To a young would-be jewellery collector, enthusiastic but ignorant, an introduction to S. J. Phillips was an intoxicating if intimidating experience. At first sight, with its plush carpets and highly polished display cabinets containing priceless jewels, antique silver, gold boxes and objets de vertu, S. J. Phillips resembled other grand West End emporia, but here, in place of the traditional cloistral hush ("Sir would perhaps prefer . . ."), was incessant noise and bustle, loud voices carrying across the heads of fur-coated dowagers, and a crackle of energy more characteristic of a bazaar. Presiding over what my infant son referred to as "the treasure house" was Martin Norton, dark, thick-set, but elegant in dove-grey suit and bright button-hole, and one of the greatest characters of the antiques world.
For 76 years Norton worked in the family firm started by his great-grandfather, and with his brother, sons and nephew masterminded its emergence as the dominant general jewellery and silver dealer in Britain, if not Europe.
Martin Norton was born in Hampstead, north London, in 1911. His father died when he was a baby, his mother in the Brighton Train Crash when he was 16. After school at St Paul's, he travelled in France and Germany, then attended the Courtauld Institute in its first intake, before going to work for his mother's brother. On the death of Teddy Phillips in 1934, Martin and his elder brother, Dick (who died in 1985), took over the shop, which in 1966 moved from 113 New Bond Street (where it had been since 1871) to 139 New Bond Street, a building which the Nortons later bought.
After the death in 1984 of his wife, Beryl, Martin travelled a great deal, mainly on business, with his younger son. Perennially youthful, Martin celebrated his 85th and 90th birthdays in great style in a vast tent in the middle of Bedford Square, and one looked forward to his centenary.
Martin Norton had a marvellous eye, immense knowledge and a passion for doing business, anywhere, any time. A few hours without a client and having completed the crossword and sudoku in the evening paper, he would be twitchy with boredom and ready to offer the most fantastic bargains, if only for the sake of doing something. To the question "How much is an object worth?", there is only one answer: what someone is prepared to pay. To Norton, towards the end of an intolerably quiet day in the shop, the impenetrable price code attached to every object was irrelevant.
A sum which one minute seemed outrageous suddenly became irresistible, even if in the cool light of the following day one might have second thoughts. Conversely, one might be encouraged to spend more than one could afford on an object of real quality, advice that if not taken one always lived to regret. In any case, Norton knew that beautiful objects have a habit of returning to the market and he could or would at some time buy back the object, probably more favourably.
Over three-quarters of a century, numerous objects of great value and historic importance passed through the shop, including the Burghley Nef (a 16th-century silver-gilt ship), the Russian Crown Jewels, and the Harkness emerald and diamond necklace (now in the V&A), as well as the most important collections of historic rings and engraved gems (Guilhou, Harari, Ionides and Wellington).
One never knew what or who one would find at S. J. Phillips - pop stars and princesses, elderly aristocrats and foreign dealers - but, if their parties were conspicuous for the number of titled widows and millionaires' mistresses, there was not a trace of snobbery about Norton: a duke and a world-famous lady collector were among the few barred from the shop.
If business was his main passion, there was still room for others, notably the theatre and ballet. A low handicap golfer, he was a member of Wentworth for 50-odd years, and once, partnered by an uncle and with the help of a number of byes and walkovers, reached the final of the South of England Lawn Tennis tournament. A vice-president of the British Antique Dealers Association, he was also on the court of the Painter-Stainers' Company.
Within the trade, the Nortons were humorously referred to as the Bond Street Mafia, but Martin was the gentlest of capi and one was as likely to be regaled with a bawdy joke as to be killed by kindness. It is rumoured that at his wake, attended by many hundreds of people, business, appropriately, continued as usual.
Michael EstorickReuse content