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Antique dealer Lennox Cato
Lennox Cato

Lennox Cato on the enduring power of fine antiques

The upheaval caused by the pandemic over the past year may have had its impact on the antiques industry, but it hasn’t fazed Lennox Cato, When the national pause button was hit back in March, rather than giving up in despair, he decided to keep going. “We came into the shop and got on and did things,” Lennox Cato says. “We made videos, sent out newsletters, and I cannot believe how much business we did.”

Fast forward to November 2020, and the day the second lockdown started, Cato and his wife, Susan, were due to open an exhibition at their showroom in Edenbridge, Kent. Instead, the exhibition went on to their website, with not only an online catalogue, but also a virtual tour that allowed customers to browse the showroom remotely, and click on a piece of furniture to view its details. “We’re embracing technology, and using it at its best,” says Cato. “We’re out there, and we keep pushing and letting people know what we’re doing. I think it’s very important to keep in contact with your clients and reach out to new ones.”

Cato is, as he says, by nature a “glass half full person”, and a man accustomed to taking the initiative and moving forward. His route to his current position as one of the country’s leading dealers is a unique and fascinating story. Born in 1961 to immigrants from Grenada, he was adopted at two months old by a British antiques-dealing couple, and brought up in Brighton, immersed from the start in the world that would become his passion. 

“It was a very different time, growing up in the 60s,” he says. “It was an amazing experience, to say the least. It made me hungry for business and gave me an aptitude for buying things. I’ve always been independent and tried to make my own money so that if I did see something I liked, I could buy it for myself. As my dad used to say, you learn by your mistakes, you learn by using your own money. Right from the start, all I’ve been doing is trading up, buying better things each time, and making contacts.”

His first shop, which he opened after he left school in 1978 at the age of 16, was in the heart of the Lanes, Brighton’s buzziest shopping area. “The shop was the size of a cupboard,” he recalls, “so I used to display the furniture outside. It was difficult at times, but as now, if you’ve got an eye, and you’ve got the capability for doing business and making friends, you can do well.”

From Brighton, he moved to Lewes, then to Edenbridge, and has become one of the most well-known names in the industry: as well as appearing regularly on BBC series Antiques Roadshow since 2004, he is on the council at BADA, and has just been made Deputy Lieutenant of Kent. 

But his experience, he admits, hasn’t always been easy. “Growing up, the only other black person I knew was my brother [his older brother Lincoln had previously been adopted by the same parents]. I remember several years ago we were at a trade show and this chap asked my wife how much one of the pieces was. She said, ‘Hold on, I’ll just check with my husband.’ And he said, ‘What, him?’ At first, when people met me, sometimes I could see they were slightly shocked. But at the end of the day, if you know what you’re talking about, and you’re polite, it doesn’t matter. I’m often brought in to talk to children in schools, to show them that we can all achieve things in life, but I don’t use my colour as a tool or a weapon. It’s my expertise and specialisms, and my knowledge and integrity, that go before me.”

I’m often brought in to talk to children in schools, to show them that we can all achieve things in life – Lennox Cato

His status in the industry speaks for itself, but he is also aware that to attract new buyers the key is to be inclusive and welcoming. “Going into an antiques shop can be incredibly intimidating,” he says. “We have to engage people, and ask what they’re looking for. As much as I like to deal in the higher-profile things, some of our best buyers have come in at entry-level and they’ve grown with us.”

Interestingly, he believes that despite his own knowledge and expertise, the buyer is always in a position to be better informed on whatever it is they want to buy. “Whoever the dealer is, as a buyer you are always in a position to be able to do more research on a particular piece than that dealer,” he says. “The buyer is in such a strong position, particularly at the moment.”

Lennox Cato and Susan Cato
Lennox Cato and his wife and business partner Susan

And new buyers are coming all the time: as Cato acknowledges, the UK’s national lockdown has led to an increase in disposable income for some, which they want to spend on something beautiful for their home. Coupled with that, the growing interest in sustainability has led increasing numbers of people to seek out existing, good-quality vintage or antique pieces, rather than add to their carbon footprint by buying something newly made that might end up in a landfill a few years down the line.

As for the future of the industry, despite his willingness to pivot and take on new technological challenges, Cato is hopeful that things will start to return to a more traditional style of working, too. “I’d love to see the fairs come back because it shows you how diverse our industry is,” he says. “Without them, you can become quite blinkered. When you go to a fair, what you see is creativity in bucketloads. Everyone’s got the same sized stand, but what people can create in that little area… it’s beautiful. That’s what I miss.”

Whatever is to come, Lennox Cato intends to be ready for it. “People have been in their homes for more than usual, and they’re looking to improve that environment. There is business out there; it’s down to the individual to help themselves and make it work. We’re not going to stand still.”

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