In this day and age it isn’t often that you get the chance to meet a true gentleman, a man with charisma, charm and stories to share that aren’t just those of myth and legend but instead based on history and a life well lived. This month we got to meet just such a person, David Gainsborough Roberts, a face that many will recognise and a man who is the owner of one of the most incredible collections of collectibles; perfectly suited to feature in our collective issue.
His collection of over 2,000 items has been tirelessly assembled over recent decades. It is, however, now due to be passed on to new owners through a variety of auctions around the globe with the whole collection currently in the process of being sold. David explained “I want to sell them whilst I can remember where everything is, I hate the thought, in the future, that the executor of my will would come in and just dispatch items with no thought to where they’ve come from and who owned them before me.” The provenance of each piece is of particular importance, David has a handwritten log of each item, when he bought it and how much for. He also has reams of paperwork to accompany each, all of which are now in the hands of the various auction houses who have been tasked with the sale of each different aspect of the collection. He explained “it’s one thing saying you have a picture owned and personalised by someone like Marilyn Monroe, but unless you can prove it then no one is interested.”
As you would image, the stories that surround the items are often just as interesting as the items themselves. Spending time with David you get a real sense of the reason behind his desire to grow this cornucopia of historic and significant elements of popular and classic culture. Without a desire to seem crass, I asked if he ever bought anything with a future financial value in mind: “never…” was the answer. “…for me it’s about the story and the history. I have no interest in current memorabilia or the resale value of an item.” He started collecting from an early age, “from the age of five years old I was collecting stamps and marbles, my mother always said I should be out playing football, but when you’re six foot one by the age of 13 you realise football isn’t for you”.
An interest in books, of which he has 7,000, and antiquities is something he’s always had, but he’s also lived an interesting and varied life which has included life as an actor and five years spent as a wrestling promoter in the 1960s, crossing paths with the likes of the Kray twins “well spoken men who didn’t need to throw their weight around; tough men of course, but incredibly polite with no need for bravado.” It was around that time he had wanted to qualify as a social worker, with the goal of becoming a probation officer, a clear influence on him and perhaps the reason for the significant crime inspired section of his collection.
David has spent a great deal of time travelling the world giving talks on his collection and sharing his vast knowledge of the history associated with the items it holds. He enjoys dispelling myths that have become common folklore, often thanks to Hollywood’s intervention. An interesting story about a chessboard owned by Robert Stroud, most well known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz” and the casting of Burt Lancaster who played him in the movie of the same name led me to ask David who he’d want to play him in a movie “I’d love someone like Hugh Grant to play me. He’s got a sense of humour, and I hope I’ve got a sense of humour and he could treat it all as a bit of a joke”.
I would have happily spent hours in David’s company, not least because he poured me a glass of champagne within five minutes of my arrival. I fear that the limit of a word count can’t do our time together justice but it was a real privilege to get to spend some time in his company. And whilst the majority of the collection for which he’s become so well known for has now gone, it is the man himself who was the most interesting part.