Photograph above: Leigh Osborne, leaning on a ‘tiger skin’ of man made fibres
I’ve just been to the most peculiar auction. Called ‘From the Curious to the Extraordinary’, it featured objects such as a life-sized fibreglass elephant head, a (real) egg from a Madagascan Elephant Bird and a photograph by Robert Doisneau of a flea harnessed to a gun carriage in an Edwardian flea circus.
As I sat chatting to Leigh Osborne, owner of Chiswick Auctions, one of his specialists bounded gleefully in to tell him they’d just sold two sets of antlers for £40,000. They were huge, to be fair, and fossilised, but still, who in their right mind buys antlers? For £40,000?
Photograph above: Fossilised antlers
“We’ve never done this kind of auction before” said Leigh cheerfully. Chiswick Auctions see themselves as a “good, honest, fair and friendly local auction house, with great customer service and highly trained specialists”. Their normal stock in trade is Oriental rugs, European, African and Asian art, designer handbags, furniture, fashion, jewellery, rare books; the kind of stuff which is more conventionally sought after.
Leigh told me they’d decided to auction the weird and wacky collection ‘From the Curious to the Extraordinary’ because that kind of catalogue is offered by the “West End boys”. I raised a questioning eyebrow. “Christies, Sotheby’s, Bonhams. I call them the ‘West End Boys’” said Leigh. “We will never compete with them, they’ve been going for hundreds of years, but that’s our business model, to offer what they offer, only locally”.
Leigh is relatively new to the antiques business and claims to know nothing about antiques. That’s the job of the specialists. His expertise is running a business. He thrives on taking risks and making money, and he’s very good at it.
Photograph above: Fibreglass models of animal heads
An entrepreneurial risk taker
Now 48, Leigh left school in Cardiff with no qualifications, started work washing dishes in a pub at the age of 16 and quickly decided he wanted to run the place. He worked his way up through barman, head barman and assistant manager to take over as general manager when he was 22.
He knew then that he had a flair for entrepreneurship. He bought a Hoover, took on the cleaning contract and began hiring cleaners. He then moved to Dubai to run the hotel bar at the Meridian, the first beach hotel in the emirate, for a year before coming to London to work at the Hippodrome nightclub.
Realising he wasn’t going to make serious money in the hospitality industry, he moved into recruitment, first of all in catering and then in fashion, which was well enough paid for him to embark on his third career: buying property.
“I knew in my twenties that I wanted to be rich. I wanted to be a millionaire”, he told me, “though maybe I shouldn’t say that because it makes me sound like an idiot”.
I see nothing wrong with knowing what you want in life and going after it, especially if you succeed, which he has, several times over. He was a millionaire by the time he was thirty and many people have asked him how he did it.
The answer is that he played the property market like other people play Monopoly. “In 1999 I bought six houses in Canary Wharf. Prices were shooting up. I remortgaged every three months to release the equity”. That strategy carried huge risk, I suggested. “I never worried about it. It was in the capital city and people always need somewhere to live, so I knew I wouldn’t have trouble renting them”. He still has those properties, but he also became something of an expert at buying properties to do up and sell on.
Photographs above: Leigh Grand Designs Victorian water tower in Kennington
The ‘Grand Designs’ water tower
If you’re thinking that the name Leigh Osborne is vaguely familiar and you’re wondering how you know it, you may have seen him on the TV property makeover programme Grand Designs.
“It’s been a huge part of my life” Leigh said. He bought the crumbling Victorian water tower in south London with his partner Graham Voce; it was featured by Kevin McCloud in Grand Designs in 2012.
The water tower was Grade II listed by English Heritage, built in 1877 to serve the adjacent Lambeth Workhouse, but it was on their ‘at risk’ list as it had remained derelict for decades and was literally falling apart.
Their restoration was radical. They created just one room on most of its nine floors installing a lift to the fifth floor of the 30 metre tower. The top of the tower has windows on all sides with a fabulous 365 degree view over London. At ground level they built a two-storey, 36-metre-square extension with a glass façade which apparently has the largest set of sliding glass doors in Europe.
The building has been featured in many glossy magazines since: ‘the interior decoration, overseen by Sue Timney, is light, modern and laid-back, with comfortable sofas, plenty of rugs from The Rug Company and interesting modern art. It is a grand design indeed’ says David Nicholls in House & Gardens.
For a spell he rented out rooms through Air B&B. “I can’t imagine you serving people a full English breakfast” I said. “No, I don’t do that” said Leigh. (Did I imagine the shudder?) It’s no longer available to rent through Air B&B, but he and Graham still live there.
From receptionist to owner of Chiswick Auctions
Leigh’s relationship with Chiswick Auctions started in 2008 when William Rouse, his best friend of ten years, bought a half share in the company. William asked Leigh to take a look at the business for him and make suggestions on how to improve it, so he started working at the auction house on reception two days a week.
“There was something about it that grabbed me immediately” said Leigh. The place is fascinating, with its ever-changing landscape of beautiful objects, and there’s the drama of the auctions: each one a unique piece of theatre.
When William’s partner decided he wanted to sell his share in 2013, Leigh bought it, and when William retired in 2019 he took over sole ownership. In the five years he’s been financially invested in the place it’s gone from 20 staff to 80, from 50 sales a year to 150 and the turnover has increased from £2m to £14m.
Chiswick Auctions is in Bollo Lane, in the industrial estate opposite the London Underground depot. He’s glad that London Auctions on the High Rd has closed down. “They were detrimental to us,” he said, as people always confused the two “and they weren’t very good”. There always has been only one Chiswick Auctions, and now there is only one auction house in Chiswick.
While 50% of the sales are online, he loves the buzz of the live auction.
“I don’t understand why people buy in shops” he told me, looking genuinely baffled.
“People haven’t cottoned on to the fact that buying at an auction is cheaper. Jewellery shops buy from us.” Why would you buy the same item from a shop with the shop’s mark-up when you could have bought it direct from your local auction house?
Maybe people are worried they’ll get carried away and bid more than they can afford, as they always do in films, I ventured. It’s true, he said, that sometimes people do get into a bidding war which drives up the price.
“Something is not worth what one person would pay for it. It’s worth what two people would pay. I’ve seen an item go from £10,000 to £500,000 because there were two people bidding against each other”.
So as long as you don’t do that, you’re fine.
See here the next auctions coming up at Chiswick Auctions.