), to acquire the lease from owners retail property investment company London & Associated Properties (LAP). Since acquiring it in 2006, LAP has made several attempts to secure planning permission to develop the building, but all their applications have been turned down. However, this doesn't seem to have stopped them going ahead with internal structural alterations.

Under the new deal, Anthropologie will work under the auspices of English Heritage to fund and execute a restoration of the listed building (right, constructed in the 1920s by the Temperance Movement) before turning the Kings Road premises into its first London outlet.

Before restoration can begin — which insiders say will commence this summer in time for a planned Anthropologie opening before Christmas — permission must be granted by the owners of the building, Cadogan Estates. All the signs are, however, that approval will be granted, particularly now that local residents' associations have approved the plan.

One dealer who was prepared to talk about the imminent closure was ivory dealer Malcolm Simpson who has been trading at Antiquarius for 35 years. "If we had been a colony of bats, we'd have been better protected than we have been," said Mr Simpson. "They don't care about the dealers who occupy the building. We don't matter. We have never been asked or told about anything, or ever invited to a meeting. All decisions have been taken without consulting us."

Mr Simpson, who pays £450 per month for his stand, believes that the centre will have ceased trading in a few months time. "We used to have an annual lease on our stands. Then a year or so ago, when they began discussions to sell the building, they halved the lease to six months. Then recently it was cut to a month. Now we're all on borrowed time."

Mr Simpson remembers when the same property company, LAP, evicted all the dealers from another of its antiques centres, Chenil House just 100 yards down the Kings Road. The building was subsequently let to the Daisy & Tom childrens' toy and fashion company. However, Daisy & Tom soon closed and the Chenil building, like the Mall Antiques Centre in Islington — yet another recent victim of LAP's voracious business plan — now stands forlornly unoccupied.

One Antiquarius silver dealer who asked not to be named also expressed disgust at the way the dealers have been treated by their landlords but accepted that times change. "I've been here 30 years," he said. "Nobody has asked me once what I think or has ever spoken to me once about what's going on. We're all being kept in the dark. Nobody knows what's happening or whether we'll have to leave. That's big business for you. Fashion. It's all money, money, money. You just have to accept it and move on."

Wandering the dark warren of shuttered stands at Antiquarius this morning, one sensed that an era — and another strand of the UK antiques trade — was drawing to an end. Outside one could see further evidence of how antiquated and behind the times Antiquarius had become. The painted sign attached to the wall of the building in Flood Street announces the presence of "over 120 dealers" (today there are barely 50), while the sign still shows the telephone number as 0171, a code that changed almost ten years ago.

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