James Constantinou, subject of a Channel 4 programme about austerity Britain, tells Fiona Adams why the well-heeled are pawning their treasures
Pawnbroker James Constantinou is in his shop, surrounded by ornate frames containing what look like Monets. There are eight canvases, many depicting the artist’s famous Giverny garden. They are part of a collection being used as collateral by a client and, before I expire with excitement at being so near an Impressionist masterpiece, James reveals their provenance.
“They’re all fakes by the artist John Myatt,” he says. “He’s so good that his pictures are now worth about £4,000.”
James, who runs Prestige Pawnbrokers in Richmond and Weybridge, was the subject of recent Channel 4 documentary Posh Pawn. Part of a series on austerity Britain, the programme flagged up a trend among the well-heeled towards temporarily pawning their goods, rather than approach banks for loans.
And we’re not talking two-a-penny gold chains here, but seriously high-end items, from designer handbags to historic memorabilia. While James is reluctant to turn business away, he never accepts anything without expert verification.
“We’re offered fakes all the time,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if the owners know. Some genuinely don’t, but other offers are blatant scams.”
In the programme, Prestige staff are seen authenticating coin collections, a genuine Hermès bag and a helicopter valued at more than £1m.
“The phones have really been ringing since the programme, and about unusual stuff too, like wine, art and antiques. We’ve had Ferraris coming in, Lamborghinis – all sorts!”
What prompts people to hock their possessions? Are they not embarrassed?
“People will say: ‘I wouldn’t normally do this, but…’” reveals James. “We’ve seem a massive rise in women coming in, especially since we’ve been taking handbags – we’re getting them almost daily! Sometimes they tell you they’re going through a divorce or their husband has run off with the secretary. And if their items are fake, well, sometimes we give them a little cuddle and tell them it’ll all be alright!”
Not all the stories are tales of woe.
“A lot of the time it’s business-related,” explains James. “It could be that the customer is waiting on the sale of a house and wants to buy another property. Or perhaps a piece of art has come up and they want to use an existing piece to refinance, and so need money quickly.”
Having been gripped in the icy fist of worldwide recession, many have found it nigh-on impossible – or, at the very least, protracted – to obtain a mortgage or loan over the past five years. And it was this that led James into pawnbroking and is partly responsible for his continuing success.
“My background is in classic cars and property development. I was lucky to survive the financial crash in 2008, but many of my friends had their fingers burnt. They may have been living on St George’s Hill and driving Ferraris, but the banks were pulling their loans. I read an article in The Times about asset lending and thought: why not apply it to the higher end of the market? The attitude to pawnbroking, in particular, is changing. It’s easy and cheaper than borrowing from a bank.”
And while making money is no doubt appealing in itself, James also loves the fact that his days are unpredictable.
“You never know what you’re going to get. You can sit here for a week and it will be just watches and handbags, and then someone will ring up with a Rolls Royce that’s been sitting untouched in an underground car park for 30 years.
“We were once offered Adolf Hitler’s armband. It came with a stack of documentation from America – even a picture of a colonel holding it in a bombed-out crater – but we couldn’t authenticate it!
“One of the funniest things, though, was this guy trying to get rid of 10 Nigerian fighter jets. I dismissed it at first, but he sent me flight logs and other stuff, so I thought I’d look into it. It all fell apart when I started digging around. I got as far as ringing the Nigerian Embassy, which told me about ‘improper disposal of military aircraft…’”
Who’d have thought that pawnbroking could be so diverse? James takes it all with good humour and seems wistful at the loss of the mysterious fighter jets. Personally, I’d stick with the fake Monets.
View Posh Pawn on 4oD (channel4.com)