It's the real thing - or is it?

You could be forgiven for thinking Curtis Dowling is the living incarnation of fictional antiques expert Lovejoy; after all, he does have the authentic leather jacket, as Lynne Mortimer discovered.

You could be forgiven for thinking Curtis Dowling is the living incarnation of fictional antiques expert Lovejoy; after all, he does have the authentic leather jacket, as Lynne Mortimer discovered.

Unmistakeably a Londoner, Curtis Dowling has an irrepressible enthusiasm for antiques and boy, can he talk.

But he also has a mind like a scythe, especially when it comes to all things antique and, indeed, all things pretending to be antique.

It's been quite a year for London-born Curtis. What started as a couple of TV appearances has led to a full television series and, at the same time, he has a new business venture over at Belchamp Hall, near Sudbury.


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The hall is, as all aficionados of Lovejoy will immediately know, the setting for the popular drama. As soon as you pull up outside the premises, you half expect Lovejoy actor Ian McShane to amble round the corner with a Rembrandt tucked under his arm.

Instead, it's Curtis, minus the painting, but wearing the very jacket Lovejoy wore - even though, he says mischievously, his partner Emma hates it and won't let him wear it.

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Curtis explains it was something he picked up when he was involved in the series, as an adviser, and it goes everywhere with him. Now, it seems, life is imitating art as the antiques expert is now about to star in a TV series of his own.

It all started when Curtis did a couple of lectures about spotting fake antiques last year and got spotted by someone who mentioned it to someone else and before long the BBC came along and asked him to do an item on the One Show.

“It was back in February, I did a Beatles Antiques Roadshow in Liverpool with Dom Littlewood, hunting out fakes and forgeries of Beatles memorabilia. We had about two or three hundred people turn up for valuations.”

The Sixties are not really his speciality: “Proper antiques are what I do. That sort of thing (The Beatles) is a fairly new world for the antiques market - fraught with danger I have to say - the official figure is six per cent of the stuff is actually real.”

That means more than nine out of ten items are fake? Curtis gives a “what can you do?” shrug.

The next telly gig was a feature for the regional programme Inside Out in which Curtis not only crafted a fake but did it so convincingly that no-one picked it out as the forgery, choosing instead to opt for one of the two genuine antiques.

There may be a follow-up to that show in a later series of the BBC East's Inside Out. “What we're hoping to do is taking it on to the next stage. We probably scared people a little bit but now we can show them how to shop with confidence.

Meanwhile, Curtis and Belchamp Hall's owner Charles Raymond, have a new business venture based in the grounds of the Hall.

“The Painter's Den is becoming the headquarters of our antiques and interiors side of things. Charlie and I cannot only get people beautiful antiques we can also do all their furnishings for them as well because of the contacts we've got. We do all original antiques but if people want the carpets and furnishings to match, then we can get them.”

So, is it a shop then? Curtis looks appalled.

“There's not a shop. I had a shop in Long Melford once - would never have another one.

“The danger is, you open up a shop like I did and then you realise 90 per cent of the people that walk in just lick ice creams and say 'look at the price of that' or 'I bet that's a Constable…' and you're thinking 'Oh god, please leave or buy something'. Shops are definitely out.”

The new enterprise already has a project working for Warner Hotels at Littlecote House in Hungerford. “They want some fabulous pieces for it - that's the sort of thing that we're talking about.”

With more people looking for a good holiday experience nearer home, the idea of themed hotels is picking up pace. Curtis mentions the Thirties Burgh Island Hotel in Devon and the Beatles-themed Hard Day's Night Hotel in Liverpool.

“It's a theme park attitude with a nice British aspect,” he says.

After his appearance on Inside Out, Curtis had “an awful lot of emails” and among them was one from an agent who asked if she could represent him. The agent described her clients as “real people”.

Curtis explains: “If the telly was thrown away, they'd still have a job.”

The following day she introduced him to a film company who said, first they wanted to develop a show round him and second, they had a series already commissioned by the BBC and Curtis was the ideal person to complete the line-up.

Scheduled for broadcast later this year, Beat the Bank is presented by (Dragon's Den resident) Duncan Ballantyne and involves two experts and someone else's money. Curtis describes how it works.

“It's the reverse of Dragons' Den, in a way.

“A young couple that we worked with yesterday had saved up £10,000 for their wedding. If they'd put that money in the bank yesterday and taken it out three months' later it they'd end up with around £130 interest.

“The idea of the show is that over those 12 weeks, they decide to either give their money to me to go and do nice things with antiques and interiors to get a higher return or they give it to an artist who sells really modern wacky art. She's considered high risk and what I do, medium risk.”

Curtis says the young couple handed the cash to the artist and to test their decision, Duncan Ballantyne gave Curtis £10,000 out of his own pocket and both the artist and Curtis have 12 weeks to make a profit on it.

The filming then adjourns to 12 weeks later when everyone congregates to see how much has been made (or worse, lost).

Surely, no one loses their savings?

Curtis disabuses me: “Oh no, it's real money. If the artist loses the money the couple have lost the money. And Duncan's money is Duncan's money. If it goes wrong it goes very wrong. That's the fun of it, you see.

“We said what a brave couple they are. It's their money they've taken years to save.”

So, if he makes a profit with Duncan's money who gets the extra cash? “Duncan keeps it,” grins Curtis.

Now 41, London-born Curtis has, more or less, been in the antiques business for more than 30 years.

He recalls: “I walked into a house with my parents when I was about 10 years old and my parents' friends had a Canaletto in the hall and I said, 'Why have you got this modern picture in your hallway when all your collection is older?' and they said, 'It's not modern. It's a Canaletto,' and I said, 'You can call it what you like - it's just rubbish,' and they said, 'What do you know with your big Kate Bush badge?'

“So they got it X-rayed and it turned out to be painted on a rice bag and made by someone in a prison in Naples in the 1950s. It was junk - worth about £3,000 and they paid £250,000 for it. So there we are. I don't know how but I just knew.”

But having a natural eye for what's authentic and what's fake wasn't enough for Curtis. He needed to know why. As he points out: “You can't say to someone this is rubbish. They'll say why it rubbish? You get hooked - trying to find out why these things aren't right.”

“You have to trust your instincts. With a lot of things, we don't trust our instincts enough.

“Antiques generate love, don't they - something lovely - whereas modern things don't. It's like a traditional Christmas scene compared to a big, unloved, empty house.”

A three-year stint in the Army was used to good effect as Curtis saved his money and went to antiques fairs, selling from a table top.

“You get your own stand at an antiques fair for £10. You buy and sell and meet a lot of other people. It's quite a nice way of earning some money over the weekend.”

He looks back with nostalgia at those times. “Twenty-three years ago, antiques fairs were antiques fairs. Now - I went to one on Sunday and it was just junk. It was a car boot sale with a lid on. It was everyone's old crap.

“There are still some great fairs and they tend to be the same ones that were great 23 years ago. After lots of fairs I bought a shop, a sports shop oddly enough, and carried on doing antiques fairs, and then eventually I settled in Lavenham and bought the shop in Melford. In between I dabbled with Lovejoy a bit.

“But having a shop is rather boring. All the cast from Lovejoy came over and we had a big party. Then you sit there - nothing happening. So you end up paying someone else to sit there for you.”

“Since then all I've done is deal with private customers and talk about antiques, fakes and forgeries.”

How do fakers get away with it?

“The fakers that don't get caught are the ones that use the right materials. So if something is tested for its age, it will be the age is professes to be. If you want to make fake furniture go and buy an old wardrobe that's worth nothing and break it up, or pull an old bit of panelling off that's not really worth anything.

“The same goes with paintings - use the right pigmentation, use the right materials.”

Curtis cites the case of an 84-year-old man who was given a suspended two year jail term in January, this year, for selling “antiques” that his son had made in the garden shed.

Nicknamed the Artful Codger he would turn up in his wheelchair at art houses and museums claiming he had found or inherited the objects.

The family were said to have made at least £850,000 through the counterfeits that had fooled the experts for almost 18 years. One of the most expensive and acclaimed pieces was a statuette sold to a museum for almost £440,000.

Curtis says: “It cost £10 to make in their shed the week before. They made it out of wallpaper paste and KY jelly.”

Rather like his instinct with the Canaletto, it was rumbled when someone who walked in to the museum thought it wasn't quite right.

For his item on Inside Out Curtis faked a James Gillray (he was an 18th/19th century satirical cartoonist) print. Would it have passed muster at auction?

“Oh god, yeah,” says Curtis promptly - and a little scarily. “No one could have told the difference. It's was old paper, old printing and the original print. Even an expert would have really, really struggled. You could go round and filter these things into auctions around the country. No one's going to know.

“It happens every day.

“About 25% of everything you'll see is rubbish and you have to think, why is it happening?”

Answering his own rhetorical question Curtis says that TV antiques shows have driven people into the salesrooms.

“People now think they too can read a book, watch two programmes and go to auction. Anyone that fakes or forges anything is having a field day now.

“Twenty years ago an expert would have said 'I'm not sure about that. I've seen 10,000 in the last 30 years I'm not sure.' A member of the general public will say, 'I saw one of them on telly - it must be okay'. As long as the fakes are good the public are lapping them up by the ton. The fake and forge market is capitalising on that by the bucketload. Three out of four people going to auction now are general public.”

“When Belchamp Hall was built in the 1700s there were about five million people in Great Britain. In the last 10 or 20 years, more than five million pieces purporting to be from this period have gone through the auction room. Either it's all being made up or people had ever such large houses and have lots of lovely things and they've all survived.

“There was a lovely old chap and just before the first world war he worked in an antiques furniture place. Victorian furniture would come in - modern but 15-20 years out of date - to his workshop. Their job was to break it up and turn it into a Georgian item, which had value. So every Victorian piece that came into his workshop would be pulled apart and turned into a Georgian item.”

He gives a thought-provoking argument about the authenticity of such a piece.

“First of all it was made by craftsmen or put back together by craftsmen. It's an old wood and it's now (in 2008) got another 100 years of patina on it. How are you going to tell it's not Georgian? You're going to struggle. So for every four Georgian pieces you see, one will be Victorian, one will be out and out rubbish. That's the problem you have in antiques.”

And if you go back five thousand years, there were forgers about then, he says. It's nothing new.

n More information about Belchamp Hall is available on www.belchamphall.com and Curtis is online at www.curtisantiques.co.uk

Curtis Dowling is offering two free special guest tickets for his next talk at Belchamp Hall on Saturday, October 4 at 5.30pm to the first person to log on at www.curtisantiques.co.uk and email their name and contact details from his website. The tickets include the talk, a tour of the house, canapes and wine.

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