Finders Keepers: In this series, antiquarians and collectors share the stories of two extraordinary objects that have passed through their hands: their greatest find and the piece they'll keep forever. This week, antique dealer Max Rollitt talks to Ros Byam Shaw, revealing a huge masterpiece and a humble object with a message that made him cry.



Interior by Max Rollitt, featuring the piece he'll keep forever © Max Rollitt 


My Greatest Find: Walpole Bookcase, 1760

My greatest find has to be the enormous Walpole bookcase, so-called because it came out of Walpole House on Chiswick Mall [one of the finest Georgian residences in London]. It never appeared on the market but, when the house came up for sale some years ago, a friend of mine who knew the vendors told me about the bookcase. The owners were part of the Benson banking family, and had lived there forever. It’s a ridiculously big piece of furniture - it’s 7 metres wide and 3.5 metres tall and filled the whole wall of a room on the first floor - made in the Robert Adam style, around 1760, in beautiful baltic pine with paterae and running limewood mouldings.


Max's Greatest Find: Walpole Bookcase © Max Rollitt Antiques


It might originally have been painted and was probably made for the family’s country house in Wiltshire, Compton Bassett, and moved to their London residence when that house was given a makeover by Edwin Lutyens. It’s a fantastic, architectural piece with its own skirting board, dado rail, cornice, fluted columns, and pediments - everything I love - and takes me back to my early training as a cabinet maker. I might almost have chosen it as the piece I would never sell, as I still have it (it’s in storage), but one day I'll use it in one of my design projects. And because it has such a presence, it could just as easily find a home in a pared back white space as in an 18th century library.

The piece I'll keep forever: Cutlery tray, 1830

I used to do the Antique Fair at London Olympia two or three times a year, and at one of the fairs, some time in the early two thousands, I found a cutlery tray on the stand of an antique dealer called Robert Hirschhorn. It dates from about 1830 and has a slightly primitive, folk art feel to it, and very unusually it’s stamped underneath with the trade mark of a cabinet maker and lamp maker from Bristol. There are animals carved along each side - possibly animals he'd seen at Bristol Zoo, which was founded in 1836 - and on one end the maker has carved the words, ‘Keep your steel always bright’, and on the other end the words, ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’. It’s those last words that made me cry when I read them - and that meant I had to buy it.


The piece Max will Keep forever: carved cutlery tray © Max Rollitt Antiques


They take me back to when I dropped out of university, and with no idea what I was going to do with my life, I met a man called Kevin May, an old hippy who made a living dismantling old barns in Wales and reconstructing them in Surrey. He also made bits of furniture copied from early pieces in the V&A using left-over off-cuts. And that is what inspired me to train as a cabinet maker, and that is how I came to be doing what I do now. His motto was ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a May’. We keep forks and spoons in the tray and it sits on the side in the kitchen. It’s a fixture.’

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Ros Byam Shaw is a Devon-based writer, editor and antique dealer, the author of several books and one half of Perfect English Stuff | Follow Ros on Instagram: @rosbyamshaw

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