Finding forgotten treasures
Barbara Young meets antiques expert and auctioneer Jessica Wall, presenter of the popular TV programme Cash in the Attic.
Travelling across the country, from Cornwall to Barrow in Furness, and Frinton-on-Sea to Leeds with the TV crew from Cash in the Attic, Stamford-based auctioneer and antiques specialist Jessica Wall finds herself in her element.
The return of this iconic television programme sees Jessica, who has been recruited to be an expert on the show, sharing her lifelong passion and knowledge.
Over five weekday evenings, the new series will follow Jessica and the team as they meet people from all walks of life in their homes, helping them uncover often forgotten treasures, or discarded family heirlooms before aiming to sell them for a healthy profit at auction.
Having worked in the antiques and auctions business for more than 25 years, Jessica is a well established expert in her field. She also founded Stamford Auction Rooms seven years ago, where many of the new episodes have been filmed.
As one of the few women to own an auction house, Jessica says she has been approached by other programme makers before, but Cash in the Attic was always a favourite and retains its appeal.
The programme was first aired on BBC One from 2002 to 2012, taking a 10-year break before being revived by Channel 5 in a popular early evening slot last month (August).
“It’s rare for a woman to own her own auction house in the UK, so I think my rarity has played a part in production companies approaching me quite often, but I decided to do Cash in the Attic because I love the premise of the show, and it is so true to what I do in everyday life – getting to rummage in people’s homes to find treasure, and then sell it to make them money which is why I feel the programme is a perfect fit for me!” says Jessica.
“For me, the appeal of the programme is the realness of it; featuring normal people, in normal homes up and down the country who have items hidden away that they can make money from – and it’s often the most unlikely things that do!
“I have also enjoyed meeting so many fantastic contributors on the show, and of course the wonderful presenters, Chris Kamara and Jules Hudson – I think you will see how much I enjoyed working with everyone on screen too!”
On the rostrum
Although she enjoyed drama classes at school, Jessica didn’t undergo any formal television presenting training before taking the role, but says thanks to her job, nerves in front of the camera haven’t been an issue.
“I just try and be myself really,” she explains. “I have done so many auctions now that it’s rare that I suffer from any nerves; it’s more excitement than anything. However, I was a bit nervous when I hosted a charity auction in June this year for Earl Spencer at his Althorp Estate as there were so many people there, but it went extremely well and I helped raise more than £10,000 for the Army Benevolent Fund.”
Jessica explains that to get on the rostrum and perform all day an auctioneer needs “confidence and stamina, and to keep the bidders engaged, a sprinkling of charisma”.
“This combination makes for a great auctioneer because the most important part is to be able to encourage those bids!”
Jessica recalls many interesting finds to date during the filming of Cash in the Attic, but one of her favourites is a painting she found in the downstairs toilet in one home.
“It was a beautiful French oil on canvas, which captured the blue and yellow tones of the Mediterranean summer and flew above its estimate on auction day! Part of the joy in what we do is not just the value of the items we find, but also the history and the connection to the owners, often sentimental, that brings an artefact to life, as well as the life it finds once sold to someone else.”
Developing an early interest
Jessica, whose mother is an avid collector of antiques, grew up in a small village in Leicestershire before going on to study History of Art and Italian at Leicester University.
“From an early age, my mother took me to auctions, antique shops, antique fairs, car boots, jumble sales, and charity shops all the time. When we were not in an antique shop, we would visit National Trust properties and museums all over the UK where I would get to see incredible items from all periods, and I loved every minute of it!
“Later, my university studies enriched the knowledge I had of art and antiques from a more historical point of view. Learning the Italian language enabled me to get a job in Italy, and while there I got to see so many beautiful places, museums and galleries – it was a truly magical time.”
Jessica’s first job was in a workshop where she completed a Fine Art & Furniture Restoration apprenticeship, which she describes as “a rare and valuable insight into antiques and art, and where my passion for early English furniture and objects began”.
Her path in the auctioneering world started at the prestigious auction house Bonhams in London, followed by the position of senior valuer and manager at Wilkinson’s Auctioneers.
Here, she developed a specialist knowledge and passion for early English oak furniture and works of art. This was followed by positions in many other UK auction houses, then a brief period working as a solicitor, before relocating to Lincolnshire.
“Bonhams is a huge company, which attracts high value items, so some of the items I handled were mind blowing; from paintings by Monet, to Patek Philippe watches, they were pieces for the rich and famous!
“Becoming a valuer was a natural progression rather than a direct choice, which came about when I began an internship at Bonhams and as a result was offered a job as a junior cataloguer – valuing items was integral to that role.”
Jessica counts herself fortunate to have had the opportunity to handle and examine a wide range of weird and wonderful historical treasures over the years.
“People keep telling me to write a book, because there are so many stories to tell, but one of the strangest items to pass through my hands was a book bound in the human skin of Henry Garnet, one of the conspirators [behind] the gunpowder plot who was executed.
“It was so macabre, but yet sold for a whopping £4,000!”
Jessica, who lives close to Stamford with her husband and two dogs, Badger and Mouse, decided to follow her childhood dream and set up her own business seven years ago.
“I had to sell my car to fund it, but it was the best decision I have ever made! There are no two days the same. I get to meet so many wonderful people, and hear their stories that are connected to the things they sell with me. It’s fascinating, and a real honour to be entrusted with my client’s possessions.”
Jessica, who describes her own home as “eclectic in style”, continues to follow her personal passion for antiques and collectables.
“I really like items that are made to surprise, such as a hand-painted Victorian pop-up book that I own, or frog mugs, puzzle jugs, or boxes with secret compartments.
“I don’t collect one specific thing, but my home includes both contemporary and early pieces, so I might have a painting by John Piper alongside a 17th century portrait.”
When it comes to guiding would-be collectors through the complex world of antiques, Jessica has the following advice: “Unfortunately the antiques market is not fool-proof, and prices can rise and fall depending on demand and availability.
“However jewellery, silver and gold coins always seem to be a solid investment. I usually advise people to buy what they like, what appeals to them, as that’s what collecting is all about for me. It’s the pleasure the item itself brings to you, not the monetary gain at the end!”
If you would like Jessica to visit your home to assess items you think may have value, contact Stamford Auction Rooms for help and advice – firstname.lastname@example.org, 01780 411485, www.stamfordauctionrooms.com