Their best days - long before architectural salvage was rediscovered in the Eighties - were in the Thirties and the Fifties, when dealers' vans crammed with the grandeur of yesteryear (furniture, antique panelling, chimneypieces) queued daily outside the Crowthers' spacious 1840s villa in Fulham's North End Road. To sell to a Crowther was a privilege.
The sensitive tendrils of the family's intelligence network were the first to quiver at news of the country's noblest demo jobs, still recorded in a leather-bound notebook that is two generations old: Woodcote Park, Hertfordshire; Belvedere, Kent; the west side of Grosvenor Square; Badger Hall, Shropshire (whose 75 feet of finely carved George III panelling, still unsold 40 years after the hall's demolition, is estimated at pounds 5,000- pounds 10,000). Much of the rest is in the Crowther-furnished homes of American celebrities.
This three-day, biggest-ever auction of architectural salvage - 1,446 lots, from 12-14 October (10.30am daily) - will be a gala event, housed in an outsize marquee and monitored by closed-circuit video. It is the nearest to glitz that the North End Road has seen since the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Crowther's in 1954.
The disposal of a trader's entire stock at auction has become commonplace as the recession has deepened - Bonhams knocked out an unnamed dealer's stock of fine continental furniture on Thursday. But Crowther's is staying in business after the sale under Richard Crowther, the youngest of the three brothers directing the business. The other two, Tim and Michael, will take their share of the pounds 1m- pounds 1.5m that the sale is expected to make and go their separate ways. Things in the trade are not what they used to be.
Some of Christie's estimates are bullish - but do not be put off. Dealers still struggling with boom-time overdrafts will be reluctant to buy panelling in the hope that a client with a room to fit it will step out of the woodwork. Nor will dealers want to be stigmatised by being seen to buy 'dead stock' that they remember being bought by the brothers at auction - unless the price is irresistible. Moreover, the sheer size of the auction will tend to stretch pockets and keep prices in check.
It was the collapse of the late Eighties housing boom that put paid to the equally booming market for cast-iron garden furniture and statuary, architectural fittings and chimneypieces. Instead of the sell-outs of the boom years, Christie's last two sales, held in May and October at Wrotham Park, Hertfordshire, were only 76 and 65 per cent sold by value, despite reduced estimates.
A boom-induced glut of cheap reproduction cast-iron garden furniture and urns (spot them by their carelessly filed seams, contemporary salt-and-water rust, and iron instead of bronze nuts) has reduced prices of genuine Victorian ones by about 80 per cent for garden benches and 30 per cent for urns in the past 18 months.
The Crowther sale actually has more lead garden items than cast iron. Its set of three modern 19 1/2 in high lead urns, with scroll handles and acanthus leaves cast in high relief is, at pounds 300- pounds 500, an example of one of the sale's lower estimates. (The cheapest are 18 lots of rusting cast-iron fireplace linings from pounds 70- pounds 100, 30 lots of bundled door surrounds, wooden mouldings and floorboards from pounds 200- pounds 300, and 12 lots of marble oddments from pounds 200- pounds 300.)
There are 177 chimneypieces, many of them modern versions of the ornate French Louis style, estimated at around pounds 1,000. Estimates for genuine period carved marble chimneypieces start at around pounds 1,200 and are mostly in the low thousands. These are not give-away estimates, but remember that trade bidding will be weak and foreigners do not bid for English chimneypieces.
Bidding will be strongest for items most remote from the housing market, such as individually carved statuary. Age and quality (detail, fine carving) still confer value, and private buyers should not be put off if they hear dealers smirking that they recognise some lots from other auctions - your friends need never know that. An imposing life-size carved stone figure of Jupiter, of the late 17th or early 18th century, is estimated at pounds 8,000- pounds 12,000. A delicate 6ft 2 1/2 in Diana, in Victorian white marble, with greyhound, has the same estimate.
Some of the most spectacular lots are modern, such as the substantial 5ft-2 3/4 in-high pair of Italian white marble urns with loop handles and high-relief carved Bacchanalian procession, est pounds 10,000- pounds 15,000.
The star turn is 'The Hampton Court Moor', est pounds 30,000- pounds 50,000, a painted lead Moor in feathered skirt, kneeling and supporting a bronze sundial, commissioned from John Van Nost by William III around 1701. There is a complete Georgian shopfront, The Old Wine Vaults, formerly No 120 Brentford High Street, est pounds 1,000- pounds 2,000.
I met two of the Crowther brothers: Tim, 53, wore a cream short-sleeved shirt and Richard, 44, jeans and sports jacket. Both are bright-eyed and quick-witted and look about half their age. They sat in their office, half concealed behind a massive partners' desk, facing a delightfully eccentric Victorian mason's ironstone chimneypiece ( pounds 5,000- pounds 8,000) propped in bits against the wall.
Richard harked back to the queues of dealers' vans in the Fifties, when Crowther's stock turned over quarterly and it had up to 2,000 clients a year. Then, about 15 country houses a week were being demolished.
'We could afford to be choosy,' he said. 'We creamed off whatever we wanted.' But by the Sixties demolitions were tailing off.
Tim said: 'It's just not fun any more. In the old days you could just shake hands on a deal. That was business. Now there is all this paperwork. Less than 5 per cent of my time is spent dealing - and that's what I'm good at.'
(The telephone rang. It was the PAYE people. 'Bugger,' said Richard.)
'What's more,' Tim continued, 'the clientele has changed. When I first came here, aged 16, you could always recognise money coming through the door. Money always dressed very much up or very much down. Now you have no idea. They can come in jeans and shirt and spend a lot, or in a suit and you don't know when you're going to make a sale.
'The money has changed hands. A lot of new money is getting into new markets which auctioneers such as Christie's have created - picture postcards, that sort of thing - and good luck to it. But it is not being educated in Georgian furniture and antiques.'
Among the treasures in the firm's historical archive, stored in box files, are some pencilled notes, a relic of how some rival dealers used to behave in the bad old days.
'It's a knock-out,' Richard said.
He explained by giving a quick briefing on the illicit practice of auction 'ringing' and 'knock- outs'. To avoid raising prices by bidding against one another, dealers would secretly form a 'ring' and nominate a single member of it to bid. Afterwards, each lot bought would be 'knocked-out' - that is, re-auctioned - among the ring. As each ring member dropped out of the bidding, he would be awarded a share of the profit on the auction price.
According to the faded archive papers, dating from the early Fifties, a chimneypiece bought by the ring for pounds 60 at auction (six times Tim's weekly wage in those days) had been knocked out to a ring member at pounds 82 10s - a loss of pounds 22 10s to the auctioneer.
We moved to the lots, among them a fearsome, almost life-size composition stone sculpture of a lion attacking a kid, after the Victorian Oscar Waldmann, estimated at pounds 1,500- pounds 2,000. 'I always buy what I like,' said Tim. 'It's the only way.'
Then came a pair of mid-18th- century English lead figures of summer and autumn, more than 4ft high, attributed to the celebrated John Cheere, est pounds 30,000- pounds 50,000. 'The interesting thing about these,' said Richard - or was it Tim? - 'is that they were consigned to Sotheby's on condition that Sotheby's did not say where they had come from.' (They were bought for pounds 8,800 at Sotheby's in 1982.)
At this point, Philip Belcher of Christie's, who had shifted in his seat and made strange hand signals when the brothers were going on about auction ringing, appeared to be about to give a demonstration of spontaneous combustion. It was clearly time to take photographs and leave.
Photographs? Mr Belcher (wearing business suit and purple tie) conferred briefly with the brothers and it was announced that they would not be photographed because they were not wearing business suits.
Incensed, I went and complained to Ginger, the cat, which lives in the marble workshop. She raised a whisker and told me that members of the Crowther dynasty were perfectly entitled to dress down. Anyway, she said mischievously, it was just another of those image problems - the best way to pack the auction would be to cancel the marquee, fib that every lot had fallen off a lorry and pose a scruffy cat with one of the top lots.
T Crowther and Son, 282 North End Road, London SW6 - no business connection with Crowther (architectural and garden antiques) of Syon Lodge, Middlesex. Viewing: Wednesday 7 October to Saturday 10 October (10am-6pm daily). Christie's (071-839 9060).
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