The director of Lassco (London Architectural Salvage and Supply Co), Anthony Reeve, has a passion for recycling. As scrapman to the stars, he reclaims unloved artefacts, then presents them for sale to the public. St Michael's Church in Shoreditch is packed, quite literally, to the rafters with an array of treasures and curiosities.
Established in 1979 by Adrian Amos, Lassco has become London's largest resource of architectural antiques and salvage. With items ranging from fossilised dinosaur eggs to Belgian stained-glass windows, the church is a fascinating place to spend the day.
"Lassco was born in the Seventies, when there was little concern about the re-use of building materials," says Reeve. "Perfectly good timber floors, marble fireplaces, doors and even carved masonry and panelling were being stripped out and skipped. Then it was simply a case of pulling the stuff out of a skip at one end of the street, cleaning it up and selling it to eager customers at the other end."
Most of the stock is bought from demolition and refurbishment projects. Every detail from a period building is saved wherever possible, from firegrates to entire panelled rooms. "We can only buy a fraction of what we're offered," says Reeve. "Much of our stock has a quick turn-around but there are also pieces that sit here year after year, waiting for that one buyer."
Often the trouble involved in removing items from these sites means that they would otherwise be discarded but Lassco's cheerful team, including a Polish marble mason, a licenced mudlark and a former springboard diver, ensure that everything is given another chance - and sometimes unearth national treasures that would otherwise have been lost.
Reeve was once offered an intriguing mound of rubble that had been lying in a warehouse in London. He patiently sorted the pieces and began to reconstruct an original Robert Adam chimney piece dating to 1766. On its completion, Reeve was able to identify the piece as coming from the Anteroom of Adam's "Lansdowne House" in Mayfair. Finally restored to glittering white marble, this magnificent piece now awaits a new owner (price: a cool £175,000).
On another occasion, following a trail that lead him to a Hertfordshire piggery, Reeve unearthed a huge walnut bookcase that had housed part of a grand Victorian library at Dorchester House on Park Lane. Dorchester House was demolished to make way for the famous hotel in 1931.
More recently, a fascinating collection of 450 Victorian plaster casts has been unearthed from the storerooms of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The casts of statues and busts, ivories and architectural mouldings represent an impressive cross-section of the original sculptural collections at the V&A - from a cast of The Easby Cross through to Renaissance masterpieces by the likes of Andrea del Verocchio and Desiderio da Settignano.
Nearly all of the four truck-loads purchased by Lassco were cast in the workshops of Domenico Brucciani - the best formatore of Victorian London and responsible for many of the works that can be seen in the Cast Courts at the Museum today including Michelangelo's David, and remarkably, Trajan's Column in Rome.
Prince Albert and Henry Cole had put Brucciani to work in casting the V&A's ongoing acquisitions after forging an agreement between the great museums of Europe in 1865. In a philanthropic gesture they wanted to encourage reciprocal swaps of casts, enabling the common man to witness and draw revered works of art in his home city. By Edwardian times Brucciani's company had a shop in Covent Garden, selling his casts to Museums and Art Schools worldwide.
The Lassco purchase consists of some of the moulds and "type casts" amassed by the firm through six decades and used to make the copies. By 1922, the casting of fine sculpture was becoming deeply unfashionable, if not frowned upon, and the V&A took over the foundering casting operations.
With a long history of buying the old museum cabinets and fittings from the V&A and with the ability to handle the logistics and efficient clearance of the warehouse, Reeve was able to clinch the deal.
He is currently buried in the research and attribution of each piece - vital to demonstrating their value. "The daily discoveries when researching a juicy consignment like this are extremely exciting and definitely the best part of the job."
Although there are salvage specialists throughout the capital, Lassco has earned a reputation greater than its rivals - certainly several degrees beyond its roots in the world of Steptoe and Son. Their expertise comes at a price, however, and although a visit to St Michael's may not be a cheap day out, you are guaranteed to be inspired.
Lassco St Michael's, Mark Street, London EC2 (020-7749 9944); Brunswick House, 30 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 (020-7394 2100); www.lassco.co.ukReuse content