When David Battie was first approached by the BBC back in the late 1970s to do some filming for a new television project, little did he imagine that it would become a fixture on our screens. At the time, he was working as an expert in ceramics and oriental works of art for the London auction house, Sotheby’s. He’d travel up and down the country assessing objects brought in to their “Discovery Days” by members of the public. After featuring on a local news bulletin, he was contacted by the BBC about doing something similar for TV.
“It meant nothing,” he chuckles now. “It wasn’t like being asked to join the cast of Coronation Street. I saw it as simply an extension of what I did for a living. I certainly had no idea how it would all turn out.”
Rather well, of course: fast-forward four decades, and Antiques Roadshow (as the project became known) is one of the BBC’s most enduringly popular shows, a ratings juggernaut that regularly pulls in more than six million viewers. David is the only expert to have appeared in the very first broadcast who remains on the show as it celebrates its 40th birthday.
Down the decades, dozens of experts have handled thousands of items, and six different presenters have guided us through assorted mazes of objets d’art and curiosities. The format remains little changed from its first transmission: today, just as at the start, much of the joy of the show lies in the discovery of unexpected treasures that have been gathering dust in a loft or sometimes hiding in plain sight – the latter is not an unusual occurrence, David testifies, as he reflects on some of his standout memories.
It was certainly the case when it came to the most expensive item he has ever valued on the Roadshow: a stunning Chinese jade bowl, beautifully carved with flowers, which its owner used as her dog’s water bowl.
“It dated from around 1750, during the reign of emperor Qianlong, and was unusual in that it had the emperor’s mark engraved on it,” recalls Battie. “It was missing its cover, which presumably had been broken, but I still valued it at around £25,000 – which would have risen to £150,000, had it been complete. She was, shall we say, suitably staggered. I suggested she didn’t use it for her dog any more.”
A rather cavalier attitude to her family heirlooms marked another memorable encounter 20 years ago in Hexham, Northumberland, with a woman who arrived with an assortment of 18th- and 19th-century Japanese ceramics.
“Her father had been a diplomat in Japan at the beginning of the war and when they had to leave, they shipped out everything they had,” says Battie. “What amused me was that every time I looked at a dish, she’d tell me she had ten or 20 more of them at home. When you totted it all up, it came to a sizeable sum, around £10,000, but she used it every day to serve her lunch and dinner. She had no idea of its worth.” He saw the extent of the collection for himself when, two years later, he got a call from the woman’s solicitor telling him she’d died and requested in her will that he handle the collection’s onward sale. “I drove to her house to pack it away and I couldn’t have got a single further plate into my car. It was jammed in everywhere,” he smiles.
On one occasion, an owner on the Roadshow even bequeathed him a New Hall, Staffordshire porcelain coffee can and saucer from her full service. “It dated from around 1800 and was decorated absolutely madly with a Regency gold- and red-feathered pattern. I thought this was wonderful and I raved about it, as I am prone to do.” And that, he thought, was that – until ten years later a box arrived in the post. Inside was a carefully wrapped coffee cup and saucer from the service. “She’d left it to me in her will, saying that, because I was so kind and enthusiastic, she’d like me to have a piece when she died. It sits on a shelf in my bedroom and is one of my very favourite things.”
Another highlight was the occasion, in 2010, when a man in Saltaire brought in a large Chinese bronze vase, which David dated to the Yuan Dynasty. More than 700 years old, it was without doubt the oldest bronze ever featured on Antiques Roadshow.
“What is fascinating is that something like this could be lurking round an English house unrecognised,” he says. “I valued it at around £1,000 – a lot of money. Equally fascinating is the fact that if you were buying a piece of Chinese porcelain of that date, you’d be paying tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, but because it’s bronze, it’s far more buyable.”
Along with the highs have been occasional lows. He has never dropped a pot but, inevitably, there’s been an occasional slip of the tongue. “I don’t know that I ever missed a significant treasure, but in one episode some years back I inadvertently dated a large Chinese export punch bowl as 19th century. I happened to watch that episode and cringed the moment I heard myself. I should have said it was 18th century. The funny thing is, that episode has been repeated several times and no one has queried it.”
He’s outed his mistake now, although one senses the producers will forgive him, given his enduring popularity.
Today, despite having retired from auction-house cataloguing, Battie is still a regular on the show, having emerged from a hellish experience after slipping on some grass several years ago. He caught a hospital bacterial infection, resistant to all antibiotics, after treatment for a nasty compound fracture of his leg. Hospitalised for seven months, he faced losing his leg, until plastic surgery saved the day. “It had a less than 30 per cent chance, but thankfully it worked. Apart from getting very old, I’ve learned that rain and a grass slope are a combination to be avoided.”
Older, perhaps, but still with a twinkle in his eye, it turns out that of all the presenters he’s worked with over the years Battie has a particular soft spot for its latest, Fiona Bruce. “I think Fiona is wonderful,” he confides. “Early in her tenure I wrote her a love poem (doggerel!) in the style of the poets I liked, from Edward Lear to Dylan Thomas. She was probably horrified.”
What of the future? David Battie fervently hopes the producers won’t meddle with the format, and is sure that many hidden treasures remain to be uncovered, even if it’s a case of diminishing returns. “There are definitely fewer really stonkingly good objects on the Roadshow, which is inevitable, given we’ve been going for 40 years, sucking them in like a vacuum cleaner,” he admits.
“That said, we’re lucky in that in this country we have more antiques per square foot than anywhere in the world, so I think we have a way to go yet.”
Interview by Isobel James
Antiques Roadshow is on Sunday 24th September at 8pm on BBC1