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Canberra Today 15°/19° | Wednesday, November 29, 2023 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Getting down and dirty with an antique dealer

Jane Crowley with her father Athol Salter.

“The story behind Dirty Janes, which opened in Canberra in 2020, in the format of the Bowral multi-stall holder original, is a fascinating one,” writes reviewer COLIN STEELE 

WHEN I told a friend, who is an antique and collectibles enthusiast, that she should visit the Dirty Janes Emporium in Fyshwick, she raised her eyebrows. I reassured her it wasn’t that kind of dirty! 

Colin Steele.

The story behind Dirty Janes, which opened in Canberra in 2020, in the format of the Bowral multi-stall holder original, is a fascinating one. 

Its background can be found in Jane Crowley’s beautifully illustrated book, “Dirty Janes Vintage Style”, and the new family memoir, “Beeswax and Tall Tales”, written by Jane with her father Athol Salter, telling the story of the family’s involvement in the antiques business. Jane has said: “Between dad and me, we’ve got nearly 90 years of experience selling antiques”.

“Beeswax and Tall Tales”, a warm, informal and accessible book, written by Jane in Athol’s voice, intertwines family history with Athol’s memories of the buying and selling of antiques and the diverse characters he met. As Jane says, Athol is a born storyteller, “painting images in the air of the people that crossed his path, and the antique furniture he has bought and sold over a career spanning 60 years”.

Athol Salter, now 84, grew up on a struggling dairy farm in regional Victoria. After abandoning a potential career in David Jones, Athol established, with his wife Meg, The Gallery antique shop in Wagga Wagga in 1964 and expanded into the much larger Junque Shop in 1969.

The cover of Jane Crowley’s family memoir “Beeswax and Tall Tales”.

The family moved to Canberra in 1971 for opportunities in a larger market and established Hall Antiques in the village’s old theatre cinema. Jane, who went to school and to university in Canberra, went into business with her father. She recounts how since the age of eight she imbibed the ambience of antiques when unpacking “jewellery or beautiful china or clothing and it was like Christmas every time it happened”.

After the family sold Hall Antiques in 1985, Athol and Jane established The Shed at Mittagong, before opening the first Dirty Janes store in Bowral in 2009. A third store will open in Orange in 2024.

“Beeswax and Tall Tales” largely covers Athol’s antique business from the ’60s to the early ’80’s. His stories largely fall into two parts, the first the clearing of deceased or rundown rural properties around Wagga, “time capsules waiting to be cracked open”, and the second recounting trips to England and shipping container loads of antiques back to Australia.

Clearing houses was not easy irrespective of the long journeys transporting furniture and crockery across regional NSW in Athol’s trusty ute. 

There were many unexpected logistical problems, such as having to move the decaying remnants of a huge dead wild pig from a deserted cottage, its presence blocking access to the fine cedar chest of drawers Athol intended to buy. He subsequently recounts the many hours of work to remove the smell which had impregnated the drawers. 

On other occasions, the problems were decidedly alive, including confronting a feral cat in a locked room and a large screeching cockatoo in a cage, which proved more difficult to pass on than the furniture.

At the other end of the affluence spectrum, came the clearance of squattocracy country properties. In one chapter, two elderly sisters, characters almost out of Jane Austen, ask Athol to clear the contents of their deceased brother’s property, surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland. 

The quality of the furniture, replete with Victorian bookcases, tables dressers and crystal vases, necessitated an urgent visit by Athol for a loan to the Wagga bank manager.

The ’70s saw increasing trips by Athol to Britain, notably to Yorkshire and the Cotswolds, buying Victorian furniture, chiffoniers, balloon-back chairs, jewellery, China dinner sets, vintage gowns and even a discarded mink stole from Harrods.

In this British antiques trail, Athol was following in the footsteps of other Australian antique buyers, including the prominent Melbourne collector and dealer William Robert Johnston. Although Athol was not quite in Johnston’s league, he was clearly adept in gaining the trust of sellers, such as a young vampish widow, the second wife of a rich Irish industrialist, now alienated from his family, who had secreted away the family furniture.

It’s a long and fascinating story from Athol travelling the dusty and bumpy roads around Wagga to Dirty Janes, which now has more than 50,000 Instagram followers, an indication of the power of digital and social media to promote the enduring attraction of antiques and collectibles to each new generation.

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Thank you,

Ian Meikle, editor

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