Wild Geese: The Edinburgh antique dealer who just never went home
Old things teach John Dixon something new every day in the Scottish capital
John Dixon: “It’s about observing your peer group. If they are buying things, there must be a reason they’re buying them.”
John Dixon went to Edinburgh from London via Kilkenny to help his brother Padraic in business in 1981 and never went home. Georgian Antiques, which is celebrating 40 years in business this year, is one of the most highly respected antiques businesses in Britain.
A graduate of the Institute of Technology, Carlow, and of the Marketing Institute of Ireland, Dixon was totally raw to the business of antiques back in 1981. Almost 40 years later, it’s safe to say he’s something of an expert, though he admits that “you still learn something new in this business – the apprenticeship is never finished”.
The early 1980s was a good time to get into business, he reckons. “Myself and my brother got stuck in and worked hard,” he says. Starting out with 600sq ft near Meadowbank Stadium, they built the business up. Now they have 80,000sq ft of storage, showrooms and office space.
Originally they dealt only with trade, taking on French polishers, gilders, cabinet makers, sales people and digital staff as the business grew to the point where they now employ 18 people. The company deals in wholesale and retail with both private and commercial clients ranging from individuals to golf clubs, banking institutions and hotels.
Working 90 hours a week to get the business going, the two brothers quickly acquired their knowledge through “exposure and by error”. “When you buy something badly in this business, it’s yours and it’s up to you to resolve it,” says Dixon. “Visiting great houses, reading books, studying catalogues, you can acquire knowledge: but it takes a long time to become an antique dealer.”
In the early days, the brothers had to sell everything they bought quickly, due to lack of space and money. “It kept us sharp from the start. We made sure we weren’t making mistakes,” says Dixon. “We kept an eye on trends to see what people were buying. It’s about observing your peer group. If they are buying things, there must be a reason they’re buying them.”
The company now specialises in Scottish and British furniture. Currency alignment between the euro and sterling means they’ve pulled back on dealing in Irish furniture.
Dixon buys from dealers, private houses, auctions and the internet. The company has won many public and industry awards including “Best Antique Shop in Scotland” and “Antique Shop of the Year in the UK”. “I feel we are very well-established. We are 40 years going and have won these awards; being on the board of Lapada. all these things give customers confidence in us,” says Dixon.
As well as his work with Georgian Antiques, Dixon is finance director and company secretary of Lapada, the Association of Art and Antique Dealers, which has more than 500 members across the UK and Ireland.
The organisation works to keep members up to speed with changes in legislation around the sale of art and antiques and runs the Lapada Art and Antiques Fair in Berkeley Square, London, each September. It’s a £8.3 million, five-day event, which sees over 100 antique dealers exhibit across jewellery, furniture, clocks, ceramics, fine art and more.
Lapada also lobbies in the House of Lords on issues affecting the antiques trade. A current hot topic is the extension of the ban on ivory trading. “In the UK, we have a standard that anything pre-1940 in ivory was tradeable. Now they are going to make all ivory non-tradeable unless a piece has less than 10 percent ivory in it,” Dixon explains.
“A tea caddy from 1780 is not driving the market for ivory: that is driven by the Chinese market. The animal that went into that piece died 240 years ago and what do we do with the piece now? Perhaps we can use the money made on items such as this to try to prevent modern-day poaching. These things have occurred. It’s about preventing them from occurring in the future.”
Brexit is a very divisive topic, he acknowledges, and says wryly that his friends have implemented a £5 fine for anyone mentioning the topic on the golf course. “Don’t forget there was very little difference in the vote for or against Brexit. Because it’s so 50:50, you are bound to have an argument,” he says.
“The Brexit vote was as good as Trump’s social media hijack,” he continues passionately. “We all assumed it would be a No vote but it was like an Eton bun fight and the whole thing backfired so badly I am raging about it.”
Dixon says agitation and uncertainty in the economy is not good for business. “It’s very controversial. When it does happen, let’s hope it’s clean so we can adjust to what goes on. At the moment, no one knows what’s happening.”
Dixon says he “probably kept his head down a bit” during the Troubles in the 1980s but has settled well into life in Edinburgh. His wife is a biochemist from Dublin who works at Edinburgh Napier University. The couple, who met while at college in Carlow, have “three Scottish sons”.
Dixon still works with his brother Padraic on a daily basis and the two have maintained a good working relationship through the years.
“We are both fairly well tuned into the market,” says Dixon. “But if you think you know it all, you’re ‘goosed’, as they say over here.”