Prop House is going, going, gone

The Prop House owners, Tess Wolpe and Will Hinton.

It’s the end of an era as The Prop House, in Woodstock, gears up for its final auction of high-end movie props with an estimated value of R5 million.

It’s a bitter-sweet moment for co-owners Will Hinton and Tess Wolpe, who decided on a whim to open the prop house in Paarden Eiland, 21 years ago in 1997.

The couple, who lived in the UK, had been on a four-day visit to Cape Town and on their return home, they decided to pack everything up and move to South Africa.

Ms Wolpe is the daughter of lawyer, anti-apartheid activist and academic Harold Wolpe who escaped from prison in 1963. He was given political asylum in the UK and the Wolpe family joined him.

In 1990, Mr Wolpe and his wife AnnMarie, left the University of Essex and returned to South Africa. On his return he became the director of the Education Policy Unit (EPU) at the University of the Western Cape. He passed away on January 19 1996 aged 70.

The university opened the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust in his honour in 1997, and it was during this visit that Mr Hinton and Ms Wolpe decided to make South Africa their home.

They left London in 1998 with three containers worth of mainly 1950s, 1960s and 1970s collectables and opened a 250m² prop outlet in Paarden Eiland, geared at a niche market of international film companies in search of authentic, high quality items.

During the first three weeks, they did not have a single customer and the couple wondered whether they made the right decision. But, with a little bit of luck, as Mr Hinton described it, word got out and the business started to pick up.

“We had many contacts in the British film industry and there was a huge interest in people wanting to film in South Africa, after it become a democratic country. This was the market we tapped into,” he said.

After five months of opening the prop house, they went from a 250m2 to a 750m2 – acquiring the warehouses next to them. As the business continued to grow, the couple decided to rent out a 3 000m2 space at the Cape Quarter, but after three years, they had to move as the owner had sold the building.

They managed to find a 4 000m2 space at the old Synod building (where 15 on Orange is today) and spent another three years, before having to move, again. They moved a couple of times more, before settling in what is now, their final space in Woodstock in 2014.

Ms Wolpe said it was a tough decision to close down, but said there were several factors, including her and her mother’s health and a decline in business. While Mr Hinton initially wanted to continue, he believes the decision was in their best interest.

“It’s heart-wrenching. We built this business from the ground up and I’m sad to see it closing down,” said Ms Wolpe.

Mr Hinton said they simply went with their gut when it came to buying props and chose what they liked and somehow it worked.

The auction of 1 500 high-end movie props takes place at The Prop House premises on the corner of Albert Road and Railway Street, Woodstock, on Friday and Saturday September 28 and 29.

The collection, estimated at about R5 million, includes an irreplaceable collection of mid-century, antique and vintage furniture and homeware. This includes the largest single-owner collection of modernist and postmodernist designer furniture to be offered in South Africa for over a decade.

Designer furniture include numerous original (plus high-end replica) items by Mies van der Rohe, Eileen Gray, Arne Jacobsen, Charles and Ray Eames, Le Corbusier, Ron Arad, George Nelson, Mackintosh and the Memphis Group. Smaller designer items span Alessi homeware, contemporary lighting and Murano glass.

Mr Hinton said their favourite piece was a multi-coloured, postmodern, Carlton room divider created by Ettore Sottsass in 1981 for the Memphis Group. The divider could sell for R60 00 to R80000.

“They will never make one again – ever – and we would love this statement piece to become part of a fine contemporary interior.”

Iconic 1950s chairs include a black leather Egg chair and ottoman with manufacturer’s label by Arne Jacobsen, which could receive bids of R40000 to R60000; and a red coconut chair designed by George Nelson and manufactured by Vitra (R15000 to R25000).

Examples of fastidious workmanship include a completely original 1980s black leather Rover chair (combining a car seat with a structural tubing frame) that launched the career of British industrial designer Ron Arad, estimated at R40000 to R60000; and an Eileen Gray lacquered screen valued at R15000 to R25000.

The preview period is Monday September 24 (Heritage Day) to Thursday September 27, from 10am to 4pm. The goods can also be viewed during auction days, September 28 and September 29, from 10am to 4pm.

The auction will be undertaken by Alf Duncan Auctioneers, with assistance from auctioneer Charles Rudd. Potential bidders can browse through an online catalogue available from Monday September 10 at www.alfduncan.co.za or Facebook.