Stewart Hofgartner reckons he was born to be an antique dealer. As a lad he always gravitated towards the junk shops and jumble sales where he grew up in Hampton Hill and Twickenham.
“As soon as I was earning my own money – from a newspaper round when I was at school – I spent it in junk shops,” recollects Stewart, now one of Hungerford’s most respected antique dealers. “I loved the atmosphere and all the stuff piled high. I collected below stairs items like tradesmen’s tools and mechanical kitchen gadgets such as apple peelers. It was the social history that interested me.
“I was always looking for quirky things – if I didn’t know what something was I would ask for information. I still enjoy finding out about things other people don’t know about. I like talking to people and discovering their history.
“When I was 18 years old I loved ‘bottle digging’ in communal council tips. We got permission from the council and dug holes 10 feet deep and needed a ladder to get out. We dug down to find historical rubbish that was buried before the era when it started to be collected by dustmen. Items that couldn’t be burnt like bottles, pot lids, cream jars, broken bed warmers and metalwork were simply buried. It was very exciting to dig down through history from the 1930s screw-top jars, down to 1910s cork or open-top jars, further down to bottles that were stored horizontally to keep the corks swollen. Rare items like Bear’s Grease hair ointment pot lids can command thousands.” > article continues below
To read interviews with other local residents, please see…
• Interview with actor Nick Lumley
• Interview with Mayor Helen Simpson
• Interview with retained Lambourn firefighter Matt Brookfield
• Interview with Lauren and Ollie at The Wheatsheaf in Chilton Foliat
• Interview with then Mayor (now Deputy Mayor) of Hungerford Keith Knight
• Interview with Hungerford Town Councillor Rob Brookman
• A Week in the Life of Hungerford Town Clerk Claire Barnes
• Interview with Berkshire High Sheriff Sarah Scrope
Stewart’s collecting habit and growing expertise inspired him to take first one then eventually five units at Hungerford Arcade. After a couple of years the success of his trade necessitated his own premises and he moved across the road to start the aptly named Below Stairs antique business.
“Hungerford Arcade was one of the first arcades in the country. Converted from a large shop into smaller units it offered (and still offers) affordable retail space for dealers to start trading. When dealers like Roger and Annabel King, Patsy and Derek Styles, and myself outgrew our units over thirty years ago there were a number of empty retail properties on the High Street which we moved into. That, I believe, was the origin of Hungerford as the famous antique centre it still is.”
Life at Below Stairs is very busy for Stewart. He has a popular website and is even busier in the shop. Customers browse the thousands of items online and then come in to buy in person or buy online. He also has his own onsite workshop at Below Stairs to do minor repairs, polishing, re-wiring and lacquering in order to present every item perfectly.
Stewart is also a perfectionist in his attire and is a very distinctive person around Hungerford with his own sartorial style.
“I’m old enough to have been a Teddy Boy but I never was at the time. But when I could do what I wanted, I enjoyed being an individual dresser and mixing Teddy Boy with its inspiration, the Edwardian style. I get my suits, shirts, ties and shoes made to measure. Maybe I should start my own fashion line…
“I’m very fortunate to do something I love but you have to put the hours in and enjoy it as a lifestyle rather than a job. Every day is amazing as you never know who is going to come in and bring you something special.
“I buy mainly privately and people often invite me to look at things in their houses. I often arrive to find I’ve already missed several skips and wish they had called me earlier. Things that make money are often everyday things from the past. They don’t always look valuable so please get advice before you throw anything away.
“I’m happy to give anyone a valuation on something I know about – otherwise I will direct people to another expert. You need to find the right person to give you an opinion.”
For 13 years now Stewart has been a regular dealer on ITV’s Dickinson’s Real Deal where members of the public bring along items for dealers to bid on.
“We dealers don’t know what we are going to be offered so I can’t do any research and have to think on my toes. I have a production team of nine with me and we make four programmes per day. It’s one of the more realistic antique shows on telly and it’s good for my profile. For instance a lot of Warners Hotel guests like to watch Dickinson’s in the afternoon and look me up when they stay at Littlecote. After they’ve met me once, they come back with the items they want to sell and then they go on to explore Hungerford.”
In terms of fashions in antiques, Stewart is noticing that shabby-chic, re-painted retro furniture and industrial lighting on the way out and ‘brown furniture’ is on the up again and is probably finding its true value. He has plenty of first-time house buyers and newly weds wanting the classic furniture.
If you have any items you would like to have valued by Stewart Hofgartner please contact him at Below Stairs on Hungerford High Street.