John Hobbs , who has died aged 64, emerged from the demi-monde of postwar west London to become one of the most successful antique dealers of his generation ; when his restorer accused him of selling fakes, however, he faced professional disgrace and financial ruin.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/8454738/John-Hobbs.html
John Edmund Hobbs was born in St Albans on May 8 1946, the second of four children of Sidney Hobbs and his wife Beatrice, known as Kitty. The family soon moved to Fulham where Sid was, until 1968, the proprietor of Odds & Hobbs, a junk shop at which he held court to a circle of local characters, many of a roguish stripe.
John worked with his father from the age of 14 and was later apprenticed to a local tallyman. There he became a “knocker” – knocking on doors to charm from the occupants furniture which could be sold on to the trade at great profit. This was a time when many grand town houses were disgorging their contents before being sliced into flats.
A youth of striking beauty – described by the society antiques dealer Christopher Gibbs as looking “as if he’d strayed from a band of angels in a quattrocento painting” – Hobbs soon found himself, during a period when rigid class barriers were disintegrating, to be something of an adornment in the Chelsea hinterlands. This presented a variety of unlikely opportunities, and he was taken up by Nell Dunn, then married to the writer Jeremy Sandford, who had moved across the river from fashionable Cheyne Walk to working-class Battersea.
There was much of Hobbs in the book she wrote of her experiences, Up The Junction (1963), and even more in the film version that followed in 1968; but it was not until a paternity test nearly 30 years later that Hobbs was to discover that, as a 17-year-old, he had fathered Dunn’s first child, Reuben, born in 1964.
For a period Hobbs was close with John Bindon, the notorious Fulham tough who had been his senior at St Mark’s School, and together they discovered many interests in common – not least gambling, recreational stimulants and women . Like Bindon, Hobbs was prone to stray . By his own account, his younger self was no stranger to fencing stolen goods and housebreaking. One such foray, he claimed, was to the home of the politician and journalist Woodrow Wyatt. In the newspapers the next day, Wyatt trumpeted that he had seen off the intruders – but in reality, Hobbs asserted, he had hidden under the bedcovers shouting: “Take what you want but don’t touch me.”
Other misdemeanours included lending Nicholas Van Hoogstraten his car, which the vengeful property baron used (without Hobbs’s knowledge) in a hand-grenade attack on the home of a former business associate. Hobbs also ran into trouble after a weekend in France with the gossip columnist Nigel Dempster’s new wife. His cover was blown when his clothes went missing in transit, only to be mistakenly delivered by Heathrow staff to Dempster at his office. Fisticuffs followed; the marriage headed swiftly to divorce.
Meanwhile Hobbs was still “running furniture”, and had been joined by his brother Carlton, who was nine years younger . In 1974 they set up business in the newly-established Kings Road Furniture Cave, supplying pieces, at a modest markup, mainly to the trade. The early days at the “Cave” were perhaps Hobbs’s happiest. The place had the air of a club – albeit a thoroughly disreputable one whose membership embraced an eclectic mix of dealers, housebreakers and pimps, not to mention a smattering of Old Etonians – where work often took a back seat to the serious business of poker and backgammon. Hobbs, invariably dressed in an ankle-length leather overcoat with the collar up, was the frontman, while Carlton preferred to stay in the background.
The brothers’ ambitions eventually outgrew the “Cave”. A crucial decision was to widen the international horizons of their buying. Carlton began to trawl Europe buying up “stale” stock there which was still “fresh” to the English market. Biedermeier furniture, in particular, was beginning to be appreciated, and the brothers bought boldly and well, made big profits, and met new clients.
In 1987 they managed to secure, on the flip of a coin, a lease on premises at 107 Pimlico Road in Chelsea. Soon they became major players, travelling through Scandinavia, then awash with Russian furniture, which they brought back to London. They also began to make a splash in the salerooms, outgunning established dealers to bag some notable trophy lots at auction.
“To Pimlico”, wrote Gibbs, “the Hobbs brothers brought a refreshing glamour and a flamboyant European sense of theatre.” Their regular clients included Valentino, Mercedes Bass, Edmund Safra, Elton John and Leslie Wexner, as well as decorators such as Renzo Mongiardino, Juan Pablo Molyneux, Peter Marino and Brian McCarthy. But this meteoric transformation did not go unremarked. Competitors speculated about a shadowy millionaire backer or accused them of selling to undiscriminating celebrity clients. What the critics did not know about was the discreet arrangement the Hobbs brothers had made for the exclusive services of a Kent-based restorer, Dennis Buggins.
Despite their success, tensions between the brothers forced a split in 1993. Hobbs, under his own name for the first time, moved to a cavernous gallery behind Chelsea Barracks. Here – despite a disastrous joint venture with Ariane Dandois, the long-term mistress of Elie de Rothschild, that led to years of rancour and legal expense – his business continued to flourish, his stock constantly replenished with remarkable treasures, which were sold to an ever-increasing clientele lured in by “ the drop dead bezazz” of what was on offer.
Many of his clients became friends, in particular Jeffrey Steiner, the billionaire head of the Fairchild Corporation, who had wandered into the original Pimlico Road shop one Saturday in 1988 and breezily dropped over £1 million.
When staying at Steiner’s villa in the South of France, Hobbs claimed he was prevailed upon to supply a reefer to an elderly guest. The recipient collapsed after partaking and, it was assumed, had died. Panic ensued with Steiner insisting that the body be taken off his premises. But as Hobbs helped his host bundle the “cadaver” into the boot of a car, it revived, to inquire, not unreasonably: “What the hell do you think you’re playing at?”
In 2002 Hobbs hit the professional jackpot when he negotiated a £7 million guarantee to sell much of his stock at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg in New York. Meanwhile, by 2005, Carlton had moved his business to Manhattan, having acquired and refurbished a mansion that was originally home to the socialite Birdie Vanderbilt. Then disaster struck.
Buggins had continued to work exclusively for both brothers even after their demerger. But in 2007 Carlton filed a multi-million-dollar suit against the restorer, claiming that some pieces had not been delivered and that others were damaged. Fearful of the repercussions of this dispute, Hobbs attempted to broker a settlement, but failed. Soon, he too was in litigation with the restorer. It was an act of professional suicide. After losing both his major clients — and after being forced to shut down his workshop and sell his home — Buggins decided to go public with allegations against Hobbs, even if an injunction prevented him from discussing Carlton.
A last-minute attempt to convince Buggins to retract failed and, in April 2008, The Sunday Times ran a front-page article entitled: “Whistleblower reveals £30m antiques scam”. Buggins claimed that since 1992 his workshop has handled 1,875 items for Hobbs, more than half of which involved major alterations or outright inventions. Photographs and records provided by Buggins showed how he had transformed ordinary pieces of furniture into high-end antiques. Such had been Hobbs’s demand for period wardrobes, he alleged, that it had even been necessary to rent a barn in which to store them.
The embellished items were then attributed by Hobbs to the great cabinetmakers of the past, and described as “rare” and “significant”. One such invention, described by Hobbs as a “large and important gilt metal mounted mahogany pedestal partners desk, early 19th-century in the manner of Marsh and Tatham”, had an asking price of £1.2 million. Buggins claimed he had designed the desk himself and the cost for labour and materials had been £100,000.
Fearing the attentions of the law and his clients, Hobbs shipped much of his stock over to Switzerland and closed up the gallery, insisting that the timing was incidental: “We’re taking this opportunity to redecorate, that’s all.” But it never reopened. The British Antique Dealers’ Association suspended him. Carlton, back in the States, swiftly reached an undisclosed settlement with Buggins, understood to involve a payment of more than a million pounds to the restorer.
The restorer’s revelations provoked great anxiety among decorators – and their clients – around the world. That June, a pair of commodes that Hobbs had sold to a Swedish businessman for £395,000 in 1997 was withdrawn from a Sotheby’s sale in New York after a tip-off from a journalist. The catalogue described them as German neo-Classical, circa 1800, with a high estimate of $300,000: but Buggins produced evidence that he had made them out of a few old wardrobes and cedar from a local timber merchant.
For Hobbs, the impact was ruinous. His stock, when he could sell it, was now worth only a fraction of its previous value. He faced escalating legal bills and a large unanticipated tax demand. Worse, his health – he had been diagnosed with cancer in 2004 – was fast deteriorating. He finally reached a settlement with Buggins at the High Court last November, moments before he was due to be cross-examined. The agreement involved a substantial cash payment, again to the restorer, and the legal costs of both sides were thought to have reached more than £1 million.
A tall, well-built man and snappy dresser – he favoured the Fulham tailor Dimi Major – Hobbs always wore his hair “over the collar”. He was charismatic and capable of attracting real loyalty. But he understood when and how to apply menace, and was a doughty litigant, whose long-running disputes with Jacob Rothschild , the French and Italian authorities, and Buggins kept many lawyers in clover. He also had a self-destructive personality and a gambler’s disregard for consequences. He spent most of his life battling addictions to drink and drugs and was prone to depression.
He married first, in 1987 (dissolved 2002), Lola Wigan, the daughter of the Dorset racehorse breeder Dare Wigan. He married secondly, in 2003 (dissolved 2008), Dolores King. He also fathered two further children, a daughter, Rebecca, with Loretta Land in 1967, and a son, Rupert, with Sonia Dean in 1970 (he also assumed paternal responsibilities for her daughter, Elly).
John Hobbs died on March 13 at his flat in Putney. He was working on his memoirs, to be titled Honest John.