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Antiques Shops & Designers Magazine

At Home with the Lord of Antiques

Dear Diva Readers,

top: 5px; float: left; color: white; background: #781300; border: 1px solid darkkhaki; font-size: 60px; line-height: 50px; padding-top: 1px; padding-right: 5px; font-family: times;”>Have you seen the current issue of Antique Shops and Designers Magazine? In this issue you’ll find an article by me titled “At Home with The Lord of Antiques” featuring one of my favorite antique dealers. Spencer Swaffer is known by many names.  Some call him The Flea Man. The French refer to him as “L’inévitable”because it’s inevitable he’ll be the first in line at the best antiques trade fairs buying the best pieces of stock. His look is old money grandeur with a humorous twist – effortlessly glamorous and achingly stylish. I simply bow when I address him as “The Lord of Antiques”.

English Antiques, Buying antiques in Europe

For forty years Spencer Swaffer has been holding court in a tiny market town in West Sussex fifty miles southwest of London. His business today is one of the most celebrated in the world of decorative antiques with his client list reading like a Who’s Who in the world of interiors. Top antique dealers and designers consider Spencer a compulsory port of call.  While his clients are from both trade and private sectors – Spencer describes himself as a dealer’s dealer. His dog is even named “Dealer” though he claims that was the name the pedigree association gave the puppy and that destiny simply intervened, bringing them together.

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Despite the store’s exalted position at the top of the trade it remains what it has always been – the place where the antiques trade comes to buy. In short Spencer Swaffer prices his merchandise to move. “I own my building,” Spencer explains, “I have no borrowing, and overheads are low in the countryside. If I buy something for £2,000 I am happy to turn it over for £2,200 – and I always have been. I always say I can’t wait to buy it – and then I can’t wait to sell it!” And sell it he does. One of the most successful decorative antiques dealers in the world,  his total annual sales are rumored to top £4m with 85% of his business coming from overseas buyers.

Buying antiques in Europe

Spencer thinks the secret of his success as an antiques dealer comes from paying close attention to the antiques trends. “I am in the fashion business, not in the antiques business,” he explains. He doesn’t just watch the trends, he sets them. Spencer stills does all the buying for the shop himself and his exclusive eye choreographs not only his own collections but with so many dealers buying direct from him he has shaped the stock found in some of the top antique stores around the world.

He’s candid about the business, explaining the only way to learn what sells “is to buy something and listen to why the dealers won’t buy it.”  He notes with a wry grin, “The professionals will tell you why they aren’t buying something, but they will never tell you why they are!”

Spencer is the consummate professional. He should be – he’s been doing this job since the ripe old age of 11. As a child, Spencer trawled the hills around his home looking for Neolithic flints and shards of Roman pottery and after amassing an impressive collection he dubbed his childhood bedroom.  The Swaffer Museum charging friends and family admission. When BBC radio got wind of Spencer’s museum, they featured him on the air, giving the young lad his first brush with fame. By chance, an antiques dealer from Brighton heard the program and made an appointment to visit Spencer’s collection. He paid his admission fee but then offered Spencer another 50 quid for two pieces of Egyptian pottery. Realizing he would rather have the money than the exhibits, Spencer didn’t miss a trick. He instantly converted his bedroom from museum to antiques shop. And the rest is history.

Buying antiques in England

Today clients purchasing from Spencer buy with the same speed and enthusiasm. Spencer’s stock changes so fast it will make your head spin.  Spencer remarks, “If you love it, buy it. Trust your instinct – buy what speaks to you.” Every piece is unique and impossible to repeat. With the constantly revolving inventory and parade of international buyers his showroom décor changes nearly every two weeks.

Buying antiques in England

Spencer’s rambling 6000 square foot showrooms range over four floors in an Elizabethan bow front dating back to the late 16th century. The building meanders as invitingly today as it did when it was an inn nearly 400 years ago. Coffee and tea are always ready to be served. And if you arrive late in the afternoon a glass of wine is sure to be offered. Behind the store a walled garden is tucked below Arundel Castle – a restored romantic medieval castle that gives one fantasies of the Knights of the Round Table. His courtyard beckons invitingly with a Roman font and garden statuary.

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Spencer’s home – like his shop – is equally inviting. He and his wife, Freya, live in a double fronted Georgian townhouse located a short stroll from his shop, convenient for meeting clients by appointment after opening hours. For years he lived in an apartment above his shop – but occasionally clients would accidentally wander up the stairs and begin labeling their desired purchases with shipping stickers. Today Spencer and Freya ‘s house has a shiny red door no one can miss. It’s flanked with white columns and has a walled garden set into the hillside where Freya lends her hand nurturing English herbaceous classics and cultivating a kitchen garden. The palm frocks dotted around the property give a touch of the unexpected – a sense of the English Riveria – owing to a micro climate created by the walled gardens.

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And while Spencer might be The Lord of Antiques, Freya is clearly the Lady of the Manor. After purchasing the property they immediately began a renovation process that spanned 6 months stripping centuries away to uncover the period details. The result is inviting and comfortable nodding slightly towards the rustic with its unvarnished original wide oak floorboards and an 18th C limestone fireplace Spencer sourced in France. While Freya handled the day-to-day management of the renovation project, she concedes that Spencer did take a keen interest in the decorative aspects.

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Perhaps the most striking difference between Spencer’s home and his store is the paired down approach. Freya explains, “Less is more.” The couple allows each piece in their home to breath – using muted colors on the walls and casual fabrics on upholstered pieces. While the shop is constantly changing, Spencer and Freya’s home stays reassuringly the same, save for the odd object getting replaced now and then. Their home is sparser, cleaner and a tad more ethnic than you’d find in shop. And while there is a country influence in the decor, this 200 year old home feels decisively contemporary with open spaces and light filtering from the southern coast of England into the windows. The kitchen kitted out with the most modern of fittings juxtaposing the 18th C with the 21st reminding one of how the grand country English manors layer time over time.

Where to find him:

Spencer Swaffer Antiques
30 High St, Arundel,
West Sussex County
BN18 9AB, United Kingdom


Bonne Shopping,

The Antiques Diva®

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