The real deal: Ian Towning and Meredith Lee

It was a meeting of great minds when antiques expert and United Kingdom celebrity Ian Towning and local antiques doyenne Meredith Lee sat down to chat to me one sunny Friday morning in February.

For those not familiar with his incredible career, Ian Towning is one of London’s foremost antiques dealers and appears regularly on television as an authority on antiques. He opened an antiques unit in the Chelsea Antiques Market on King’s Road way back in 1976, and has had an inspiring presence in the area since. After the closure of the famous market in 1997, Ian and his partner opened the Bourbon-Hanby Arcade on the corner of Sydney Street and the King’s Road, Chelsea. Bourbon-Hanby Arcade is now well established and much feted, and Ian is known as ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ of Chelsea. Bourbon-Hanby is the only remaining antiques emporium in central Chelsea and Ian’s dedication and excellent eye make his arcade a key destination for lovers of antiques. Ian appears regularly as an antiques expert on the ‘Dickinson’s Real Deal’ series on ITV 1, and on Channel 4’s hit series, ‘Posh Pawn’. In demand for his unique combination of expertise and sheer fun, he has also appeared on television as a guest of both Alan Carr and Alan Titchmarsh. He has personality plus, to put it mildly!

Under the moniker of European Antiques, Meredith has spent the past 13 years sourcing and selling European antiques and decorative items sourced from France, Belgium, Sweden, Italy and the United Kingdom, and her showroom has to be seen to be believed. The World stores also offer a selection of her personally sourced mid-century and antique stock, and she supplies both the interior design industry as well as the general public.

The purpose of Ian’s three week-long trip Down Under was threefold: he has established a long distance friendship with PN editor Martin Leach, wanted to say thank you to his fans and customers in New Zealand, and also to visit his partner Les’s elderly uncle in Palmerston North. “I really wanted to say thank you to the people in New Zealand who watch the shows I am on and then visit my shop in London, it is such a wonderful gesture,” says Ian. “They always buy something – and it needn’t be the most expensive of items – and we make such a personal connection.”

Another connection to the Antipodes is Ian’s early career as an entertainer in Australia. He was raised and educated at La Martinier College in Lucknow, India, leaving at the age of 16 to pursue what he has called his “stage activities” in Australia. These included a time as a key member of the famous drag queen line up at infamous King’s Cross haunt, Les Girls. He visited Auckland first when he was 18 years old, laughing before admitting, “It has definitely changed a lot since then, for the better!”

Ian has been tripping about New Zealand and Meredith makes regular runs to Europe, so I ask if they can ever ‘turn off’ their dealer’s noses and actually walk past a store or a market without poking their heads in? “Oh god, it’s impossible!” says Ian, with Meredith chiming in with “oh god, never!” She adds, “you never turn off as you just can’t, it’s a profession that you stay in because you love everything about it. Its an obsession”. Do they buy? “Oh god yes!” laughs Ian, with Meredith telling me that one of her favourite finds over the years was the full shop interior of an old apothecary in Dusseldorf, Germany. The shop interior was complete with signage, counters, shelving, jars, the lot! She had been asked to source a unique idea for a client opening a new cafe and thought this would be perfect! It was shipped to New Zealand and is now aptly named The Apothecary Cafe, located in Howick.

Ian’s personal weakness is a beautiful Buddha, of which he has a large collection. His prize treasure is a bronze Buddha which dates back to the 1500s, and he also has a collection of three-legged frogs in everything from coral to turquoise.

The pair swap anecdotes about picky clients and the rules of window dressing like old friends, and Ian shares his secret to keeping things interesting: serving Champagne every day in the store from 12 noon. His personal tipple of choice is Harrods’ Own Label Champagne, which his clients have quickly grown to love, too.

When dealing with clients both agree that building a relationship with new customers involves enlightening them when it comes to the true value of what they are selling – or buying – and that honesty is paramount at all times. They are also both experts when it comes to incorporating antiques into the modern home, as people don’t want to feel as if they are living in a mausoleum. “Our customers put so much trust in us and become not just clients, but friends,” says Ian. “I feel lucky to have met them and also lucky to have flown around the world to meet the most amazing people, too.”(HELENE RAVLICH)