The gallery is crowded, albeit neatly.

Full of antique furniture, ornaments, and artefacts, every item has its own tale to tell; each has ‘lived’ in homes, served a purpose, yet retains a beauty, relevance and a back story.

As we browse, antiques specialist Mike Hicks mentions small details, tells an anecdote, or highlights their purpose.

Pointing to an oak sideboard, he draws my attention to a raised brass rail running across the back; a detail that the uninformed observer would pass off as merely decorative.

“When the sideboard was used for serving food,” he explains, “that brass rail would have had a curtain to stop the wall being splashed with gravy.”

Lifting the lid of a coffer, a hefty wooden box dating from the 17th century, he remarks how they were used to keep blankets in, or at times, food such as a side of salted beef.

North Norfolk News: Mike Hicks, owner, at the Stalham Antiques Gallery, with a rare regency period cabinet built to a design by Thomas Hope in 1820Mike Hicks, owner, at the Stalham Antiques Gallery, with a rare regency period cabinet built to a design by Thomas Hope in 1820 (Image: Denise Bradley/Archant 2022)

But there is evidence of intrusion too, of small holes that creatures seeking an easy meal would have made as they tried to get access to the meat. This, rather than damage, is discreet evidence of authenticity and provenance.

Elsewhere in his antiques gallery at Stalham, humorous Victorian pig ornaments are displayed in rows, spelter figurines and statues sit on partridge wood tables, while a large oak refectory table from 1680 takes up space with a 19th century Glastonbury chair nearby. There are dressers, copper and pewter pots, and chests of drawers too.

“It’s not so much the value that attracts me,” adds Mike, as he runs his hand gently across the fine surface of a rare piece of wood. “It’s the story behind each item, the history.”

Mike has been in the antiques business since the early 1970s, but it is a passion he traces back to his teenage years.

Now 82, he has also done much to champion antiques and collectables and bring the knowledge to a wider audience through his broadcasts over 40 years on Radio Norfolk and his columns in the Eastern Daily Press, which he has written for 23 years.

Within the eastern region, that has conveyed what Antiques Roadshow, Bargain Hunt, and Cash in the Attic brings to national audiences – a passion for items of beauty, history, and of course, suggesting these items, often unbeknown to the owner, may have real value and rarity.

We talk. And when it comes to antiques, Mike Hicks can talk. He knows his stuff too, knowledge garnered over six or more decades, but a learning that he recognises is always being enhanced, enriched and built upon.

North Norfolk News: Mike Hicks at the Stalham Antiques Gallery in 1985Mike Hicks at the Stalham Antiques Gallery in 1985 (Image: Archant)

Born in North Walsham, educated locally and raised by his grandparents, schooling is a subject he’d rather forget.

“I hated school,” he says and we move on. “My grandparents wanted me to be a radio and television engineer, that was the thing then.

“They got me a job in the local TV shop in the holidays and I joined the firm when I left school on the selling side. I was more adept at that.”

He left to work for Telefusion in Norwich and when that company opened a shop in North Walsham, he returned to the town as branch manager.

Yet even at that stage antiques were his passion and he already had a collection of stock such as tea caddies, vases and plates, though his grandparents still wanted him to have a 'proper job'.

“I had this affinity with them, an inquisitiveness about what it was used for and how old it was,” he recalls.

“That still holds good for me today because you are always researching and you want to know all you can find out about an item to pass that information on to people who buy it off you.”

He developed an entrepreneurial streak, supported by his first wife Isabel, and had various shops in Mundesley and a wholesale glass and china business, which he sold before opening his antique shop in Stalham in the early 1970s.

North Norfolk News: Mike Hicks, owner, at the Stalham Antiques GalleryMike Hicks, owner, at the Stalham Antiques Gallery (Image: Denise Bradley/Archant 2022)

That is where his gallery remains today.

Eventually, Mike did develop a career in radio and television, though not along the lines his grandparents envisaged.

Over the years he has been involved in radio and television work, and giving talks to groups such as WI or Rotary Clubs, but radio has been a mainstay from the start of his broadcasting for Radio Norfolk in the early 1980s, when the station was based in Surrey Street.

“On the first day there were three people waiting to see me. One chap had a wall mirror with an oak frame, which he said was probably 17th century,” says Mike, who went on to suggest to listeners that it was more likely 20th century.

“The chap was not happy and said – on air – ‘you don’t know what you are talking about, I don’t know why they have you on.’

“That was my first show but they invited me back,” explains Mike, who continued presenting until the coronavirus pandemic took hold in 2020.

At times, the antiques radio show was broadcast from venues in Great Yarmouth, Kings Lynn and Norwich, where people brought along items for valuation or to find out more about them. There were a few surprise discoveries too: a painting by AJ Munnings and a rare porcelain mug from the Lowestoft factory that was worth £700 and kept in a garden shed.

“What I liked about radio is the dispensation to go out and talk to people,” adds Mike.
This evolved into a series called Time to Remember where he visited a person’s home and talked about their life. His guests included cricket commentator Henry Blofeld and George Cushing at the Thursford Collection.

“In the course of my journeys, I met some fantastic people with wonderful knowledge and unexpected expertise in different areas,” he says, recalling a programme he made about Norfolk’s wartime pillboxes.

“I found a pillbox expert to talk to, who also turned out to be the official photographer of the rock band Queen. With the people you meet, you never know what else they do.”

North Norfolk News: Mike Hicks, owner, at the Stalham Antiques Gallery, with a George Stephenson of Warminster 1830 grandfather clockMike Hicks, owner, at the Stalham Antiques Gallery, with a George Stephenson of Warminster 1830 grandfather clock (Image: Denise Bradley/Archant 2022)

He also did shows on the county’s connection to sugar beet and maize crops, unpicking the history and reasons why they were grown locally, as well as two series for Anglia TV with John Craven.

While Mike was an early pioneer of the antiques broadcasting genre, there are now a plethora of similarly-themed shows or off-shoots.

Antiques Roadshow with Fiona Bruce remains hugely popular, as does Cash in the Attic, Bargain Hunt with ‘cheap-as-chips’ presenters such as David Dickinson, or Paul Martin with Flog It!

Acknowledging them as “good entertainment”, he also has reservations: “I think Bargain Hunt people get the wrong end of stick. They come in and think that if the asking price is £50, you will take £25.

“Antiques Roadshow is still the backbone of such broadcasting, though I think it is a bit too elitist. They pick out very expensive items, which overlooks the people who sell bits for £150-£200.”

But he reflects on the work of Arthur Negus to bring antiques to a wider audience with his Sunday teatime show Going for a Song, the forerunner of Antiques Roadshow.

“He really was the pioneer of bringing antiques to everybody’s home because on Going for a Song they saw a piece of furniture or vase that was in mum and dad’s front room.

“Suddenly antiques were worth something,” he adds. “Before that I do not think there was any realisation of the value on things.”

Mike met Arthur Negus on a couple of occasions when the celebrity opened antiques fairs he had organised in North Walsham and Great Yarmouth.

While he admires all antiques, Mike has a passion for wood, particularly rarer woods, and also paintings.

In his gallery, the dominant items are wood, but there’ll be smaller items too such as a powder container on his desk for muskets, or an old ornate corkscrew.

As we talk, he regales a “battle” he had earlier with a “knowledgeable colleague” over what a certain wood was, which leads him to educate me on how rare woods – such as thuya, amboyna, tulip wood and satin wood – were imported into this country in the 18th century, often as logs, and used by cabinet makers to make furniture and wooden artefacts.

As well as selling antiques, Mike inevitably collects pieces, particularly rare wooden furniture and artefacts, or paintings that catch his eye.

“I love paintings, all paintings; I don’t have anything against Banksy, or Rembrandt, I love them all. Paintings have a wonderful ability to convey the talent of the person and when it comes to portraiture, I think there is nothing better to bring out the character of the person than a good painting or a drawing.”
He points to his admiration for local artist Colin Burns and the quality of the work in his sketchbooks.

“Sketchbooks tell you the true talent of the artist because that is instantaneous, they do it on site,” he explains. “When you look at sketchbooks, you can see how good he is; a picture could take a year to paint but a sketchbook is instantaneous and that is where you can admire and appreciate the talent.”

Mike, who has three children – Sarah, Mark and Sam, a grandchild Willow, and lives with his partner Veronica a few miles from his gallery – emphasises the importance of confidentiality with sources and customers, but describes antiques as a “friendly business.”
“I love my fellow dealers very much, because you learn from them and keep up to date with everything through them. But the people you really learn from are those who collect items, whether that is copper, pictures or china.

“If you see somebody who collects thimbles, for example, they will know all there is to know about thimbles, so listen to them.”

With much of Mike’s material sourced from regular house calls, he particularly remembers one to a family bungalow at Eccles-on-Sea.

After a look around, he realised there was nothing of real value in the home, but asked if there were any outhouses or sheds.

“You never leave a stone unturned. You look in every shed, every barn. In the shed, there was the lawnmower and tools, but also a chest of drawers which had secateurs and flower pots in it.

“It was a beautiful Queen Anne period walnut chest, in a very dilapidated state but not beyond conservation.”

Having paid £150, which he said the owners were thrilled with, the restored item – which may otherwise have been chopped up – eventually sold for £1,100.

“What this is really about,” he continued, “is putting things back into circulation that would otherwise be lost, and that is the fun of it.”

Passionate about his work, what he loves most is meeting people, discovering hidden treasures, bringing dilapidated items back to life and into circulation again, and of course, finding a real bargain.

But he adds: “It is not all about value; it is me looking and trying to decide what it is, what it is made of, where it was made, and when it was made. Those are the criteria.

“When you have sorted that out and you are happy that it is what it is, then you can put a value on it, not a sensational value, but a realistic value.

“I hope with my broadcasting work I have educated the wider listener, brought a greater awareness to what objects are, how they can be cared for and how they should be treated, and last of all, what they should be insured for.”

He concludes: “I don’t collect things because they are valuable, but because they are interesting, beautiful and have a history.”