In Conversation with… Judith Miller

Judith MillerThe Queen of Antiques needs no introduction from us but just to say she is one of the world’s leading experts in the antiques field. In 1979 she co-founded the international best-seller Miller’s Antiques Price Guide and has since written more than 100 books, which are held in high regard by collectors and dealers. Judith is an expert on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, which is now in its 40th year, and has co-hosted the popular BBC series The House DetectivesITV’s Antiques Trail, and Discovery’s It’s Your Bid. She is also a regular lecturer and contributor to numerous newspapers and magazines, including the Financial Times, the Daily TelegraphHomes & Antiques and House & Garden. She has lectured extensively, including at the V&A Museum in London and the Smithsonian in Washington. With the latest editions of the Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia and Miller’s Antiques Handbook & Price Guide hitting the shelves this autumn, Judith talks to us about her reign of the antiques trade, her books, her view of the trade today and in the future.

ANF: We have just received the review copies of not one but two new tomes from your publishers Octopus – Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia and Miller’s Antiques Handbook & Price Guide 2018-2019 and our readers would definitely like to know just how you find the time to produce these detailed and up to the minute indispensible reference guides – which are now cornerstones of the antiques publishing industry, with all your other work which involves both BBC Antiques Roadshow and speaking engagements here and in the US.

JM: We are a small but efficient well-practised team. We receive information globally and have a very sophisticated data-base. It is fascinating to track antiques and collectables prices and also new information on factories and makers.

ANF: The content of the Miller’s Guides is incredibly detailed and the photography superb – how has the compilation changed over the years? Do you still have a team of colleagues to visit key showrooms around the UK or is the bulk of the work done online?

JM: Although we do receive a tremendous amount of information online, we still make sure we scour the country for interesting exhibitions and sales.

ANF: When does the research start for the next edition or does it just roll on from month to month?

JM: As you say the Antiques Price Guide has just published and we are hard at work on the next Collectables Guide for publication in June 2018. People often think we just update the prices but we don’t. Every item is different from the previous edition. So we do start again each year.

ANF: It seems you are something of a powerhouse and have been called the Queen of Antiques – how did your career evolve? Was there a plan? What advice would you give to any young person joining the trade in any capacity in the C21st?

JM: Quite unusually as a specialist on the Antiques Roadshow, I didn’t grow up with art and antiques. My parents were part of what we affectionately call the ‘formica generation’. Post WW2 they got rid of all my granparents ‘stuff’. My love of collecting grew out of my love of history. And of course collecting is addictive! I read everything I could, I went to every exhibition and I handled as much as I could.

ANF: Alongside the Miller’s reference books you have published a dizzying number of titles – more than one hundred, on the full panoply of subjects – Art Deco, costume jewellery, American costume jewellery, World Styles, Antique Marks, the Field Guide set, Antique Detective and a clutch of Mid C20th books – where does your inspiration come from?

JM: Anywhere. It could be an interesting exhibition or seeing a collection. Sometimes it’s in the ether. I can be thinking about the difference between British Arts & Crafts (hand-crafted) and American (more mass-produced) and suddenly I’m writing a book!

ANF: BBC Antiques Roadshow is celebrating its 40th birthday this year.  How long have you been an expert on this perennially popular show, how did you get involved, and what have been some of your most memorable recordings – good and bad?!

JM: I’ve been on the show since 2006. I was approached by Simon Shaw, the producer, as I’d worked with him on Home Front 20 years before. Initially I said I was too busy but agreed to do one. After that I was totally hooked and wanted to do as many as I could. I’ve loved seeing some amazing rare Art Deco posters, some fabulous costume jewellery, great bronzes, a collection of 2,000 C18th shoe buckles, 1960s fashion, 1930s Mickey and Minnie mice and a toilet seat that Winston Churchill used! That’s the joy of working on the Roadshow – especially as I cover Miscellaneous and Ceramics – I never know what I’m going to see.

ANF: At Antiques News & Fairs we are regular visitors to one of UK’s largest and longest running antiques fairs, Antiques for Everyone at the NEC in Birmingham, and we see the large and responsive crowds who come to hear your talks and to buy your books. How long have you been with AfE and do you select particular subjects for the audience there?

JM: I’ve been attending all the Antiques for Everyone Fairs for over 15 years. I find them an excellent way to spot trends and talking to the visitors allows me to get information about what they are looking for. Dealers also like to be involved in the books such as Gemma Redmond with costume jewellery, Lynways with mid C20th Scandinavian ceramics and glass and John Newton with mid C20th German stoneware. I like to choose a wide range of dealers antiques and collectables to point out why items are valuable, rare and tell stories of the upsets I’ve had when I haven’t bought something!

ANF: You were recently a judge for the Best in Show at the LAPADA London Art & Antiques Fair. How would you compare the exhibitors’ displays compared to a similar show 15 years ago? There were winners in the more traditional sector of the trade – porcelain for example. Do you think that quality is the key to success and traditional antiques will survive or do you predict more change in the trade?

JM: There is certainly more variety. 15 years ago there was very little mid century modern. Also dealers now will often mix and match. It doesn’t all have to be C18th English porcelain or furniture. I think the developments are exciting. When I started to collect I wanted to find an example of every single pattern of C18th Worcester porcelain. I think collectors like that are almost extinct! It’s now much more about the ‘look’.

ANF: How much has the saleroom/showroom divide changed over the same period of 15 years? Do you think the distinction has blurred with the advent of auction portal websites?

JM: I think auction houses are now retail. When I was going to auctions in the 70s I knew every dealer in the room. There were no private buyers. It is now so easy to search auctions. What I believe dealers have to do is to build even better relationships with their customers. You can learn so much from the many knowledgeable dealers.

ANF: You recently moved from your period family home to an ultra modern new home – how have you adapted? Was it out with the old and in with the new or have you been able to keep and display your collections – and of course everyone will want to know what you collect?

JM: Yes, after years of living in period properties we’re now living in an 8 year old Mid Century Modern style house – and I love it. I still have my C18th oak four-poster and cabinets of C16th, C17th and C18th ceramics and C20th glass. And of course treen and costume jewellery and my well known passion for single chairs! But there is a more minimal feel.

ANF: And finally – how on earth do you unwind?

JM: Music. John and I go to listen to live music as often as we can. This month the Rolling Stones in Paris, then Jason Orbell and War on Drugs. Of course we travel the world to hear ‘the Boss’ – Bruce Springsteen. And I was really upset to hear of the death of Tom Petty who we heard in Hyde Park this summer. Travel. Reading. Theatre. Film – our son recently took me to see Victoria and Abdul for my birthday. Meeting friends for good food and wine. Cooking. Looking after 4 grandchildren. In fact how do I find time for work!

As stated above, the latest editions of the Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia and Miller’s Antiques Handbook & Price Guide are publshed this autumn.  Find out more about them in our recent post, ‘Do You Know What Your Antiques Are Worth?’

To learn more about Judith Miller and the Miller’s Reference Guides, visit Millers Antiques Guide.

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