Sarah Downs meets the last of the city’s treasure hunters.

Thirty years ago, Manukau Rd did not belong to the hordes of bumpers, instead it hummed with antiques. From Green Lane to Greenwoods Corner, an enclave of dealers congregated, all as dotty as their customers about old things. Today only a handful still remain open.

"The late-80s was a period of absolute hysteria over antiques," says Malcolm Grover, owner of Country Antiques. "Everyone was collecting something. Royal Doulton or corkscrews, you name it." Now the mania has gone for anything peaking a century, he says.

In his elegant clock shop, London Antiques — all damask wallpaper and olive carpeting — Dick Oord agrees. "Everything has changed. All of a sudden antiques are in and then they're not." Further down, Yvonne Saunders reflects on 45 years in her eponymous store. "There used to be 21 dealers in this street but now there are six. That tells you what's happened."

Perched on a grand armchair, Saunders ticks off an exhausting list: "Colonial, Victorian, English pine, country, French …" Every 10 years strikes a change in style, she says. "Originally we just had colonial furniture, kauri, kerosene lamps and brass beds. Well, all that's gone right out of vogue these days." Her tightly packed store is now accented with interior design.Chandeliers, metal mirrors and garden statues keep buyers trickling in.

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"Fashion is an awful, fickle thing," says Grover. "For a start, chiffoniers and mahogany were the rage but no one wants anything brown now." Country Antiques opened in 1980 to a roaring demand for pine furniture. "It just exploded. I had three guys working for me, stripping, sanding and polishing. Every morning there'd be people waiting and by the afternoon we'd have to shoo them away." But all those days are over, he says. "The traffic through the door has died." His now eclectic assortment includes mid-century and retro wares, which is in bigger demand. "We've had to evolve into something different because the market's changed. I'd love to see a return to real antiques, like Georgian furniture, but right now there's no interest." It's a generational thing, he says. "People don't want to be doing what their parents are doing."

"They're not interested in collecting," says Oord, who is surrounded by old clocks. Some chime on the hour. Others tick rhythmically. The Dutchman opened 43 years ago, selling container loads of stock to young buyers. "They loved antiques but now, unfortunately, I'm still selling to people in my age group." It's hard to spark new interest, he says. "Today, people think 'I've had that for three years, it's time to throw it out.' If you have a beautiful item and nobody wants it you can't make them want it. If there is no demand, there is no demand."

It's a problem for all small shops in Auckland, he says. "Retail as we know it will disappear. If you know what you want, you can get it online." But the web only insults antiques, he says. "You can't see the patina, the age, or the condition. With photoshopping, these days you can make a broken-down thing look terrific."

Manukau Rd used to entice airport-bound shoppers, but that's scarce now, says Lorraine Reading, the youngest seller on the block. "Exposure to the right market is the key to survival," she says. "There will not be many antique stores in the future, only the best will last."

Yvonne Saunders still works in her 'dream shop' six days a week. Photo / Sarah Downs
Yvonne Saunders still works in her 'dream shop' six days a week. Photo / Sarah Downs

Reading opened Art and Industry 28 years ago, with a fondness for decorative art. Besotted with botanical life as a young girl, her hunt for exotic objects has never left. "It's about recognising things that are exquisite and wanting to pass them on to people. It might connect to a person's memory or just the fact they want to display something that takes the human spirit up."

For Oord, it's the old-fangled and inessential. "I'm selling items nobody needs. If you want to know what time it is, you buy a watch. You don't need to spend $2000 on something that also tells you the time."

But you fall for things, he says, marvelling an 18th century red-marbled and gold clock.

"What happens in this shop is people fall in love."

When luck does strike, Saunders urges shoppers to buy immediately. "You don't see the same thing twice. It's lovely to have something the whole world hasn't got." The trade is still as thrilling to her as it ever was.

"I never know from one day to the next who will offer me what. It could be trash or it could be treasure."

To stick around all this time, takes dedication, says Grover. "There have been hundreds who have tried to set themselves up as antique dealers in Auckland. Some of them last three, four, five years but most disappear. You need to be committed and not just in it for the money and you've got to know how to work." The pensioner still puts in 80 hours a week. "I don't consider it work, I'm happy in what I'm doing. But I'm not getting any younger. We will abandon here and this will become apartments. The land is too valuable to be sitting here as a dusty old shop."

The antiques, however, will never leave his system. "Old dealers never die, they just fade away."