Finders Keepers: British antique dealer, Guy Tobin, shares the stories of two extraordinary objects that have passed through his hands: his greatest find and the piece he'll keep forever.
INTERVIEW BY CAMILLA FRANCES | 15 DECEMBER 2023
The home of antique dealer, Guy Tobin
Britain is the richest vein for discoveries in the art world; I often think it like the foreshore with time and tide tumbling the millions of stones to reveal its treasures. I think all antique dealers enjoy an element of treasure hunting, and we all have our favorite spots to hunt in. Talking to the antiques trade, sifting the auction rooms and helping private individuals is the way I find such works.
My Greatest Find: Antonio Canova’s ‘Teste Ideale’ - marble bust of Psyche
Psyche (pictured below) came through a dealer with wide ranging taste and a great eye. He had two pieces of sculpture in his shop and I regret not buying both. However, it was a toss up between them; one was immediately sellable, but the other, Psyche, is the one I bought even though the other was in much better condition. I had to have her though, she is utterly beguiling.
An apparently typical early 19th century marble bust of a female, Psyche rises above. Beautifully conceived with a deftness of touch with the chisel and tool, it has the most extraordinary allure. Added to the sheer skill of the work are more academic flags pointing to Canova’s workshop. All over the surface of the marble are the pointing marks or didascalia that allow the work to be directly partnered to the original plaster model in the Canova museum in Possagno, Northern Italy.
Guy's greatest find: marble bust of Pysche
[In terms of selling the sculpture], there are two problems; one is potentially surmountable, the other perhaps not. The first is a total lack of provenance. I have no idea who the head was made for, or where it has lived for the past 200 years.
The series of famous Teste Ideale were made by Canova as gifts for British patrons who had been instrumental in aiding with the return of looted works from Italy during Napoleon's conquests. The second issue is that the marble has lived outside for a period of time and nature has had a hand in gently ageing the surface. It loses no impact, but takes away some of Canova’s final touch.
While I would keep her forever and it shall be hard to prise her from my hands, there is a potential value that once realised will allow a multitude of further acquisitions, be they keepers or not. She will not achieve the £5.3m her sister, Peace, made at Sotheby’s in 2018 but with further research...
Images of Guy's two choices, and showroom © Guy Tobin
The piece I'll keep Forever: Mid-Victorian desk, attributed to Charles Bevan
The piece I will keep forever is trickier to answer, I am after all a dealer first and foremost. However, it is probably my desk. At least, it was my desk until my wife decided otherwise and it became hers which explains the ‘keeper’ decision around this piece of furniture. Which is a win-win situation.
It was found in one of those happy circumstances where I had thought I was going to have to dig deeper into the wallet than felt comfortable. Not so. At an auction in South London, the auctioneer's hammer dropped at around £100! Sometimes the world smiles down at you. It was a large desk attributed to the mid-Victorian designer, Charles Bevan, and made by Gillow & Co. This desk has lived with us in every house since we married, and so it shall remain.
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Guy Tobin is a British antique dealer | Follow Guy on Instagram @guytobin2