A huge solid glass Buddha’s head from Myanmar glints in the sunlight, while a richly-worn wooden travelling trunk opens to reveal blue and red marbled paper embossed with the Royal Cipher, dating it back to 1750.
These are just some of the curious treasures on display in Athol Birnie’s The Black Museum, a new Marburg antique store which adjoins his dad’s well-known Scotland Yard Antiques and his sister’s café and plant store, The Special Branch Collective.
Athol learned the art of restoring antiques firsthand as a child, working alongside his dad, Les Birnie, where he discovered his passion for preserving history and finding unique pieces.
“I source from all over the world, mixing in a few modern pieces to blend the old and the new,” Athol Birnie said.
“You’ll find the details and history of each item printed on a card next to it, which gives a bit of a museum feel to each piece.”
A 270-year-old brass-studded travelling trunk dates bears the Royal Cipher GR on top, dating the trunk to George II c. 1727 – 1760. The label inside on original marbled paper reads: Smith and Lucas, Coffer and Plate-Case makers to his Majesty and her Royal Highness, the Princess Dowager of Wales.
Until recently, The Black Museum site was part of Scotland Yard Antiques and sold unrestored furniture, before responding to a slump in demand.
“We found that people don’t have time, or they’re not doing it themselves because everyone’s so busy,” he said.
“I really enjoy the aspect of restoring, but it’s very laborious, so you have to weigh up if it’ll be profitable to spend all that time on it, although I still think it’s worth it for special pieces.”
Athol said he has his sister Emily to thank for coming up with the name, The Black Museum, which carries on the theme his dad started when he opened Scotland Yard Antiques 30 years ago.
“Being a Scotsman, Dad started Scotland Yard Antiques when he came out here. Then when Emily opened, she came up with Special Branch Collective, which is the British police force’s specialist unit and ‘branch’ which connects to the plants she sells,” Mr Birnie said.
“And a lot of people don’t know, but the Black Museum is where they keep all the memorabilia and artefacts from past crimes at Scotland Yard headquarters, so it fitted in well.”
Working in such close quarters with family can be challenging, but Athol said wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love it, we work together remarkably well,” he said.
While not in the antique trade, Athol also crosses paths at work with his other sister, Lucie Plant, who owns a nursery at Childers and supplies the plants sold at Special Branch Collective.
Emily Birnie returned to Marburg to open Special Branch Collective after travelling the world as a Qantas flight attendant for 17 years. Her store offers local coffee, sweet treats and a range of pots and plants.Scotland Yard Antiques has become a Marburg institution since it was opened back in 1991. Les Birnie ran the local post office before opening his antique centre.
Antiques in the blood: Emily, Les and Athol Birnie say they love working next door to each other.
“It’s great working with Dad and my sisters. Everyone knows Dad because he’s been here 30 years. We call him the unspoken Mayor of Marburg,” he laughs.
“Dad is still the boss, but he also lets us do our thing, and now he’s in his 70’s, I think he’s happy to see us doing what we love.”
While he acknowledges that the family business is in safe hands, Les Birnie has no plans of retiring just yet.
“I’m not going to join the grey nomads any time soon,” he said.
“If I’m still fit, I’ll keep going. I’ve seen people retire and that’s it, they go downhill.”
He said he’s proud his children have followed him into the family business and looks forward to seeing what the future holds.
“It’s fantastic to have the family back together again,” he said.
“Even with our customers, I’m getting the sons and daughters from customers we had 30 years ago.
“I love seeing that family connection continue.”
The Black Museum is open Saturday and Sunday 9am – 4pm or by appointment.
Visit The Black Museum, Special Branch Collective and Scotland Yard Antiques at 64 – 66 Edmond St, Marburg.