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The Times Shopper: London

Outdoor Antiques Markets Put on Good Show

September 13, 1987|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

Outdoor antiquing is a popular London pursuit. There are three exceptional markets where natives and tourists browse for bargains.

Portobello Road, between Chepstow Villas and Golborne Road, in London W1, is the most famous and the oldest. This mile-long market has more than 2,000 stalls with dealers specializing in Wedgwood and other English porcelain, antique lace and linens, oaken furniture, silver, Victorian hardware, clocks and watches, toys and model trains and all categories of collectibles.

Some dealers are famous characters locally. Look for Gypsy Dan, always in the same spot near Westbourne Park Road, with a jumble of curiosities, brass doorknobs ($10 and up), glassware ($12 and up), spectacles, picture frames, furniture (prices begin at about $150) and other items.

Portobello Road's regular shops are open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but Saturday is market day, when the place springs into action. About 8 a.m. vendors begin to unload vans, set up stalls and deal with early customers, including Londoners scouting the market for unusual pieces at great prices. More casual browsers arrive around 10:30, and by noon the market swarms with bargain hunters.

Street Performers

Portobello Road is half market, half circus. Folk singers, jugglers, buskers and other street performers distract erstwhile shoppers. And the browsers also are an amusing mixture: dapper yuppies, tourists, suburbanites, spectacled gents, '60s holdovers. It's a good show.

Activity winds down about 4 p.m. and the market closes about 5:30 p.m.

Bargaining is Portobello Road's sport. If you're angling for best prices, bid early in the day with the serious dealers, or very late, just before stall owners begin to pack up. A fistful of cash waved under a dealer's nose enhances bargaining power, but mind your bulging wallet. Crowded markets are stomping grounds for pickpockets.

Portobello Road has several sections. Poshest is a five-block strip north of Chepstow Villas. The Collector's Corner, the oldest covered arcade, is one of the market's best and priciest areas, and is usually very crowded.

The area around Lonsdale Road, filled with stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, is a favorite source of exotic produce imported from the world's finest garden spots, including the Caribbean.

North of Tavistock Road to Golborne Road there's a glut of secondhand junk, used clothing, costume jewelry, books and records and household goods. Bicycle auctions are held in the shadow of the Westway motorway overhead.

Viewing begins at noon, the sale at about 2 p.m. Sometimes there are also baby buggies and other vehicles for sale.

Until the 1950s Portobello Road had a rather bad reputation. During the early 1800s the area was occupied by pigsties.

The first house was built in 1850, and cheap lodgings were erected around it. At one point the filthy neighborhood had so much smallpox that Charles Dickens referred to it as "a plague spot scarcely equalled in insalubrity by any other part of London."

The market grew during the 1880s, selling inexpensive produce. Antiques were introduced in 1939 and arrived in force during the '50s. Since then the area has become fashionable.

Away From Big Crowds

Camden Passage, between Islington Green and Islington High Street in London N1, is a newer, fancier, less crowded antiques market, and prices tend to be somewhat higher.

The first Camden Passage antique store was opened in 1958. In 1960 John Friend, a resident, put awnings up over Pierpont Row and Charlton Place and invited antique dealers into the area. By the early 1970s a disused warehouse at the north end of the passage was converted into galleries and renamed Georgian Village. Then the old tram shed at the southern end was turned into the Mall, a center for antique shops.

Camden Passage's regular shops are open weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The excellent roster includes:

--Strike One, 51 Camden Passage, sells clocks made before 1870, especially tavern clocks and English long-case clocks dated 1675 to 1820. Prices begin at about $4,000 and soar, but the museum-like shop is worth a browse, even if you can't afford to buy.

--John Creed Antiques, Camden Passage, specializes in restored pine furniture, including dining room tables ($400 and up), chests ($250 and up) and a wide variety of chairs ($100 and up) that can be shipped to your home.

--Heritage Antiques, 112 Islington High St., sells 17th- to 19th-Century oak furniture and gleaming brass fittings such as andirons ($125 and up), door knockers ($40 and up), trivets ($40 and up) and other interesting objects. Some are reproductions, so ask before you buy.

--Tadema Gallery, 10 Charlton Place, offers jewelry, paintings, ceramics, glass, furniture and other items from the Jugendstil to art nouveau and Deco periods. The Liberty jewelry collection includes rings (about $150 and up), gold (about $900 and up) and silver (about $300) necklaces and other pieces.

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