Jimmy Johnson is a collector with a somewhat unusual approach to achieving his goals. His first treasured collectible was an Edison phonograph – which he swapped for a suit when he met a girl named Helen so he could ask her out. Helen has now been his wife for the past 37 years and is equally passionate about antiques. “Right from the start, we bought antique furniture for the house,” she said. “Mind you, it was probably easier for us because it was also part of our business.”
It was no doubt inevitable that Jimmy would end up as an antique dealer. “My father was a French polisher and I began working with him in my late 20s,” he said. From French polishing, he and Helen progressed to their own business – an antique shop in Burke Road, Camberwell called James A. Johnson & Associates. They were bubbling along quite steadily until one day in 1971 when one of their clients walked into the shop offering them return tickets to London and $10,000 to organise a shipment of furniture back to Melbourne. “From there, we never looked back and for about 10 years imported a wide range of antique furniture and collectibles – much of which we auctioned,” Jimmy said.
As an auctioneer, Jimmy took on the likes of larger well established auction houses such as Leonard Joel and E.J. Ainger Pty Ltd and still managed to make a comfortable living. In 1979, the business changed direction and the Johnsons became involved in the running of annual and bi-annual antique fairs such as the ones at Emerald Hill, Stonnington and Wilson Hall at Melbourne University. Twelve years later, at the height of the “recession we had to have” they established an antique fair at Moore Park (the former site of the Sydney showgrounds). The fair is now in its 17th year following another successful showing two weeks ago at the Hordern Pavilion.
The Johnsons own antique collection is enormous and they have now decided, with the years creeping on, to rationalise it. Jimmy and Helen are particularly interested in 18th century French furniture and, following a recent trip to Paris, have brought back some wonderful examples. Much of it they have now asked Phillip Caldwell to auction so Sunday from 11am at Malvern Town Hall these items will be offered for sale. “Collectors and investors should be particularly interested in two fine pieces of signed Francois Linke furniture, the best 19th century French cabinet maker,” Jimmy said. “One is a glazed display cabinet made in 1889 (the same year as the Eiffel Tower) with fine trace carvings that emulate 18th century French fashion.” The other is an 1895 bijouterie display cabinet also signed on the lock by his brother Clement.
Other interesting pieces include an oak nun’s cabinet and walnut chair, both made in 1640, and 18th century Bergeres chairs still containing the original work pegs that hold them together. From 18th century Normandy comes several items of marriage furniture. “In those days, it was traditional for families to preserve an oak tree as dowry furniture for any daughters they might have,” Jimmy said. “Once engaged, both families then took the timber to a local cabinetmaker who designed to their specifications a buffet ã deux corps or an armoire featuring carved baskets of roses, fruits of the harvest and other carvings symbolising good fortune for their lives together.”
Other items include a miniature early 19th century working Spanish cannon and a portable 1920s picnic gramophone that plays 78rpm records. Also of interest is a signed Aubersson French tapestry depicting a romantic scene of a girl and two suitors called The Swing by Francois Boucher and a Napoleon I empire library chair re-covered in French silk (pictured top) to be featured in a forthcoming issue of Vogue Living. Investment art includes paintings by Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and Norman Lindsay. Viewing is Friday and Saturday from 10am-6pm and Sunday from 9.30am.