Historical curiosities

A fascination with European treasures that tell a story has one collector looking to an idiosyncratic dealer to satisfy her wunderkammer style. Kasia Maciejowska reports. Portrait by Sebastian Boettcher

Olga Polizzi and antiquities and curiosities dealer Craig Finch at Brown’s Hotel, Mayfair, next to a stone head by Emily Young. Background: a 4th-century BC Ancient Greek Apulian red‑figure pelike
Olga Polizzi and antiquities and curiosities dealer Craig Finch at Brown’s Hotel, Mayfair, next to a stone head by Emily Young. Background: a 4th-century BC Ancient Greek Apulian red‑figure pelike | Image: Sebastian Boettcher

Hotelier and interior designer Olga Polizzi kept her first purchase from antiquities and curiosities dealer Craig Finch in storage for a decade. It took that long before it became clear where the four large metal 19th-century dragon grotesques she’d acquired should live. Unfazed by having only the faintest glimmer of their fate, she had bought them on the spot at Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair. That was 20 years ago, and the occasion of Polizzi’s first encounter with Finch & Co. Since then she has made a point of investigating its stand during her annual visits to the Olympia fair in June and the Brussels Antiques & Fine Art Fair every January. “No one else does quite what they do,” she says. “Their finds could be anything from walrus skulls to Norman busts and include things people would call ugly as well as beautiful.” Finch agrees. “Whether natural, anthropological, archaeological or historical, curiosities are by their nature often strange,” he explains.

Polizzi’s four metal dragon heads have since taken residence in the garden of her house in the English countryside. One pair sit atop specially created columns and the other two snarl from her rose-garden wall and spout water into lead pots. These remain Finch’s favourite purchases by Polizzi – in their previous life they had been part of a “Belgian princely collection”, he says, and occupied the orangery at the Botanical Garden of Brussels, a provenance and story embraced by Polizzi. “I like to know where things come from,” she says.

Polizzi’s 17th-century marble bust of Roman emperor Nero
Polizzi’s 17th-century marble bust of Roman emperor Nero | Image: Sebastian Boettcher

While curios from Francophone Europe are of particular interest, those with Italian history strike a chord with Polizzi’s own family. As the daughter of the late hotelier Lord Forte (and younger sister of Sir Rocco; Polizzi is director of design and deputy chairperson of Rocco Forte Hotels, and second major shareholder in the group after her brother, as well as independently owning two hotels in the West Country), her Italian blood comes from her father and her Italian surname from her first husband Count Alessandro Polizzi. Speaking about what drew her to a late-17th-century neoclassical marble bust of Nero that she bought from Finch and is now displayed at her country home, she says: “It was important to me that Nero was Roman. My father came from the hills around Rome, and although Nero was a controversial figure, some say he wasn’t such a bad chap.”

Other Italian favourites include icons and crucifixes, especially if carved in wood. Finch calls these her “intimate choices”. “I’m very fond of Madonnas both for their religious aspect and symbolism of motherhood,” she confesses. “I feel they represent all of us long-suffering mothers.” Polizzi has two daughters, restaurateur Charlotte Polizzi Peyton and television presenter Alex Polizzi (aka The Hotel Inspector), and two stepchildren with her husband, writer and broadcaster William Shawcross.

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Polizzi claims to be a “bad collector”, calling herself “more of a decorative eye”. “Instead of concentrating on one thing, I get carried away by my enthusiasm for beauty, so my collection is like a cabinet of curiosities,” she apologises. But this wunderkammer attitude, which she attributes to the influence of her late friend Alistair McAlpine, whose Cork Street gallery she used to frequent, is less idiosyncratic than she fears. The 500-year-old cabinet of curiosities tradition arguably laid the foundation for contemporary ideas about collecting. Early wunderkammern of Europe, with diverse arrays of natural, historical and archaeological objects, launched the smörgåsbord aesthetic around which Finch’s business is based.

Founded in 1994, Finch & Co is teeming with exquisite artefacts organised into categories such as “antiquities”, “curiosities”, “European works of art” and samples of “ethnography” and “natural history”. It’s nirvana for fans of the eclectic look. While Polizzi looks to Finch for historical pieces in particular, the term curiosities, more broadly speaking, refers to diversely intriguing objects – categorised as relating either to the stellar echelons of academic enquiry or to the extraordinary minutiae of everyday life. “Currently in stock we have a Victorian two-headed Siamese bull calf,” says Finch by way of example, “bearing the label ‘Mine’s a double!’” He sourced that particular specimen from a pub in Lancashire and his oddities range from the very grand to the extremely peculiar (from £3,000 to £500,000), taking in Saxon stonework, Ancient Egyptian statuettes, Victorian taxidermy, Amazonian warrior masks, Inuit jewellery, Maori tools, Berlin cast ironwork, preserved human skulls and fossilised corals. He has niche categories for focused collectors too, from maritime art to antique walking canes.

One of four 19th-century dragon grotesques installed in the garden of Polizzi’s country home
One of four 19th-century dragon grotesques installed in the garden of Polizzi’s country home | Image: Mimi Connolly

Despite having progressed through obsessive stints of commitment to various taxonomies – first it was glass tankards and pitchers (mainly bought from Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Portobello Road), then it was silver (acquired from London’s Silver Vaults and the old Caledonian Market, where she once had a silver stall herself) – Polizzi ultimately has a roaming eye. “There are just too many beautiful things!” she declares.

Finch, who specialises in helping clients build a personal spin on the eclectic wunderkammer, appreciates her magpie-like tendencies. “That inquisitive collecting habit, combined with her refined eye and great sense for design, means she picks up on the very best pieces,” he says. For him, collectors buy differently to designers, and he sees a shift between modes in Polizzi, whom he knows well after regular visits to her hotels in Devon and Cornwall. “She furnishes her hotels beautifully but when she buys from us it’s for herself. For design purposes it’s more about style, whereas for her personal collection Olga likes things with interesting provenance, which is paramount to what we do.”

A 17th-century Indo-Portuguese Goa ivory carving of the Madonna
A 17th-century Indo-Portuguese Goa ivory carving of the Madonna | Image: Sebastian Boettcher

He sends her his seasonal catalogue, flagging pages he thinks she will be especially interested in, and sometimes phones her when he’s bought a piece he suspects she might like. Similarly, if there isn’t a fair coming up, she might call to ask him to keep an eye out for something extraordinary.

Polizzi creates dramatic scenes with her curios, in her hotels and her homes in London and the country. She mixes the fragments of history she gathers through Finch and others with contemporary pieces, such as a stunning head by Emily Young (whom the FT chief art critic Jackie Wullschläger called “Britain’s greatest living stone sculptor”) she installed at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, where works by Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley also hang on the walls.

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A taste for statement statuary may be what first drew Polizzi to Finch, but their mutual appreciation of heritage is what has kept her interested. Finch’s research skills have heavyweight credibility and he’s sold important objects to the British Museum (including an Ancient Greek bust), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (including a Russian Tula steel artwork) and the V&A (including a large sculpture by Caius Gabriel Cibber on display in the main sculpture gallery). Yet, says Polizzi, he wears it lightly and that’s his secret. “He’s never pushy and it’s always good fun working with him. He has such a unique eye and we know each other by now, so he understands my style and I his.”

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