In 1965, when Michael Pruskin was 18, he helped Marc Bolan ornament his surname with an umlaut.
As the new publicist of the then-undiscovered pop singer, he believed a continental twist might improve Bolan's chances of fame. "We thought it looked French," he told an interviewer from the Evening Standard.
Today, though Pruskin is rather better at identifying what looks French, he remains equally adept at recognizing star quality. Pruskin and his wife Julia, owners of the Pruskin Gallery, with shops in Kensington Church Street and Notting Hill's Clarendon Cross, are two of London's most influential antique dealers, and Pruskin has been an integral part of metropolitan cool for more than half a century, defining rather than following the moment.
Raised in Stoke Newington, he left school mid A-Levels (he told the Standard, "I had to get out of the rut") and, through his uncle, Lionel Bart, the composer of Oliver!, he set himself up as a freelance PR. ("I enjoyed the work. You went out to lunch, you went out to dinner. It wasn't hard.") His early clients included Van Morrison's Them and The Moody Blues, but these idols were left behind when he began his promotion of the frizzy-haired founder of glam rock.
Before long Bolan moved on to professional management, and Pruskin himself moved to New York, where his radar again guided him effortlessly to 'the scene'. Living in the legendary Albert Hotel, he hung out with beat poets Diane di Prima and Allen Ginsburg, and traveled upstate to Woodstock "with the poetry lot. It was easy if you were English", he says in his characteristic it-could-happen-to-anyone manner.
On his return to London, he took a stand at Antiquarius, the newly opened antiques market in that groovy holy of holies, the King's Road. At the time, the emphasis in the antiques world was firmly on the Georgian and Victorian, but Pruskin soon found the neglected 20th century had much to offer. "I used to visit a friend in Amsterdam every few weeks and I'd buy Art Nouveau and Art Deco fabric. My uncle showed one piece to a friend, David Salmon of the Lyons Tea Room family, who was willing to pay £50 – a lot of money in those days. I'd bought it for £5. It seemed like a good way to make a living."
The stand at Antiquarius soon drew a high-fashion audience and Pruskin's knowledge of the era developed rapidly. "When I started, nobody knew anything about it. There weren't any books about the Bauhaus or the Weiner Werkstätte. I used to go through old magazines and people would say to me, you buy this sort of rubbish, and throw me a Lalique catalog. At this stage you could pick up a Galle lamp for £30 in Portobello or an important piece of Rateau in the Paris flea market."
Pruskin's instinct as a pioneer has remained a constant. "I've never sold standard antiques. I'm always interested in a new world which hasn't been done before." He bought his first house selling applied arts books. ("There was nobody else in the market – everything I bought sold immediately.") And, when he moved to the Chenil Gallery, he began specializing in Rolex watches. ("They were wonderful pieces of design and cheap compared to anything new.") Then it was Art Deco, where he attracted buyers such as Barbra Streisand and Jack Nicholson. ("I was in Paris every week and flying all over the world.")
There are, of course, any number of ways to be an antique dealer. You can corner the market in one specific field or wheel and deal in the stratospherically priced, but the Pruskin Gallery approach is about a passion for the rare and the beautiful. "I think there are a number of qualities that make a top dealer," says Pruskin. "You have to be inquisitive; you have to understand the object; you have to understand the best; and you can't be embarrassed by price."
Certainly Pruskin has that gambler's instinct. "Once I went to Monte Carlo with £12,000 in my pocket intending to buy at a decorative art fair. Instead, I ended up at a sale of Eileen Gray and started to bid on a black lacquer screen. The hammer finally came down at £14,000. I thought I'd gone mad." Clearly not, however, since the screen itself, one of only two in existence, is now worth in the region of £2m.
From the outset, Pruskin demonstrated an unusual ability to identify works of exceptional quality (a number of finds, such as a Christopher Dresser Cubist teapot and a piece by E.W. Godwin, are now in the British Museum) and his 15-year partnership with Julia has only strengthened this talent.
Julia, like Michael, has a distinguished pedigree in the antiques world. In her twenties, after studying law at Bristol University, she took a temporary job with John Jesse, then one of London's leading specialists in Arts and Crafts furniture and decorative objects. The job became permanent and the experience invaluable. "He had an amazing collection and I got to see and touch works by designers such as Archibald Knox and C.R. Ashbee, pieces you'd generally only find in a museum," she recalls. An unerring visual memory and a lawyer-like capacity for research strengthened this training.
The first half of the 20th century was a period when art met craft in an extraordinary marriage of skill and form, and the Pruskins' knowledge of the artists and craftsmen who defined Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern remains unrivaled. The couple shop wherever they go – in Paris, at auction, in the British seaside town of Southwold, where they have a holiday home. Their work remains their passion. "If we love something we take it home and live with it."
Being able to live with something is a key part of the Pruskin philosophy. "We're not interested in untouchable antiques, we want them to be used. Taste changes and what we buy has to go with today's interiors. It has to be the best, but that can still be reasonably affordable. At the moment, for example, you can buy a Nakashima table for £25,000-30,000. You'll never get that again." And it is the icons that the clients want. "Much of what we sell was originally handmade for a very wealthy and discriminating clientele, and craftsmen of this caliber simply don't exist anymore. Our buyers know they will find something special." As ever, Pruskin is the man to turn to if you're looking to discover a star.
Lisa Freedman writes for the Financial Times and other publications.