Marc Allum

Marc Allum

3 May 2018 - 15:28 BY The Arts Society

Art and antiques journalist Marc Allum talks about Antiques Roadshow treasures, collecting habits and Feejee mermaids.

Marc is a writer, broadcaster, presenter, valuer and auctioneer. Since 1998, he has also been a specialist on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, on which he uncovers the values and stories behind miscellaneous, and often fascinating, objects.

Marc’s own interests range from pre-history to modern design and he is a self-confessed collectaholic, with an eye for the distinctly curious.
 
Tell us a little about your collecting – and why you think you became a collector.
 

I started young, as many collectors do. I was amassing fossils and digging up bottles in my early teens, driven by both an innate curiosity and a desire to make some extra pocket money (I quickly discovered the benefits of ‘trading up’).
 
My parents fostered my interest, but were neither collectors nor lived in a house with ‘old things’. They did, however, take me to plenty of museums and country houses.
 
I’m a Virgoan and, whether or not you believe in these things, I’m sure my natural ‘desire to gather’ and ‘attention to detail’ are an intrinsic part of my acquisitive makeup. I still have one of the first bottles I ever dug up, but my days of collecting bottles have long since been surpassed by other things. I’m an eclectic buyer and I recently purchased a 1953 Austin Champ, a military vehicle. Of course, I’ve now started collecting all the period accessories that go with it!
 
This is your 20th year on Antiques Roadshow. Which items stand out to you as especially memorable – and why?
 
It’s always tempting to revisit the ‘big hitters’, but despite some of the incredibly valuable things I have been associated with – including the Leica II Luxus camera that went on to be sold for over £400,000 – it’s the stories that tend to stick with me, particularly those that feature acts of great heroism or endurance, and people that triumph over seemingly insurmountable adversity.
 
I was, however, completely captivated by a collection of Native American material and photographs from a family whose ancestor had ‘gone out West’ to make his fortune – and had. Fascinating! It features in the show coming from Helmingham Hall in Suffolk.
 
Is there a collector from the past whose eye for acquisitions you find especially interesting?
 
That has to be Charles Paget Wade. As a boy, my parents took me to Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire, now run by the National Trust. Charles – the owner – was a collector of unrivalled eclecticism and character. Most was amassed in the pre-war period.
 
It was Wade who fired my imagination – at the tender age of 10 – to go out and eventually buy a suit of Samurai armour. It’s the one that features on the opening titles of Antiques Roadshow.
 
What is the most unusual piece in your collection?
 
There are many that almost defy description. Of the countless odd things, perhaps one of the most unusual is a canteen of water drawn from the River Jordan in 1854 by that rare thing – a female grand tourist called Jane Boodle. Still intact, the tin-plated circular receptacle is hand-labelled and protected by a Victorian green velvet bag. If only it could tell its story. It was kindly given to me by a lovely chap who attended one of my lectures.
 
We’ve heard that many early collectors dabbled in the ‘black arts’ and alchemy. Can you tell us more?
 
Certainly the historic collectors, who were caught somewhere between the idea of trying to reason the contradictions between their religious beliefs and what ‘science’ and the natural world was starting to reveal to them, found that they often walked a dangerous tightrope.
 
They turned to alchemy and the ‘black arts’ to answer some of these questions, but, in reality, they were really the basis of our modern sciences. For obvious reasons, their experiments and discoveries weren’t often construed as such in the 15th century, especially the idea of trying to transmute lead into gold – for instance!
 
Is there a particular piece you would love to add to your collection now?
 
A Feejee mermaid, which is half of a mummified monkey attached to half of a preserved fish. They were commonly made in the 19th century as attractions for freak and fairground sideshows, although they originate in medieval Japan, where the mermaid myth still prevails. Examples can be found in Shinto temples.
 
What would your top tip to a burgeoning collector be?
 
Ensure that whatever it is you are about to buy speaks to you. Whether it’s a story associated with it, a previous owner, the craftsmanship, or the fact that it may be several thousand years old, or a whole mixture of these things – feed your curiosity with a combination of these notions and you will become both fascinated and embroiled in whatever genre you choose to collect.
 
If, like me, you amass on a fairly random basis, the world is your oyster and there are literally no boundaries except, perhaps, the size of your bank account!


Marc is one of our Accredited Lecturers. His lecture subjects range from The Anatomy of Collecting - the History of Collecting and Great Collectors Through History to Fakes and Forgeries.
 
Follow Marc on twitter @Marc_Allum; for more see marcallum.co.uk. Marc’s latest book is Antiques Roadshow, 40 Years of Great Finds, co-authored with fellow Roadshow Specialist and Lecturer Paul Atterbury.
 
Image: James Bignell Photography

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