For the Anglo-American art and antiques dealer Warner Dailey, the collecting habit began young. An only child, born in New Jersey in 1945, he was trading badges in pre-school, before graduating to stamps and shells.
Aged just 14, he recognised the quality of a Hepplewhite sideboard he was offered for $400. He scraped the money together and then resold it to one of the foremost antique dealers in the country for $1700. He later heard the dealer was asking $12,000 for it!
His first big break came at the age of 17 with an introduction to the Pierrepont family. With great chutzpah, he had put on a tweed suit, rung the bell to the big house, and was shown to the drawing room by a maid who had assumed he was a family friend. Mrs Pierrepont was charmed and for the next few years he worked with the family, tutoring their son and occasionally visiting the attics and storerooms where he would impress with his knowledge of ‘the amazing stuff in there and what it was worth’.
When he was 22, the family found him a job as an assistant curator of the New Jersey Historical Society, where he was charged with cataloguing items and running a programme for underprivileged children. He stayed at the museum for a year, but had itchy feet, and with references from the Pierrepont family, $1000 in savings and the promise of a job at Christie’s, Dailey moved to London. Starting on the front counter at Christie’s, King Street, he was soon moved to the Russian Works of Art Department and reconnected with Malcolm Forbes, the American publishing magnate and Fabergé fanatic. Forbes paid Dailey a retainer to find items for him, and thus his life as a ‘runner’ had begun.
In those ‘golden age’ days of dealing, Warner found he could buy and sell anywhere. Every week it was the markets at Bermondsey and Portobello and rummage sales; sometimes it was Sotheby’s and Christie’s; on other occasions, it was a French brocante or the contents of a skip. He was never interested in owning a shop and, like most dealers, hated paperwork. Instead, he owned a Mercedes estate that he drove around London and the South of England, filling it with objects that ranged from the best in Russian objets d’art to the weird and wonderful.
He found a deep emotional connection to objects that came with a narrative and his love of objects suited to the Kunstkammer or the Indian souk never diminished. Nonetheless, he found he had an eye for ‘spotting really good items’ and took great satisfaction when the pieces he sold for guineas and shillings at Greenwich Antique Market, would appear in the shop windows on Bond Street or Pimlico Road.
Today his home in Lewisham groans under the weight of pictures, natural history specimens, tribal art, exotic textiles and objects that just demand to be picked up and studied. More than anything else, he wants others to enjoy these pieces and for the stories that surround them to be remembered. For that reason, Sworders is proud to present this single-owner sale of some 300 lots from his personal collection.
Explore the captivating interview by tapping on the questions below.
I suppose I first started out with the usual things kids collect, like rocks, stamps and coins. However, one of the earliest memories of things that got me hooked was stopping for a picnic on the way to my grandmother’s in Canada, when I was about five. I was rumbling around looking at rocks and found this marvellous, huge fossil rock. I was very excited about it and told my dad and he came over and thought it was a load of concrete with bits of nuts and bolts, which were in fact crinoids. That was one of my earliest finds, which I still have.
I went on from that, being really influenced during a summer holiday on Shelter Island, out past the Hamptons in Long Island, where we stayed in some cottages and when we went to pay the chap who owned these cottages, a retired sea captain, we went into this marvellous room he had, which was just like a museum filled with all kinds of relics, including a wonderful sperm whale’s jaw, suspended from the ceiling, shells and tribal items, as well as shields and spears, even a tattooed Maori head. And of course, that was just the dream of my life. I thought, one day, that’s what I want to have, a house full of all fantastic things gathered throughout the world and my travels.
Collecting is almost everything in my life. It’s had a huge influence on me and is a constant stimulation that you can’t get from anything else. What I value most is the gathering, the learning and the experience of what these objects give you. Some items completely grip you because of the story, the history, or where they’ve been. Other things, like photographs or photograph albums, particularly military ones, give a real experience of what it must have been like. By looking at, say, a caption and photograph, you’re living your life through the thoughts of the chap who’s recorded his photographs and experiences.
Other times it’s a very different thing. For example, I have a wonderful, decorated flat-top box, which could perhaps be American chic, or it might even be from France, but the patterns on the box and the whole look of it is just so stimulating and so wonderful. Passing it on your way to breakfast or on the way up to bed at night, you look at it and every time you see it, it has a real influence on you.
Yes, my interests have shifted a lot over the years. When I started work at Christie’s in 1968, I got involved in collecting different sorts of things, including furniture. Attending various other markets and so on influenced me, but later on, by the sort of 1980s, I got fed up with the whole collecting of antiques, and thought I needed something new and to do something a bit different. So, at that point I became interested in mid-century and modern, and what I called ‘my mother wouldn’t like it’ period of inflatable furniture and plastics.
I’ve definitely had a lot of changes and I lose interest in something but pick it up with something else. It’s hard to say what kicks it off, but there’ll be just some little spark and then I’ll go off and collect that for a while. Then I get fed up with it and collect something else.
One thing that I’m particularly lucky about, is finding my wife, Fiona, whom I’ve been with for thirty-two years. The great thing about Fiona is I don’t have to sneak objects into the house, unlike most collectors, who have to bring things in under the dead of night and then, if it’s discovered, say, ‘I’ve had that years’, if arguments unfold. Very often for the things I bring in, if anything, ‘Fifi’ says, ‘we must keep that’, ‘don’t swap that’ or ‘don’t sell that’. She’s also interested and has collected things herself, having been an auctioneer when I met her. Having Fiona adds a huge amount to the pleasure of collecting and, again, not having to sneak stuff in is always a good thing!
It’s difficult to know exactly and to work out just how much stuff I have. I have a collection of books because I record everything and write it down. In the same way that I’ve kept a diary every day since 1959. I usually write the stuff that I found that day and then transfer it all into books, so I have great sort of inventory and stock books of collections. In those books I write down where I bought the thing or any history that I can find; even now when I buy things on eBay, I often write to the person I bought it from and say, ‘Do you have any history of it, any provenance?’.
With more than 70 years of collecting, it probably gets on for around a hundred thousand different things that have come and gone. With my collection forever changing, sometimes I get upset that I’ve sold items and buy them back!
I once bought a lobster claw powder flask, which I bought in Belfast for £18 in 1970, and I sold it for £500 when I moved house and needed the money. And then, about five years ago, I bought it back from the dealer for £1,000 because I missed having it.
One of my favourites is a little leather bag that holds several objects, including rings, bracelets, a tooth filling, and a label that informs you the items were taken out of a crocodile shot in the Ganges River by OGE in 1915. You have all these items which are the only things left because the acid in the croc’s stomach just dissolved all the remains of the poor woman who went inside!
It’s great meeting different people. Half of the fun of collecting things is running into somebody who’s on the same wavelength, and you understand immediately what they’re up to. You just have a wonderful sharing of this hobby that’s become my whole life. I was able to survive just by doing what I like doing every day and not ever feeling that I’ve done a day’s work in my life - just researching, finding things, meeting people - getting that sort of buzz out of it all.
Well, now that I’m getting pretty long in the tooth, I have to think about having a bit of a clear-out and parting with some of these things. For a lot of collectors, their items only get sold when they’ve passed away. So, I thought it’d be more enjoyable to let some of these things go now, while I have some sort of control of and get to experience the enjoyment of seeing other people end up with them, adding them to their collections. It means I can pass on the stories and the histories as far as I know, to somebody who then hopefully will do some more research or be as thrilled with them, just as I was.
So, it’s a real treat in a way for me to be able to see that happening and it makes it a lot easier for my family, some of whom don’t have any real interest in collecting. It’d be great to find new homes and to see people enjoy the things I have passionately collected over the years.
Well, there’s an assortment of everything, from folk art pieces to Civil War items, historical objects and photographs, as well as modern things too.
There are some things in the sale that I can’t imagine anybody being interested in. But the funny thing is, you just never, never know. And it’s the same with me. I don’t often know when I start looking at a sale or going to a flea market, I have no idea what I’m going to buy. It’s just whatever takes one’s fancy and I’m just hoping that people will find something that they’re enthusiastic about or will mean something to them, just as it has to me.
I suppose they would be historic, eclectic, and unusual.
I think the only real advice about collecting is never collect stuff because you think it’s going to be valuable. It’s got to be something that absolutely grips you - you fall in love with and feel that you can’t live without. So much so that you ache at night over thinking, ‘Am I going to get that?’ or ‘I hope I get that’, and this will lead to years and years of enjoyment and progressing to the next thing, because it is a disease and it’s very difficult not to collect once you’ve started. But I think it’s fairly harmless and not like gambling or something where you’re necessarily throwing your money away - although sometimes you will be!
So the advice I have is to just be really in love with what you’re doing and let it take you somewhere. That’s the great thing, these objects will totally change your life and change the way you look at things.
A selection of lots will be on view Tuesday 6 - Saturday 10 February at our London Gallery, 15 Cecil Court, London WC2N 4EZ
Monday-Friday, 11.30am - 5.30pm, Saturday, 1pm - 5pm, Sunday - Closed
We will be offering viewing of the full sale from Saturday 17 - Thursday 22 February at our Stansted Auction Rooms, Cambridge Road, Stansted Mountfitchet CM24 8GE
Saturday & Sunday, 10am - 1pm, Monday, 10am - 5pm, Tuesday, NO VIEWING, Wednesday, 10am - 5pm, Thursday, 9am - 10am
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