Antiques expert Katherine Higgins on why she likes nothing better than bargain hunting in Surrey
A perennial favourite on BBC antiques programmes, Katherine Higgins can often be seen unravelling the history behind a cherished family heirloom on the Antiques Roadshow or pitting her wits against another professional bargain hunter on Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. As she looks forward to unveiling a groundbreaking new pop art exhibition in Woking next month, the Guildford-based collectables expert reveals why she likes nothing better than a spot of bargain hunting on her own home turf…
If you’re a keen follower of the Antiques Roadshow, then Katherine Higgins will be instantly familiar. She’s the one on the miscellaneous table – not the crisply dressed Hilary Kay with the passion for vintage automata or the exquisitely-named Bunny Campione with a penchant for Steiff bears, but the bubbly collectables expert with the bold lipstick and lustrous auburn hair. And so what is Katherine’s thing?
“Locks and oilcans,” she grins, only half joking. “I get very excited about the average rather than the huge value things. I remember going to the trial screening for the Antiques Roadshow very conscious of the fact that not many people wanted to talk about food mixers as much as I did. To my mind, Kenwood was an absolute genius!”
These days, Katherine, who is Guildford born and bred, actually pops up all over the place. Perhaps you’ve watched her pitting her wits against antiques rival John Cameron at auctions, boot sales and antiques markets on the popular BBC show Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. Or before that, you may have seen her cutting her televisual teeth on Schofield’s Quest or The Antiques Show.
She’s also a prolific writer. As well as editing successive editions of the Miller’s Collectables Price Guide, she has penned a Miller’s book on Seventies collectables and another charting the collectability of household design through the decades.
A landmark exhibition
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And now she has guest curated an exhibition imaginatively titled Snap, Crackle and Pop, which opens at The Lightbox in Woking next month. Bringing together works by some of the UK’s leading pop artists, such as Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake and David Hockney, along with key objects from the Sixties, it explores how art fed off popular culture and consumerism to produce works that elevated the everyday into a new language.
“Though we’re now 40 years on from the Sixties, it’s the first time we’ve ever seen a British institution mount an exhibition devoted to British pop art, which seems quite extraordinary,” says the 43-year-old, whose role has been to source many of the objects in the exhibition. “And while we’ll be showing off some fantastic pictures from key galleries, I wanted to add the icing on the cake by placing them in a cultural context.
“We begin by bringing together everyday objects from the Forties and Fifties, including copies of Picture Post, cigarette cards, a signed letter from Elvis and some Marilyn Monroe ephemera. And we touch every area, right down to the suburban housewife who was depicted in the Fifties as the perfect hostess with her white Formica surfaces.
“But then we see what happened when pop exploded and how that translated into our household objects. So we’ll be featuring some amazing futuristic sunglasses by Oliver Goldsmith fashioned from an all-singing, all-dancing new kind of acetate; a range of rainbow-coloured ‘Quant Afoot’ plastic boots, designed by Sixties fashion icon Mary Quant; and we’ll be celebrating plasticised electronics by Panasonic and JVC.”
The only child of a banker, Katherine has been fascinated by history and design since childhood, when she visited Guildford Museum to attain her badges as a Girl Guide. “I went back there recently to do some filming and was very comforted to find it hadn’t changed a bit – right down to the carousel I used to drop my penny in!” she laughs.
After her schooling at Guildford High School for Girls, she studied the history of art and architecture at the University of East Anglia, specialising in the 18th and 20th centuries.
Meanwhile, she had already set her sights on her future career, securing successive summer placements in the clock department at Christie’s auction house in London. It proved a valuable training ground and, after completing a postgraduate degree in magazine journalism at City College, she thought she’d be welcomed back and offered a permanent position, but it wasn’t to be.
So, undaunted, she worked for a glossy magazine in London until, bizarrely, her job application finally worked its way into the hands of Christie’s’ marketing director, who promptly offered her a job on the spot. But by now, Katherine was reluctant to take a modest salary as a specialist in a department.
“It was the late Eighties and, if you didn’t have a GTI, life wasn’t worth living,” she says. “I realised there was no money in the art world, so I asked to be slotted in as a press officer on a ‘real’ salary and ended up running the team.
From press to TV
“We handled some amazing auctions such as Hollywood actress Olivia de Haviland’s lovely collection of haute couture. And it gave me a chance to get involved in telly for the first time. When the Agra diamond came in for sale, everyone else was too camera-shy to take it into TV-am. But I wasn’t in the least fazed that there were several million people watching.”
After five years at Christie’s, Katherine was poised to accept a job as head of press at the London Stock Exchange when the Daily Express offered her a post as its regular antiques and collectables columnist. By this time, she was also writing books and television producers had begun to sit up and take notice. Soon, she was appearing regularly in our living rooms.
Nowadays, antiques aficionados know her best from her appearances on the Antiques Roadshow, where she delves into the social history of people’s prized possessions. Her most memorable object? Undoubtedly, the hunger strike medal brought into their roadshow in Liverpool by the great niece of a Suffragette.
"We were almost in tears as she recounted the tale of how her relative had scaled the side of a building so that she could throw bricks at the Prime Minister, Lord Asquith, at a time when women were being denied the vote,” she says. “This tiny medal looked like something you would pass up in a junk shop, but it was so rare that I put a conservative estimate of �15,000 on it.”
Katherine doesn’t reserve her enthusiasm for other people’s objects, however. Back on her home turf in the house she shares outside Guildford with her husband Tom, and three children, Oliver, 10, Poppy, eight, and Cicely, six, she is busily hoarding the antiques of the future.
“I’m a great fan of things that are free in life, so I spend a lot of time fishing out merchandising spin-offs from cereal packets,” she giggles. “If it’s free, people tend to throw it away – except me. I’m also a firm believer in enhancing the value of your collectables. So if you happen to have something that relates to a film and one of the stars is appearing at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, it’s worth standing outside the stage door to get them to autograph it.
Bargain hunting locally
“It’s also worth hanging on to great pieces of modern design – and that even applies to IKEA. I go for their PS range because it’s designed by their in-house team, who are producing some great stuff. There are also young emerging artists who are designing some fantastic fabrics and wallpapers. I’m currently redoing all our curtains in textile designer Celia Birtwell’s new range because she will be the Liberty of tomorrow.
“I’m a true eclectic collector. I have 18th century Miles Mason porcelain sitting beside Thirties’ Whitefriars glass. I also collect vintage clothes, kitchenalia and fine wine, though I never see it. It’s my pension fund, so it’s sitting in a warehouse in Basingstoke.”
And where does she pick up antiques bargains locally? “I do all the charity shops. And there’s a big car boot sale on the A3 where I’ve bought and sold things. But I think a nice regional auction room like Wellers in Chertsey is the place to be. I love them with a passion.”
But her greatest love is Surrey itself. “I must admit, I’m a bit Guildford-centric and wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she says. “The high street always buzzes with life and I adore the shops.” She grins before adding guiltily: “And there are wonderful places to indulge in tea and cake!”
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: The little cafe at Frensham Garden Centre, near Frensham Ponds, which serves the best quiche I’ve ever tasted. I will travel a long way for quiche. The runner-up would be the Watts Gallery tea rooms in Compton. The cake is divine.
Shop: Heal’s in Guildford. It still stands for fantastic design.
View: From the top of Guildford Castle. I can see my old house and all the lovely Baillie Scott Arts and Crafts houses I want to buy. I adore the period quality of Guildford High Street.
Place to visit: It would have to be RHS Wisley. My husband’s godfather, Christopher Brickell, was the director general of the RHS. The children love it – they can run and run and run. And I love looking at the design elements of plants.
Place to relax: Pewley Down, near Guildford, where my parents have an allotment. You can hear the birds without the traffic and there are also fantastic views.