Blog Post No. 172
Antiques and Collectibles: A Cross-Cultural Journey of Expertise and Appreciation with Jonathan Coulborn
Meet Jonathan Coulborn, the passionate steward of Thomas Coulborn & Sons, an establishment with a rich legacy. As the grandson of the founders, he carries forward their tradition and has earned international acclaim among collectors, decorators, and museum curators.
With a broad experience, including time at Sotheby’s and leadership roles in prestigious associations, Jonathan’s expertise in Furniture History is unmatched.
To connect with this expert, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Discover the priceless secrets hidden within remarkable antiques and collectibles, as Jonathan Coulborn, a seasoned expert in the field, unveils their astonishing stories!
The conversation covers the fascinating process of vetting and curating furniture for exhibitions and fairs, as well as the challenges and rewards of dealing with international clients and curators. From tales of exciting discoveries to the meticulous art of assessing an item’s authenticity and provenance, this interview provides an informative glimpse into the passion-infused realm of antiques. History aficionados, aspiring collectors, and anyone intrigued by the beauty of the past will find themselves engrossed in the stories shared throughout this captivating discussion.
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Farnaz Fazaipour 0:34
Hello, and welcome to London Property, The Home of Super Prime. I’m your host Farnaz Fazaipour. And today we’re in conversation with Johnny Coulborn, who is third generation antique dealer of Thomas Coulborn & Sons. Welcome to the show.
Jonathan Coulborn 0:49
Thank you Farnaz very nice to see.
Farnaz Fazaipour 0:51
So we’re gonna just go straight into explaining to our listeners a little bit about your background and how you’ve become to be an authority in the subject of antiques.
Jonathan Coulborn 1:00
Absolutely. Well, my background, I am now the third generation of a family business set up in the middle of England, dealing in antiques. And so over the years, this business develops and goes into different areas. And I’m specialising in 18th century furniture, great objects, especially items of sort of cross cultural interest, Chinese export things, Anglo-Indian things, that sort of thing. I came into it originally by starting off in the auction world. So after university, I worked with Sotheby’s for a while. Got lots of experience, had a lot of fun, was in Madrid and then London, and then came back and worked with my father and to develop a business into what I wanted it to be.
Farnaz Fazaipour 1:48
Okay. Now, just from a technical perspective, what would be considered an antique? And how has that evolved since you started in business?
Jonathan Coulborn 1:58
Yes, from a technical perspective, antiques always used to be any object or piece of furniture over 100 years old. And back in our parents generation had to be old things that made them kind of worthy. Now, I think there is a more kind of evolved view of the Art and Antique world. And so items of great design that might not be as old as that are falling into the same kind of market if you like. And if you go to a great show, you’ll see dealers of 20th century standing next to dealers of 18th and 19th century and really these days people focus on what’s a piece of great design, whether it’s 18th century design or 20th century design.
Farnaz Fazaipour 2:41
So being of great design and being unique, is kind of come into the collections world.
Jonathan Coulborn 2:46
Yes, I think people now appreciate more the actual beauty of the object. And what I mean by that is there was a period of time years ago, when people were trying to recreate a whole sort of plateau, a whole interior. Maybe they like the idea of an 18th century house. And we’re just trying to sort of reproduce that all the way across. Whereas now you see people actually taking an interest in the object. And you sometimes see people collecting objects from different periods. But just so they’ve got things that they love to live with and enjoy.
Farnaz Fazaipour 3:18
And would you say that there’s different categories. I mean, obviously, you said that you specialise in furniture, but they’re broadly speaking different categories.
Jonathan Coulborn 3:27
Yeah, so very much different categories. Some dealers get very focused on one particular category, we are a little bit more eclectic, I follow my tastes. And that might be in a piece made in China for the English market in middle of the 18th century. Or it might be something made in South America, also for export. But showing the different influences of design, you know, the western influences, then the more local influences where they’ve been made. And so I could have objects from all over the world and from slightly different time periods, which which we sort of bring together as our offerings to the market.
Farnaz Fazaipour 4:09
So with an expert eye, it’s actually something that you can see that this was actually made to be exported, rather than made for their own local markets.
Jonathan Coulborn 4:19
Yes, definitely. Definitely. expertise is really important. So we study everything we buy very carefully. We then conserve it and research it before then offering it to market. So people coming to us know that we’ve done all this work on the item and that we’ve believed in the item trust the item and knowledgeable about the item, which is the kind of advantage of working with a dealer
Farnaz Fazaipour 4:44
Since you’ve been in the market and obviously you’ve had plenty of conversations with your family who have been in there for generations. Have you seen that the new generation has a different relationship with antiques and they’re collecting differently?
Jonathan Coulborn 5:00
Yes, I think if you sort of chart the last 10 years or so, there was a period where antiques were perceived as being out of fashion, there was a bit of a reaction against those generations of sort of traditional interiors. And we had this kind of minimalism period where, where people were trying to sort of declutter and have new sort of objects of note, if you like, in their houses. And I think that has moved on now, into a period where we see people, yes, they might be collecting contemporary art, but they have developed the confidence to actually find an older piece, very beautiful, and find a space for it within the interior. So I think I think things have changed. And, and I think what’s happened to therefore is that the kind of the lower end of antiques, I think people call brown furniture has become less interesting and less valuable. Because fundamentally, they’re just furniture. Whereas when you get aiming at the top end of production of amazing things humans have made, then it’s beyond just furniture, it’s a work of art as well. And it’s an item of beauty and so can be mixed in with other periods.
Farnaz Fazaipour 6:14
And has it managed to hold its value?
Jonathan Coulborn 6:18
Yes, I mean, you don’t go into antiques as a pure investment, because there’s a lot of cost in the process of buying and selling and conservation and producing. But people who’ve bought great antiques will always have a retain value, whereas people who’ve bought things without merit, have to get rid of them. So yeah, definitely things hold value.
Farnaz Fazaipour 6:40
And what type of people come to you? And I mean at what stage in their journey do you find that people come to you?
Jonathan Coulborn 6:45
Well, we have a mixture of clientele, if you like, I guess you could sort of put them into three categories. Really, first of all, we do a lot with museums. So international museums will come to see us seeing what we have seeing if there’s anything we have that makes sense to incorporate in their collections. And so you know, we’re happy happy to have sold to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the Dion in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, lots of big museums in the States. Plus here, we sold to the British Museum, the V&A, and to various smaller museums around the country. So that’s an important part of our business. And but then also, we have private collectors who perhaps have got to nurse at a fair or through our website. And some of them are buying, just because they want to own the object. Whereas others drift into the category of actually wanting it to furnish a particular part of their house. And then that kind of, I suppose merges into the third category of, of buying pattern, which is people who are just furnishing not really collectors, but just want some beautiful things. And some of them come on their own. Some of them come with their interior designers for advice on where to place things. But they also thoroughly enjoy the things they buy, but then they don’t necessarily become collectors repeating. It doesn’t matter.
Farnaz Fazaipour 8:13
So you must have come across some incredible pieces. What would you say is the oldest most amazing thing you’ve seen?
Jonathan Coulborn 8:21
The oldest thing it would be would be probably this wonderful panel that we have, that was commissioned in the time of Henry the Eighth, carved of an English King, made for a house near Goodwood. And this was a little bit of a discovery. And we found that the other panels in the series is one of the V&A and there’s another at the Museum of London. And we had that dated, we used carbon dating process and they dated that to the sort of early 1500s. So that’s an exciting piece.
Farnaz Fazaipour 8:55
Wow. And then what about, you know, finding something really amazing in in junk sales or something? Have you ever come across something like that?
Jonathan Coulborn 9:03
It’s a lovely thought. Of course, it does happen a little bit.
Farnaz Fazaipour 9:08
On the Antique Roadshow.
Jonathan Coulborn 9:10
But funnily enough, we did buy something from the Antique Roadshow, which ended with a leather chest of drawers made of Queen Anne, and it featured on the roadshow before it came to us. But one’s always looking. But these days with the internet, most sales are very well publicised. But it’s a case of finding something you think has got special merits and that you can add some value by researcher conservation.
Farnaz Fazaipour 9:33
And you touched a little bit about cross cultural and things being made in different places and exported. But can you just educate us a bit more on cross cultural?
Jonathan Coulborn 9:40
Yes, it’s an area of collecting now, which I think is growing enormously and certainly in the museum’s. There is a thirst for this sort of material. So what we’re talking about, I mean, all items really have some kind of reference to what’s come with or if you think about it sort of philosophically, there is always a kind of influence on the artist on the craftsman. But furniture particularly, and objects are often drawing on classical references for their shape for their decoration for their carving. And so you can you get a sense as you as you become interested in the subject of what each country’s furniture trends look like. And, but then also, because we were a nation of traders of travellers starting as early as the 17th century, and not just us, but lots of other countries, but we’re very, very busy trading and travelling. And so very quickly, you see influences moving around. And, you know, there’ll be boats leaving from America, which would be dropping into Portsdown, the west coast of South America would then be going to China. And all of these boats were moving things, items and craftsmen with them. And so what I find particularly interesting is that within that trade, you would find business setup in China has cut seen that lots of porcelain has been sold back to went back to Europe, back to England to back to America. But then they decided, well, they could make some furniture to also sell back to these countries to increase trade. And they in order to try and find the right furniture to sell to the west, they would base their designs on Western designs quite often using perhaps a drawing book, Chip ‘n Dale design book was in China within about 10 years of it being published. And so you that what happens then is you get a piece of furniture that to the sort of casual eye looks like a piece of English furniture. But then as you investigate more deeply, you realise, first of all, perhaps it’s made as a final quality, very kind of exotic and revered word in China, you then find that the way it’s constructed is differently and that the some of the motifs might be different. So instead of a classic English foot with perhaps a lions pour on it, there’s the face of a Chinese dragon. And so all of these little quirks make for me, very interesting objects, very interesting works of art, if you like. And it was happening in lots of places. So that’s an area that we are very interested in.
Farnaz Fazaipour 12:36
Sounds fascinating, I think, I think you’re right. So the other thing I wanted to ask you is, what’s the impact of sustainability in the circular economy on your business?
Jonathan Coulborn 12:48
Well, one of the sort of great advantages of antiques, of course, is it is the ultimate recycling of furniture. And we’re preserving things made by wonderful craftsmen and wonderful artists, for many, many years ago. And the whole process of buying and selling them and conserving them, is making sure that they continue for another generation. There is, of course, the other side of our business, which is that exhibitions and travel aren’t as sustainable as they should be. And I know a lot of work is being done in the major exhibitions to try and have a more sustainable culture in terms of the recycling of materials and so on.
Farnaz Fazaipour 13:29
The other question I had is, how do you address the source of some of these items, even if there were 100 years ago?
Jonathan Coulborn 13:35
Well, sourcing is important on a couple of levels on an academic level. You, you study an item in order to establish where it was made. And you can also bring in elements of analysis. We use dendrochronology, we use carbon dating. So we’re trying to be as accurate as we possibly can about the actual creative source if you like. The other important question about sourcing is, of course, provenance. Has it come from a correct source or legal owner, and these days, and it’s very important to be sure that items have left other countries legally and correct paperwork as a company that and we have to study all of that when we’re deciding to make an acquisition.
Farnaz Fazaipour 14:27
So, last but not least, can you talk to us about what are the advantages for our listeners to be using a business like yours versus going to regular auction house to buy their antiques?
Jonathan Coulborn 14:40
Well, the advantage of working with a specialist dealer is that they have already pre selected the items that they own that they offer in their gallery. So the filtering process has happened already and the the expertise of the of the dealer It has been applied to the item. So in an auction, you may have things that are not necessarily of great condition. And so a dealer has decided that he’s going to choose the rare item, the interesting item, the great example. And so when you go to an auction, you’re you’re on your own if you like, when you’re going to an antique dealership, you already have a pre selection of items with with expertise and seriousness behind it.
Farnaz Fazaipour 15:32
So the stamp of approval has been given because you’ve you’ve actually chosen to buy it.
Jonathan Coulborn 15:36
Yes, the dealer has actually chosen to purchase the item. So we are very careful about what we choose to buy. And that is absolutely a stamp of approval.
Farnaz Fazaipour 15:46
And is there an additional layer to what you do, whereas people can come to you and ask you to actually use your knowledge and your context? So I source things for them?
Jonathan Coulborn 15:55
Yes, sometimes people are looking for something very specific, which evidently we may not have in stock. And so we’re very happy to work with people to see what we can find to suit their needs to suit their spaces.
Farnaz Fazaipour 16:08
And before we thank you for joining us and saying goodbye, are you finding that the age group of collectors, younger collectors is reappearing, maybe, you know, they’ve now become of an age where they’re settling down. And they’re sort of getting nostalgic about what they grew up with, with their parents that maybe they’re showing some renewed interest in the in the world of antiques.
Jonathan Coulborn 16:31
I think the age group of collectors is is is different in all parts of the world, actually. And it all comes at different moments in people’s lives. Obviously, buying beautiful things can often be expensive. So sometimes it’s later in life when people feel they have the funds to make those changes. But I think also there’s a genuine growing interest in people’s environment in their home environment and what they’re living with. And we have clients in their 30s through all the way through to my oldest client was in his mid 90s. And they’re all equally happy with their purchases.
Farnaz Fazaipour 17:05
Well, it’s always good to have a project. I met a 100 year old lady who told me to always have a project.
Jonathan Coulborn 17:10
Farnaz Fazaipour 17:12
Thank you very much for talking to us. It was really, really fascinating. We look forward to having you back on the show on the near future.
Jonathan Coulborn 17:18
Thank you very much, Farnaz, I enjoyed it.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai