We've all experienced that awful feeling. That millisecond of mishap when, fixed as if in a trance, you watch helplessly as your favourite piece of china slips from your hand and goes crashing to the floor where it explodes into multiple fragments.
The delph you've been using for years, which you picked up in a bargain basement, has survived enthusiastic soirees and the odd birthday bash unblemished.
But as soon as you blow the cobwebs off precious china handed down from mother to daughter for generations, the obvious happens. Needless to say, it can't be bought in the shops. That line, you are told, has been discontinued.
But all is not lost: there are specialists who can help, whose business it is to track down precious items. Tom Power is one such man.
From Waterford, Tom's life as a collector began in the early 1980s when he purchased a house in London. Among the contents left behind was a small collection of Toby jugs. This was to spark a passion in him, and inspire his business selling Royal Doulton figurines, Toby jugs and old ornaments. But it soon became clear from the numerous phone inquiries he received that the real business was in sourcing discontinued china.
Confident that there was a market in this area, he established another company called Tablewhere? Before long, the business had outgrown its premises and had to move to the outskirts of London, near Finchley. Now annual turnover has grown from an initial £12,000 to £2 million today.
Working with a staff of 20, he receives about 500 calls each day and estimates an 85 percent success rate for finding replacement china. "We stock over 250 different manufacturers, with about 40,000 sets in different patterns, and over one million pieces are stored in our warehouses around London." His company operates from a detailed database, so it is easy to establish if it can help you; if the request is a little more obscure, you will be asked to supply a photograph of the item you are trying to match and if possible, the period and series identification.
There is no commission fee for the search and no obligation to buy. The replacement pieces are priced at today's values, not the original cost. Power employs 12 buyers who operate all over the country, scouring estate sales, auction and car boot sales to snap up items from the early 1900s onwards. Dinner and tea services from the 1950s are among the most popular requests. The firm adds over 1,000 sets per week to its continually growing collection.
He is keen to stress that it's not just antique china but everyday stoneware that the company can source. "Sometimes when people ring, they are almost apologetic about their inquiry," says Tom. "They think we only deal in expensive items, and we have to reassure them that we can help them." The company's range - from Wedgwood , Royal Doulton, Spode, Denby, Minton, Royal Albert, Johnson Brothers, Poole, Royal Worchester, Hornsea, Midwinter and Aynsley, to name but a few - is far reaching.
However if Tablewhere? doesn't have what you're looking for, it will search for it using its many contacts at home and abroad.
Some searches, spanning a number of years, can forge friendships. He cites the case of the customer from Northern Ireland who for purely nostalgic reasons wanted to recreate her childhood memories of visits to her grandmother's house. "It took us three years to complete the dinner service of Royal Doulton Old Leeds Spray that she remembered so fondly from her youth, but we did it."
He also did a search for Princess Margaret, who wanted to replace a small breakfast teapot she was fond of. Directed to Tablewhere? by Harrod's, he personally delivered it to Kensington Palace. He has also supplied Buckingham Palace with replacement Royal Doulton.
"We supply people from all over the world, and there is little danger of breakage in transit as we have expert packers." Not the only one to recognise this niche in the market, there are others in the UK specialising in discontinued china.