John Bly: Something old, something new
PUBLISHED: 15:36 13 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013
The Antiques Roadshow's John Bly tells Faye Creasey about his love of Tring, his family's antique history and how new is just as important as old
FOR viewers of the Antiques Roadshow, John Bly will be a familiar figure, proferring his expert advice on the furniture brought in by the nation's hoarders. But it is in Tring that he is most well known.
The Blys have been a prominent fixture here for decades. John's father and grandfather were both past mayors of Tring - a fact he is immensely proud of - and the family have worked as antique dealers in the town since the early 19th century, establishing their own business in the centre in 1891. The Blys still operate in Tring, with John and sons Julian, 37 and James, 34, all running their own antiques businesses in the area.
But despite a heritage so deeply steeped in what is so often regarded as the rather stuffy world of antiques, John has a refreshingly breezy attitude towards the industry he was born into.
'Antiques should be viewed from all angles,' John tells me when I visit him at his pretty cottage in the heart of Tring. 'It is not just about the value, it is the story surrounding the object. There is as much importance in granny's watch as the most fantastic piece of Chippendale furniture.
'In my kitchen, I have my old schoolmaster's chair, over which I was beaten twice,' he chuckles. 'It is not worth anything but I love that chair and I sit in it everyday and, despite the thrashings, I think fondly of him.'
In fact, one of John's most recent prized possessions is an electric corkscrew bought for him by a friend - 'it is really rather handsome' - and he points with affection to the IKEA bookshelves he struggled to put up in his office, now straining under the weight of his rather large library of books.
'Everything has its place,' he says. 'If you have got 20,000 then buy a wonderful antique, but if your budget is small then IKEA is fantastic.'
Another highly valued fixture among the furniture is an impressive collection of drums that is a culmination of John's other great love - music. More specifically, the intoxicating rhythms of Latin and jazz.
'We all play in the family and often get together for a big session. Our neighbour is also a drummer and, on a summer's evening when the windows are open, it is like a drum battle,' he laughs. 'When I met my wife Viriginia, I used to be in a 12-piece band and for the first couple of years, I didn't tell her I was in antiques. I thought it was much more romantic being a drummer.'
John cites his wife of 40 years as an 'integral part' of his success, and says she is his greatest support and critic. 'It is the silence I don't like,' he says. 'If I bring something back to ask her what she thinks and there is silence, I know I've gone wrong.'
His sons provide equal support and, between them all, they have the world of antiques dealing sewn up.
'If I spot a great George II table, I will tell Julian and suggest he ought to buy it. The same goes if I spot a piece from the period James is interested in - I will give him a quick call to let him know,' he adds.
It is a life that has gone full circle for John, who learnt his trade from his beloved father, often taking his young son with him to the auction houses. He explains, 'I was dealing at the age of 11. I went to a sale with my father and I spotted a pair of little pistols I wanted. I sat on my father's shoulders so I could see and irritated everyone by bidding in shillings as that is all I had. 'The auctioneer would say 'one pound', and I would shout out 'one pound, one shilling'. I got them in the end and they hung on my wall for years. In the end I sold them for 75 and was very pleased with myself until I found out that they were actually worth 250. It was the first of many lessons.'
John attended Berkhamsted School - where he later sent both his sons - but confesses he hated it and left with one O-level in art. He says, 'I wasn't very good at school but I loved the cadet force. I was a drummer in the band and I took great pleasure in parading up and down in the uniform. When I finally left, I realised how stupid I had been not to have tried more, but, luckily, I had learnt the discipline of learning itself.'
John went on to hone his trade in the silverware department at Sotheby's, where his job was to number all the pieces ready for sale.
'There would be 200 items and I would have to read the description in the catalogue and pick it out from the shelves,' he explains. 'Then I would go on to the jewellery, Faberge, Japanese works of art and the musical instruments. I left feeling I knew everything there was to know but as soon as I started visiting country sale rooms, I realised I didn't know anything. It was a steep learning curve.'
But the real trick to becoming a good antiques dealer, says John, is trying to create something yourself. 'I believe you can't specialise in something unless you have a go at making it yourself. I have an ashtray in the other room and it is the most forlorn-looking, mishapen piece of metal, but now, when I look at a piece of silver, I appreciate what the man went through to produce it.'
John's passion for antiques is clearly all-consuming and it is a love that he is keen to get others to share. 'People get put off antiques because, for years, experts have put on an academic air which implies that the average person simply wouldn't understand, but it is just common sense - anyone can do it.'
The secret, John reveals, is association dating, a technique he inherited from his father. The idea is that you can identify an object by calling on contemporary sources like paintings and diaries, and, more importantly, by simply using your common sense.
'I had a customer call me up to say he had found a Charles II tea caddy spoon dated 1694. I knew it was not real as social history tells us that tea leaves weren't chopped up until the 1740s so a caddy spoon would never have been made before then. It is all very logical - it is just about opening that window of information.'
He adds, 'There is a great thrill in finding something. It is not about making a big profit - it is about knowing what something is, putting it in context and realising that it is important. That is the trick.'