IRITA MARRIOTT: FROM ANTIQUES EXPERT TO TELEVISION CELEBRITY

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Irita Marriott relaxes in the auction house that bears her name, chatting unreservedly about how weird she finds it that in little over a decade she’s gone from having no knowledge of antiques to becoming an expert and television celebrity.

Although the building on Derby Road is officially closed, there’s a succession of visitors including a television crew getting extra shots for Irita’s new TV show.

She’s unfazed by the interruptions as she talks about how poor her family was when she was brought up in Latvia, the decisions that totally changed her life, why she wanted to become one of only a handful of women in this country who have their own auction house and the misogyny that’s embedded in the antiques business.

It’s evident that Irita has a steely determination that has helped her to be successful. But she also has a charming side to her that comes across when she reveals she still finds it “weird” that people recognise her from being on television.

Forty-year-old Irita was born in Latvia and, she explains, life wasn’t easy.

“We lived on a farm until I was six. You only ate what you could forage, what you could grow, kill or catch. It’s funny – I remember those years as the hard years but actually life after that was much harder.

“Mum and dad divorced and we moved down the road to Valmiera. That’s when we were really poor. We had to walk riverbanks to see whether anybody had left food next to the fire pits where they’d had barbecues. We went fishing in the morning to have breakfast. You did whatever it took to survive. My childhood wasn’t rosy but it was good – it made me who I am.”

Irita’s hopes of becoming a professional sportswoman – she was good at running and basketball – were shattered when she suffered three concussions in a matter of months.

When her English teacher told her she would never succeed in life, Irita didn’t simply accept it. She saw an advert saying au pairs were needed in the United States; two weeks later she was in New York and could hardly speak a word of English! She admits it was a culture shock.

“For about three months I walked around with two dictionaries in my hand, English to Latvian and Latvian to English.”

Irita looked after two young girls. The younger was learning English so Irita learned with her.

“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my life but that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I would never do it again,” she stresses.

“I had no plan, I had no clue what I was going to do or where I was going to go.”

She stayed in the States for nearly two years – but after visiting her family in Latvia she was refused entry back into America.

While walking down a Latvian street she saw a picture of Big Ben and decided to go to London.

“I had no plan, I had no clue what I was going to do or where I was going to go. I met five Latvian guys on a bus to London. They didn’t have the language – I did. They had the contacts – I didn’t. So we stuck together, ended up in Bradford and the rest’s history.”

The five knew someone in Bradford, so Irita found them a house to rent and the following day she got herself a job in a garden centre. She started as a temporary member of staff at Christmas and stayed there for eight years. She says she loved the job – but had an upsetting experience on her first day.

“A lady walked up to me and said ‘can you please tell me where I can find some tinsel, love?’ I had no idea what tinsel meant and thought ‘how dare you call me love?’ I thought it was the most insulting thing anyone had ever said to me.

“It only took a few weeks for me to call every other person ‘love’. Now I think it’s the cutest thing ever but I remember being very offended that day.”

Irita ended up managing two departments at the garden centre. She left only because of a visit she made with her future husband to his parents’ house in the Nottingham area.

His mother had an auction catalogue for houses and they saw one they liked. It was on their way home so they went to take a look.

“We were in no place to buy anything – I had no money whatsoever. But we saw this house and said ‘we’re going to have to buy this, aren’t we?’ I still have no idea how we managed it.”

They moved to Derbyshire and 13 years later are still in the same house.

Irita started a new job in retail and wholesale management only to be made redundant. Then her mother-in-law turned up one day with a job lot from an auction. She’d bought it to give Irita something to do, presented it to her but said Irita owed her 18-hundred pounds.

“I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have the money to pay her back. I had no interest in antiques whatsoever. But I was determined to give her the money back. It was as simple as that.”

After spending two weeks researching antiques and going to antiques fairs to try to make money for her mother-in-law, Irita was “absolutely hooked”.

She managed to get a job in a Derbyshire auction house – she’s reluctant to name which one – as a part-time cataloguer.

“How I got the job I haven’t a clue. I don’t have confidence in how I look but I have confidence in what I can do. I’m going to make it work one way or another no matter what it takes.”

The BBC programme Bargain Hunt had filmed Irita several times on stalls at antiques fairs and that ignited her interest in television. She was obsessed with another TV show, Antiques Road Trip, managed to get the executive producer’s phone number and rang him.

“If I stop there is no business. There’s nothing to show for it all. There’s nothing to pass on because no one else can do what I do.”

After six months of auditions, screen tests and home videos, she got a call to say she’d been accepted for the show despite there being tough competition.

“It’s been five years now since that phone call and it still makes me pinch myself,” says Irita. Her voice goes up an octave as she explains: “How is this my life? How did this happen? Hard work, that’s what happened.”

Irita believed the next natural step would be her own auction house.

“There was always in the back of my mind the thought that I am my business. If I stop there is no business. There’s nothing to show for it all. There’s nothing to pass on because no one else can do what I do. So by opening an auction house I’d build something that my boys could one day carry on.”

She has two sons aged six and eight. The elder asked for a job before Irita had opened and she thinks he’ll follow in her footsteps.

She loves Melbourne and sacrificed space for location when she saw the building on Derby Road. “Luckily the landlord believed in my dream and let me move in.”

The next surreal thing to happen to Irita was being contacted by an agent who wanted to represent her. That led to Irita’s appearing on the Channel 4 programme The Greatest Auction and later Bargain Hunt.

Television stations were competing for Irita and now she is the face of a new programme, The Derbyshire Auction House. It’s made by the company that’s behind The Yorkshire Auction House and Antiques Road Trip.

Irita describes herself as a “new generation dealer” and wants more young people to go into the trade despite some old-fashioned values.

“When I started I was under 30 and the majority of antiques dealers were 60-plus. I was the youngest person at every single fair. Not only being a woman but also being a young woman, I was often frowned upon.

“I would pick something up and they’d say ‘you can’t afford that, it’s expensive’ or ‘be careful, it’s old you know.’ That’s the way females, the younger generation are seen. And it’s sad.”

Throughout her career Irita has been supported by her husband. He doesn’t work in the same industry but she won’t say much more about him.

“That was a conscious decision we made as a family. I’m very protective of family and I really take privacy seriously.

“Every single day is completely different to the one before. And you just never know what’s going to come through the door.”

“He landed the job he never applied for and that is to be my right hand in life. He’s the best husband I could have wished for in that sense because he believes in me more than I believe in myself. Even when I doubt myself he never will. I couldn’t have been where I am without his support.”

So what’s the best part of being in the antiques business?

“Every single day is completely different to the one before. And you just never know what’s going to come through the door. That’s the beauty of it. That’s also the scary part because will enough come through the door?”

There seems little doubt that people will continue to visit Irita’s auction house, especially after her next television appearances. A new Antiques Road Trip and more Bargain Hunts are to be shown soon and The Derbyshire Auction House will start on the Really channel towards the end of July.

Irita still thinks it’s “ridiculous” that she has an agent and sometimes feels like an imposter. But she’s proved that hard work and dedication can sometimes have unexpected rewards.

* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine

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