That was then. But now the counter-revolution is gathering pace – and its focal point is a converted Victorian church in East London. St Michael’s church in Shoreditch was transformed into the London Architectural Salvage & Supply Co (Lassco) some 25 years ago by Adrian Amos. It has since become a magnet for anyone with a nose for an old-fashioned bargain.
The salvage trade has come a long way since Steptoe and Son. It has moved upmarket and is now teeming with the smart set, sniffing out the hottest bargains. An endless stream of architectural gems has passed through Lassco’s doors, including pieces from the Bank of England, the Savoy hotel, Harrods, Kew Gardens and even Buckingham Palace. You can pick up a Robert Adam chimney piece for £170,000 or get a hand-thrown flower pot for as little as £1.
Anthony Reeve, Lassco’s managing director, has witnessed the reclamation generation turn their backs on minimalistic interiors. “Minimalism has run its course,” he says. “The measuring stick is when you see B&Q selling burning pebbles in a box fireplace – you know then it’s time to move on.”
He is confident that people are putting a bit of soul and character back into their homes with architectural elements and sculptures: “We are allowed to be human again and have possessions in our homes, even if it’s questionable to express our taste.”
But who are the people daring to ditch the minimalism mantra? In 1991, Thornton Kay co-founded Salvo, an organisation that works alongside dealers and the police to stem the flow of stolen goods from buildings and gardens. It also puts dealers and buyers in contact with one another. He believes the new, backward-looking trend is largely driven by well-heeled women, who value the quality of old materials.
“You will find them at salvage yards on Saturday mornings, turning up with their husbands in tow, rummaging around, getting the look and battering their architects, because no architect really wants to use salvage,” says Kay. “They would rather use new materials, as they are easier to work with.”
A diverse crowd, from chic Hampstead types to more sober sorts from the Home Countries, is busy recycling our heritage. Japanese husband-and-wife teams and big dealers from the United States are also lured by the quintessentially English appeal of anything from antique taps to door furniture. Sadly, some antiques leave our shores, never to be seen here again.
This combination of buyers has fuelled an industry worth an estimated £300 million to £400 million. The salvage trade has experienced some tough times recently, particularly because of the strengthening of the pound against the dollar. But many dealers are managing to keep their heads well above water.
Enter Sally Bevan, 30, one of the new breed of reclaimers. On Monday, she launches her latest book, The Reclaimers, which accompanies a 12-part, fly-on-the- wall documentary on BBC2. The programme provides an insider’s guide to the world of architectural salvage, following dealers and their customers around the country, seeing how architectural antiques are being brought back into play.
Sally read archaeology at Oxford and has recently restored an 18th-century cottage in North Yorkshire. She is known as a “skip rat”, who can often be spotted rustling through skips hunting for her next trophy. “Homeowners throw out the least. Hospitals, schools, restaurants and shops often throw things out,” she says. “But you should always ask permission before taking anything from a skip. It is still someone else’s property.”
Her book spells out how to spot a fake or a bargain and gives detailed advice on what to look out for and where to unearth hidden gems. It contains hundreds of tips, from selling salvage to the trade to checking the plumbing for an antique bath.
And newcomers climbing on to the salvage bandwagon definitely need a word or two of advice: buying architectural salvage can be a tricky business.
There are a few golden rules, says Sally: “Do your homework. If you’re planning to use salvage as part of a renovation project, make sure you choose appropriate building materials and fittings. Be prepared to rummage. Take a strong pair of gloves. Wear sturdy shoes and clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty. And if you see something you really like, buy it straight away. If you go away to think about it, the chances are that when you return it will have gone.”
Part of the fun when buying salvage is bagging a bargain. “People should definitely haggle,” insists Sally. “Price tags are very rarely on things in salvage yards. Almost 99 per cent of times dealers will be prepared to haggle. Sometimes they say ‘no’, because some things are in such demand that they will be sold anyway. But it is always worth asking.”
The trade likes to indulge in a spot of bargaining, too. “Bring it on – we are experts. We could hold our own in the midst of Morocco,” says Lassco’s Anthony Reeve. So the gauntlet has been thrown down. But beware: fakes are out there waiting for the unsuspecting.
“It is really hard to spot the fakes; even the experts can be tricked,” warns Sally. “You must look at the finish, the quality and patina. The patina is one of the hardest things to replicate. There is one very important difference between fakes and reproductions. Fakes are deliberately designed to fool the buyer. Reproductions aren’t. The buying and selling of architectural antiques is protected by the Trades Description Act. If you’ve been sold a reproduction when you were assured it was an original, you have a legal right to your money back. In practice, this is complicated and depends on where you bought the item and exactly how it was described.” You have been warned.
When buying salvage, it is safest to buy from a reputable dealer, who has signed up to the Salvo Code. This was drawn up in 1995 after a three-year consultation process, involving long-established English dealers as well as English Heritage.
Dealers subscribing to the code “do not buy knowingly any item removed from listed or protected historical buildings or from sites of scheduled monuments without the appropriate legal consent”.
So rummage with care.
- ‘The Reclaimers – a Complete Guide to Salvage’, by Sally Bevan (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99).
- ‘The Reclaimers’ is on BBC2, Thursdays, at 8.30pm.
- Lassco: 020 7749 9944; www.lassco.co.uk
- Salvo: 020 8400 6222; www.salvoweb.com