and they said it wouldn't last...
The year 1974 was eventful in many ways. It began with a Royal visit in February and ended with Darwin being blown away by Cyclone Tracy. In between these important events construction began on the Australian National Gallery in Canberra; 7,176 people were charged with offences relating to marijuana; the country slumped into a recession and, in December, the Sydney Antique Centre in South Dowling Street opened its doors with a party.
Starting in a recession
What with the recession and what with there being, at that time, very few tenants and what with this and what with that, the party was a very restrained affair. Large areas of rather dreary vacant space were cunningly concealed with Kentia palms, which gave a Douanier Rousseau look to the place, and Hugh O'Keefe did his best to create a party atmosphere by pounding out Scott Joplin tunes on a decrepit piano that Winifred Atwell may have scorned. Whatever the shortcomings of this celebration, the omens must have been good, because the evening went well and not long afterwards all the available space was taken.
The concept of the Sydney Antique Centre was the result of an optimistic idea in the fertile mind of its founder, Charles E Hirsch, who collaborated with Lorraine Foster to bring it to fruition. Charles was the survivor of a career which, even in 1974 was, to say the least, as colourfully checkered as a draughts board. He had been a car salesman - if you can call the vendor of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys by so prosaic a name - and he had - immediately before his arrival in Australia in 1974 - been involved with an English Jeans company called "South Sea Bubble". This was an ill-advised choice of name as it was not long before the company suffered the fate of its namesake in 1720 and burst.
Kings Road Antique Market
Charles and Lorraine had seen London's Kings Road Antique Market and they thought that the time was right to establish the same sort of thing in Sydney. It was a valiant, if slightly fantastic, plan because London, at that time, had a population of close to ten million people; including some who were very wealthy indeed and, apart from its dealers having easy access to an infinity of treasures, the city was still cruising on the ebullience of the Swinging Sixties. Sydney, on the other hand, had a population of barely three million people and those who were not already hard-up were soon to feel the pain as the teeth of the gathering recession began to bite.
Psychologically too there was a difference. Apart from the usual group of cultural mavericks which may be found in any town from London to Lhasa, the affluent middle-class in Sydney was - in the mid seventies - inclined to be aesthetically conservative. Excluding those who could, and did, travel to Europe to shop, those at home with dollars to spend relied on the gradually swelling corps of fashionable decorators or patronised well-known dealers who carried on business in small, smart, expensive shops.
What's more, these dealers in old wares tended to be experts in their fields with established reputations who already occupied premises in the city of Sydney or the more prosperous suburbs; or, alternatively, they were the proprietors of dark and jumbled little shops selling cracked cups and rickety furniture dating from as long ago as 1950.
While the latter might well consider the idea of an antique market a step up the ladder of prestige the likelihood was that, apart from not wishing to move from premises where they were already well-known, established dealers in rare and precious wares might look askance at the vendors of old vaseline jars and rusty cigarette tins.
Even to consider combining the two under the same roof, particularly in a bleak financial climate, was a visionary idea; but Charles was nothing if not visionary, and Lorraine had the business acumen and managerial capacity to provide the necessary foundation for the scheme.
The Kande Kitchenware Building
Scouting about Sydney for premises of suitable size, and affordable rent, Charles and Lorraine came across the old Kande Kitchenware building in South Dowling Street which was, in 1974, empty and derelict and home to a colony of pigeons, many of which remained, to the consternation of the dealers, in residence long after the Centre was well on its way. After all, no-one wants their Goblins spotted with guano.
The owners of the building were considering renovating and redeveloping it as an entrepôt of furnishing and fabric businesses but, dazzled by Charles Hirsch's virtuoso salesmanship, they changed their minds and consented to its use for the purpose he and Lorraine Foster proposed. The two of them then hit the city streets in a clapped-out Valiant and poured honeyed words into sceptical but fascinated ears all over Sydney, with the result that within weeks they had a core of tenants ready to move in and the invitations were sent out for the opening party.
Trash and Treasure Market
In these early days it would have been an affectionate exaggeration to claim that the Centre was anything like the sophisticated assembly of the stalls and boutiques which it subsequently became. Indeed its appearance in the beginning was more like a rumble sale, or a weekend Trash and Treasure Market. The spirit was there however and, in spite of the occasional electrically charged disturbance caused by the clash of vulnerable personalities, the Centre began to thrive. The commercial advantages of a specialised shopping centre in which a central office could, if necessary, act as selling agents for stall holders, leaving them free to attend auctions or engage in private negotiations, appealed to the imagination of the public, and it prospered.
From the outset it was possible to hire a showcase or a shop and this somewhat informal arrangement, with its economic benefits, was attractive to interested beginners as well as to established dealers. Indeed, amongst the early stall holders was a group of nuns from a neighbouring convent who were selling objets d'art et de virtu to raise money for charity. It is pleasing to imagine a bunch of unworldly women in the voluminous blue habits and starched fly-away wimples of the French Sisters of Charity haggling gently with clients over a crucifix or a chain of Rosary beads but, alas, this was after Vatican 11 and the nuns then, as now, looked like nursing sisters.
Some of the beginners, who came from a mélange of different backgrounds, showed an enthusiasm which had run well ahead of their scholarship. One young man had to be tactfully corrected after labeling an item of French furniture as "Louie XV"; though, in these days of accurate, (and less than accurate) facsimiles of antique furniture, he may not have been so far out at that.
Roller coaster ride
In the years that followed the opening of the Sydney Antique Centre its fortunes followed the sort of roller coaster ride one might expect of this kind of organization where a number of variegated businesses, managed by people of occasionally incendiary temperament, and predictable eccentricity, are gathered together under one roof.
There have been booms as well as bitter brawls, and law suits and petitions; threatened libel actions and public meetings; but, in spite of it all, the Sydney Antique Centre prospers and all the indications are that it will continue to prosper in the future. It has already outlasted some of its imitators and resisted the competition of those which have survived.
Charles Hirsch and Lorraine Foster parted company in 1978 when there were proceedings afoot to wind up the company which controlled the Centre. Foster decided to retire from the fray to start her own antique clothing company and Hirsch had to find a new manager quickly. He turned to his accountants, Waylands, who sent him David Gibbs on a month's contract - seventeen years later he was still there, and by then owned half the company!
The individual dealers who were, for the most part, capable of accounting for their own transactions tended to operate on a laissez-faire basis and, when David Gibbs arrived, he was confronted with a kind of one-pin co-operative which threatened to decline its function at a moment's notice. He ruthlessly set about correcting the trend towards commercial anarchy, blowing through the muddle like a sharp wind and, while some of the dealers grumbled about his toughness, everyone conceded that he stopped the rot and turned the whole concern into a sound business in which all those who participated could feel confident. He also brought prompt and scrupulous business practice into accounting for the dealers' money, and even those who complained about his disciplinarian approach felt that it was bearable as long as their money showed up on time.
Off to Chile
A couple of years after Gibbs took over the management, Hirsch decided to settle in Chile and ship stock back from there to Sydney.
Although the erstwhile commercial structure of the Sydney Antique Centre may have been, for a time, unstable, the range of goods offered for sale right from the start has been astonishing and enthusiasts have been able to top up their collection of stuffed numbats, embellish their mantlepieces with monumental clocks or huge domes of faded fruit and dusty butterflies, or invest in handsome and valuable silver - with just about everything else in between.
Clutter gives way
For many years the clutter of stalls and showcases was a bit daunting before there was a substantial reorganisation of the floor space of the Centre. This resulted in a more pleasing arrangement of the displays with greater convenience for the visitor. In the past it was possible for sensitive, or indecisive browsers to be overwhelmed by the crowded opulence of the wares on sale and, unless they had some particular object in mind (which they were lucky enough to discover) many must have staggered out into South Dowling Street, perfect martyrs to Browsers' Indigestion Syndrome.
Many dealers have been at the premises for a long time, some being at the Centre since it opened. Over the years, the Centre has, at one time or another, been the business address for the following well-known Sydney dealers: Margo Richards, Violet Herzog, Robert Morrison, Hugh Logeman, Rod Thurley, John Normyle, Greg Ford, Geofrey Clark, Richard Wiche and Joseph Lebovic - to name a few.
Many of the antique centres in Sydney which opened after the one in South Dowling Street were started by people who were originally connected to it. Les Grossman was the founder of the Woollahra Antique Centre; John Williams started the Poor House in Double Bay; Betty Argent ran the Old Ark on City Road and Barry Ward had Birkenhead.
Thirty years on
In spite of its occasional vicissitudes the Sydney Antique Centre has, over the past thirty years, proved its self to be a sturdy and profitable organization, as well as an asset to the city. In a way it is like a permanent Antique Dealers' Fair in which, under one roof, a wide variety of goods is available which would otherwise have to be sought in an extensive safari throughout the metropolitan area. Here there are serendipitous treasures for the obsessive collector as well as essential items for furnishing, or re-decorating, everything from a four star hotel to a caravan.
The Sydney Antique Centre is now controlled by Anibou, the building's owner since 1972. It has survived its fragile childhood and difficult teens to attain a healthy majority with the promise of a long and fruitful maturity. It has become, as the city itself has grown in size and sophistication, both a smoothly operated specialist market and a popular Sydney tradition.
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Sydney Antique Centre
531 South Dowling Street Surry Hills NSW 2010 Australia
Tel: (02) 9361 3244 Fax: (02) 9332 2691
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