A HISTORIC collector of French porcelain, from Melksham, auction goes way over estimate.

Judith’s Howard’s collection of Sèvres porcelain has sold for £375,000 at a dedicated auction at Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury, with a plate she bought in a junk shop in 1982 for just £13 taking the top price of £25,000 hammer.

Dating to 1754-55, the Vincennes dish, pictured above, from the first Louis XV service had been hidden among odds and ends in a junk shop in Hungerford when Judith’s uncanny ‘rarity radar’, as her family called it, locked on to it during a visit in 1982.

“I’m completely overwhelmed,” said Judith’s daughter Charlotte. “It’s been an incredibly emotional day. I’m so very proud of my mother and I hope she is watching from afar and is pleased.

“Can I also take the opportunity to thank Clare Durham and the team at Woolley and Wallis for all their hard work, their kindness at such a tough time was very much appreciated.”

“My mother’s collection was incredibly varied,” said Charlotte. “She didn’t have a massive budget, but she did have a sixth sense when it came to finding the gems among the dross.

“She was a magnet for rare antiques where you would least expect to find them. The Louis XV plate was mislabelled as Minton, but she recognised it immediately, and she also once found a Josephine sugar bowl from the Egyptian service in another junk shop.”

Other items from the service can be found in collections at Versailles, the king’s palace outside Paris, as well as among the possessions of the Duke of Buccleuch.

The discovery is just one of the many tales from an extraordinary life that sadly came to an end after a long illness in January 2019 at the age of 73.

The auction also saw many lots go way over estimate, with numerous pieces selling for four and five figures. These include a c.1770 plate made for Madame du Barry that had hopes of £5000-8000 but went on to sell for £12,000; a c.1771 plate from a service commissioned by Louis XV as a diplomatic gift that was expected to sell for £1000-2000 but took £8500; and a 1785 plate from a service owned by the Archduke of Austria, brother of Marie-Antoinette, that sold for £7000 against an estimate of £2000-3000.

Other lots shot miles over estimate, including a c.1800 two-handled cup and saucer expected to make £300-500, which rose to £6500; a rare and unusual Sèvres campana vase from 1773, guided at £100-200, that went for £3800; and a puzzle can and saucer from 1788 that took £3500 against hopes of just £250-350.

“My mother caught the antiques bug early,” said Charlotte. “When she was about six, an antiques dealer saw she was enthusiastic and said if she could guess what factory a cup was she could keep it; she cleverly spotted it as Caughley.”

At 18 she charmed her way into a job in the Textiles department at the V&A at a time when they only took on people with degrees.

Promoted to research assistant after a transfer to the ceramics department, Judith acted as guide to Sir Geoffrey de Bellaigue (Surveyor of the Queen’s Works of Art) while he inspected the V&A’s collection for his book about Sèvres. She also published two books of her own on textiles.

She developed a passion for collecting, which inevitably led to dealing as she scoured the markets at Portbello, Grays, Alfie’s and Antiquarius. She also bought from Monty Don when he designed costume jewellery and sold it in his shop in Beauchamp Place.

Porcelain was her passion and she was soon recognised as an authority on antiques.

Leaving the V&A to conduct research and try her hand at dealing, she found herself with Arthur Negus as an expert on the popular TV programme Going for a Song, years before the Antiques Roadshow first aired. She later became the curator of the Bowood House Museum – “the exhibition she created there is pretty much extant to this day” says Charlotte – and lectured at Christie’s and Southampton College, as well as on a freelance basis across the south of England.

When Judith married Alvin they moved to Wiltshire. He was an architect and there she dabbled in antique dealing.

It was the dark days of the 1970s three-day week and power cuts, but, as it turned out, the couple were geniuses when it came to thrift.

“My father had been made redundant and at the time my parents were living in a small house in Corsham near Bath, making extra cash by decorating eggs in the Fabergé style. This attracted the attention of the media.”

Then, in 1975, the BBC decided to launch a competition to find the nation’s most successful couple at making something out of nothing. Titled the Nationwide Supersave Couple of Great Britain, entrants were given £15, on which they had to survive for a week, throw a dinner party, make clothing and also make a piece of furniture.

“My father was very talented at all this and made me a dress out of patchwork as well as a piece of furniture. At the time they had no money – they even boiled up dandelion roots for coffee – and had been used to living off £8 a week, so even with the dinner party they had enough money over to present the BBC producer with a chocolate cake and a bottle of wine when they came round to judge.”

The Howards won and soon became household names, with Judith even securing a weekly column in Woman’s Own on how to save money and being sought out for tips and advice by the newspapers.

“Remember, there were only three channels on TV then and, with an appearance on Blue Peter and other programmes they became famous quickly. When The Good Life came out a year later, my mother said it must be based on them.”

The legacy of this belt-tightening experience was Judith’s enduring passion for a maximalist interior decoration style, with her collections filling every bit of wall space and available nook and cranny.

“When people have had it tough like that, they crave a bit of luxury and plenty, and this reflected that, I think,” said Charlotte. “She would be quite put out if visitors didn’t compliment her on how the house looked.”

Keeping everything spick and span was another matter. “She used to dust once a year and we would all have to leave the house for the whole day. She hated that chore but it had to be done.”

Garden designer Charlotte understandably inherited the collecting bug. “I collect anything to do with the French Revolution. It’s an abiding interest that came from my mother’s obsession with Sèvres.”

Her father also played an indispensable role. “He was a very talented restorer and very supportive, so it was a great partnership. At one time she owned an Aston Martin, but when that was written off she never drove again, so he would drive her everywhere.”

As the Supersave competition had shown, they were also a powerfully creative partnership.

“My mother would see something in a shop and think ‘I can make that’ and so would go home and do just that. And my father was very skilled like that too. They once made the most remarkable doll’s house after seeing one in a store.”

When ill health confined Judith to a wheelchair in her later years, it restricted her ability to visit her favourite antiquing haunts, so she turned to the internet.

“Shopping was her greatest passion and she was on eBay all the time. She bought some awful things from the Franklin Mint and other places, but she didn’t care if she liked it. And she also found some treasures.”

Along with a wealth of friends and admirers, Judith’s legacy is her collection, as well as the set of personal journals dating back to the 1960s. “Some parts are scandalous,” enthused Charlotte, “and I’m definitely going to do something with them because they are brilliant at conjuring up the times.”

Summing up her mother’s life, Charlotte said: “Looking back, she is what we would call a Renaissance woman, with the most eclectic tastes when it came to collecting, and the ability to spot new areas to focus on, such as mourning jewellery and Spa sewing boxes, when nobody else had yet turned their attention to them. She also collected Infantalia and children’s book illustrations. And she was a great writer and photographer.”

The auction at Woolley & Wallis on February 4 provided a focal point for looking back at this extraordinary character, whose final triumph has been the £375,000 total – a worthy testimony.