Master of the antiques world
ECCENTRIC springs to mind when I meet Thomas Woodham-Smith. He bounds into the Mallett showroom on Bond Street where he is managing director, second to chief executive Giles Hutchinson Smith, and shows me a picture he had taken on his way to the interview: “It’s a happy piece of string, I just saw it lying there on the side of the road, I love random things like that,” he says as he ushers me upstairs.
But it soon becomes apparent that Woodham-Smith is a towering force in the antiques market. He has just come back from Masterpiece London, which he founded along with five others including luxury goods maker Aspreys, and he is in high spirits about its success: “The best compliment I got during the whole week was “Tom, this is fantastic, it’s like one of your parties”, I couldn’t beat that.”
Masterpiece London – held in the former Chelsea Barracks – had118 exhibitors, ranging from cognac makers to handbag designers. “The philosophy behind it was that a true masterpiece doesn’t have to come from the past and it doesn’t have to be expensive,” he says.
It cost £5m to stage. Some of the money came from his employer Mallett and he expects it to make a loss for the first year. He says he started it to stimulate demand in the market, and well he might: “We have a unique challenge, we are in a dying or substantially reduced antiques market. I joined Mallett in 1985, and even then you could rely on an auction sale of furniture every day of the week in London, that’s gone now,” he says.
His entrepreneurial spirit flows into his day job at Mallett. On the second floor of the showroom a dozen French café chairs made of tin and painted to resemble drums are arranged in neat rows as if in anticipation of a concert. “There are 30 of them in all. I found them in a flea market in Paris, and just picked them up. My colleagues here were slightly horrified I think, I had to get a truck to bring them back, but they’ve got used to them now.”
His interest in antiques goes back to childhood. When he wasn’t rearranging the furniture in his mother’s sitting room, he would be making little museums in his bedroom. “A resounding success was an “exhibition” of postcards with famous portraits on them. I lined my bedroom walls with them and would charge my mother’s friends a pound to give them a guided tour.”
His other side-business is Hatfields, a restoration firm he founded that is based in
Clapham. It hires 12 craftsmen and takes on young interns to keep the skills of restoration
alive: “The conservation of skills is as important as the preservation of the objects.” He acknowledges that Hatfields has had a “tough two years”, however turnover is projected to be £1m this year and profits between £50,000-£100,000.
And his advice for fellow entrepreneurs? “Lots of people, especially dealers, always say no, they don’t want to take the risk of buying something a little leftfield. But I have learned that the best thing is to always say yes to everything and then find a way do it.”
CV | THOMAS WOODHAM-SMITH
Lives: Stockwell with his wife and two teenage children
Drives: “A Transformers car. Honestly. I bought a Saab from eBay and found someone in China who manufactured Transformers’ car insignia, so I whipped off the Saab sign and replaced it with that.”
Interests: “Salt. Everyone seems to say that a low-salt diet is good, but we all need salt. I would like to make salt. We have so many salt marshes in the UK that are under utilised. That would make a good business opportunity.”