First prize for antique fundi

Recent find may have been owned by Cecil John Rhodes

Penny Heath with Wilfred, her cross Cavalier King Charles/Jack Russell terrier.

An in-depth knowledge of antiques and a sharp eye to identify often obscure treasures are among the array of attributes Penny Heath uses during her regular tours through collectors’ fairs and used furniture and junk shops on the Peninsula.

Penny exudes that understated competence that allows her to fit into the average workday what most of us finding challenging when tackled over 48 hours. Tucked away in her open manner is that most valuable of gifts, a sixth sense that tickles her ability to make quick decisions when navigating a barbed buying environment.

‘My routine since the start of lockdown is to search for items mainly in Simonstown, Fish Hoek, Kalk Bay, Tokai, and sometimes in Cape Town. People are cleaning out. I’ve found more people are selling their unwanted items as emigration is on the increase.’

Auction rooms and antique outlets are also regular destinations that Penny visits as part of a changed way of life in a world in which change has become the new norm.

Portrait of a young model taken by Penny Heath.

Antique fairs

Penny studied the history of art at the University of Cambridge (‘not the posh one’) and that interest has shifted focus to include the development of art in South Africa. Her other interests include photography, ethnographic art, pottery, painting and gardening. Living on a Noordhoek smallholding in a house that she worked hard to renovate, she can indulge in her love of animals.  

‘I started selling antiques in a small coastal town in Norfolk, England when I was 18 years old. Initially, my sales were at local fairs, then bigger city fairs before I progressed to the world-famous Portobello market  ( and the RAF Swinderby International Antique and Collectors fairs. I also sold at Newark Antique and Collectors fairs. Buying and selling antiques was my full-time job.

‘Visitors from all over the world used to come to the international fairs which usually had up to 3 000 stalls. I had regular customers buying antiques from my stand, some of my repeat customers coming from as far afield as Japan. Often, you’d see antiques being exchanged between dealers before finally being sold to a customer to start another journey in their ownership history.’

Apart from using the services of specialist London auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s to sell some of her pieces, Penny entered the virtual sales world to advertise and sell antiques on eBay.

Penny says her routine in England was to spend two to three months buying antiques and collectables at a variety of locations, including auction houses, local fairs and even picking through items on offer at car boot sales.

‘As fair days approached, I’d load up my vehicle and caravan and set off.  I’d display my antique items on my stand and spend three days selling before moving on. I was living like a gypsy. That period was among the most exhilarating times in my life.’

For more information on the UK fair scene, visit the corkscrewsonline site at

Settler history

Since she arrived in South Africa with her husband Alan six years ago, Penny has developed an interest in settler history.

‘I’m fascinated by the Great Trek, mainly because of all the Cape furniture and travelling furniture that was used in the wagons. The different styles of furniture from various regions of the Cape have also caught my attention.’


Three unique mugs initialled with the letters CR and dated around the time Cecil John Rhodes lived in Cape Town.

A few weeks ago while doing the rounds of up to 10 different locations a week, Penny came across a pair of Doulton and Lambeth silver-topped mugs in a little shop in Fish Hoek.

‘The mugs have the letters CR inset on the edge of the lip. Considering where I found them, I think there’s a possibility that they may have belonged to Cecil John Rhodes. But the Rhodes Cottage Museum in St James is closed and I’ve been unable to verify their provenance using other sources.’

The Rhodes Cottage Museum on the ‘historical mile’ in Muizenberg.

Penny pointed out the letters stamped on the side of the mugs that indicate they were manufactured between 1876 and 1890. Rhodes left England for health reasons in 1870 to settle in the warmer climate of Natal. He moved to the diamond fields in Kimberley the following year. In 1880, the same year he was elected to parliament in the Cape, he formed the De Beer’s Mining company focused on the diamond business. The company grew into the dominant force in the international diamond market.

Rhodes became prime minister of the Cape Colony 10 years later but was forced to resign for his part in the shambolic and infamous Jameson Raid that was the nexus of an armed insurrection by foreigners (uitlanders) in a failed attempted to overthrow the Transvaal Republic government led by President Paul Kruger.

The Raid was a precursor to the start of the second Boer War in 1899 that ended on 31 May 1902 when the Boers finally signed a peace treaty.

Rhodes died aged 48 in Muizenberg in March 1902, slightly more than two months before the end of the Boer War.

‘Establishing the provenance of an antique piece is important because it confirms the authenticity of the item. The selling price is among the variables impacted by provenance as is the condition of the piece.

‘Among the pieces, I have bought in the last few years are an 1889 oak tantalus with three glass decanters bought for R1 000 ( The item was sold by an antique dealer in England for £820. I also found a Victorian stationery holder for which I paid R400, a 17th-century coffer chest and a monks bench.’

Penny with an 1889 oak tantalus with three glass decanters bought locally and sold overseas.

The bottom line for those who are thinking of dabbling in antiques: spend time brushing up your knowledge of antique items otherwise you could end up spending money on a purchase that’ll gather dust in your storeroom.

To read more interesting articles, view high-quality photographs and films as well as check out other work by South African freelancers registered with the South African Freelancers Association (SAFREA), visit

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


5 Responses

  1. “Rhodes Mugs Must Fall” – – or words to that effect.
    You don’t say what Penny paid for the mugs, but if they are proven to have been owned by Cecil John, then she will make a tidy profit.
    But surely they should have the initials CJR ?

    1. I paid 20 rand each..
      yes maybe but if I was gifting a present to my husband or friend I might not have their middle name engraved too.. Thank you for your comment..
      Penny Heath

    1. My pleasure Penny. Please keep me and the Chronicle in mind when you locate another interesting find that would interest our readers.

  2. Thanks for your response Peter. I think Penny replied to your comment as well. I think she paid R20 for each of the mugs. She also said if the mugs had been given as a gift then possibly only two initials would have been used instead of three. An open question I guess. I’m sure Penny will follow up when the museum re-opens.

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