Daylight robbery

Bermondsey antiques market used to be repository for stolen goods - and, even with a change in the law, it still has a shady atmosphere

"Are you guys here on vacation?" a stallholder enquired of the two Americans in a passable impression of Michael Caine. "We're from Seattle, Washington," they beamed as he sandwiched their fancy crockery in sheets of The Daily Telegraph. "Well," he counter-beamed, "on the west coast of the United States, these go for an absolute fortune. I'd go myself, but I can't get the time off." Exit two very happy customers.

Wrapping up a sale in style is old hat for the traders of New Caledonian Market. At some unnaturally early hour on a Friday morning, hundreds of temporary antiques stalls are erected on Bermondsey Square, off Tower Bridge Road. The serious trading all takes place before dawn - a flurry of deals are done and dusted under seedy orange street lights well before the official opening time at seven. Well-dressed antiques dealers arrive some time after six with magnifying glasses, dictaphones and torches, while the bleary public straggle in with the daylight.

Until 1994, Bermondsey was a "market overt" which meant that goods bought here between sunrise and sunset were the legal property of the purchaser, whether they were stolen or not. The law was changed to stub out a gleefully orgiastic trade in stolen goods which culminated in 1992 when council worker Jim Groves bought a Gainsborough portrait for pounds 85 and a Reynolds for pounds 60. It emerged later that these were stolen from Lincoln's Inn and valued at upwards of pounds 100,000.

An article in The Evening Standard, a year later, revealed the scale of the problem. After burglars had removed almost 300 antiques from a Georgian house in Kensington, the mightily pissed-off owner's daughter set about their retrieval. On one stall alone she discovered 71 items of family property, with dozens more arriving in subsequent weeks. Innocently passing on stolen goods under cover of "market overt" is one thing, but harbouring stolen goods is another, as the stallholder discovered when his house was raided a few days later.

As its name suggests, New Caledonian Market has its origins in North London. It was started by enterprising pedlars who occupied empty pens of the Metropolitan Cattle Market between market days. Although it closed during the war, it reopened at its current location in 1950.

Arriving early at Bermondsey Market (as it is colloquially known) is the proverbial Catch 22 situation. If you don't know your antiques onions, the darkness can only hinder your chances of spotting a bargain, but turn up too late and all that remains is stylish bric-a-brac. In the gloom, a Wedgwood Pearl Dessert Service was going for pounds 440, soon reduced to a "best price" offer of pounds 380 with a casual look of weary bewilderment. On the next stall, a pair of two-foot silver-rimmed ox-horn ceremonial drinking cups were a snip at pounds 300.

Bermondsey Market can be a surreal place around daybreak. An enquiry about a splendid 1930s gramophone (above) - "pounds 200 with 10 records thrown in" - led to a melancholy and beautifully scratchy demonstration by the light of the moon. Indoor stalls muscle into the mayhem around the edge of the square, while grander premises lurk further up Tower Bridge Road.

While the market as a whole is safe enough, Bermondsey St is a place to keep your wits about you. Just after eight o'clock, I witnessed the frighteningly professional fleecing of a group of Italian tourists who were relieved of pounds 800 in signed Eurocheques by a man posing as a dealer outside an antiques shop. He was last seen scuttling down the fire escape before hot-footing it in the direction of London Bridge station.

Caveat emptor, as they say in Italy.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Specialist

    £21000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an e...

    Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

    Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

    £24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

    Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat