In the days before this recession, I was asked to locate a pair of 18th-century fauteuil for a client who owned a brownstone in a prestigious part of Manhattan.
I located the right pair in an obscure Venetian collection. The Venetian nobleman’s life of debauchery had him living in a moldering palazzo. The family’s artwork and furniture were being sold to save something for the next generation.
I went to Venice to see this sumptuous and priceless collection. However, it was immediately obvious that the debauched nobleman had unloaded the good stuff. I toured the palazzo until I found THEM, a pair of Neapolitan armchairs in the attic.
Sitting side by side like maiden aunts, they were decorated with layers of carefully and finely applied paint. Pale greens, now chalky, over earthy red had been burnished with silver leaf.
The scale of the chairs was diminutive, as the 18th-century design dictated, and they were perfection. The silk striped fabric was long gone, but enough shreds remained to suggest what should be used in the reupholstering. It is sentimental to say that at that moment I had fallen in love. My clients, of the “I want it done yesterday” disposition, booked two extra seats on the plane, and we all traveled home together, one chair on either side, giving me time to bond with these new friends.
In New York, I bid farewell to the chairs.
On the block
Two years later, the client told me that he and his wife were in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. He asked me to take on the appraisal and disposal of the house’s contents. I agreed. The need to rescue the chairs was foremost in my mind. I made sure that they went to a good auction house. The chairs sold for considerably more than I could have afforded, fifteen thousand, and with regret, I said goodbye to them again.
Later I found out that a decorator in Miami bought them.
Naples, Venice, New York, to Miami
Eight months later, living in South Carolina, I received a call to appraise a collection of silver in Miami. I was met there by the client, whose personality was abrasive, dismissive and put my teeth on edge. A job’s a job.
For the next several hours, I studied the collection and was packing up when the client asked me to look at a painting her decorator, Ramon, had insisted she buy for its investment quality.
The painting was a rather nice landscape, but was certainly not a Watteau, as purported. And then I saw Them. In a child’s room were my chairs, flanking a commode of some distant French extraction that we in the business call the Houie Louie period. My gems were now covered in pink upholstery with ballet dancers.
“I know these chairs, they . . .”
“Oh, them,” she interrupted, “Ramon insisted I get them, I really don’t like Spanish furniture, but he thought they would be fabulous with this gorgeous commode.”
Spare me, I thought. But she wasn’t going to part with them.
I said goodbye to my chairs-again.
Naples, Venice, New York, Miami, and then . . .
It has been suggested to me that there is a 12-step program for the chronic habitué of junk stores. I feel no desire to be helped, and my old Volvo was well schooled to respond to sharp turns into junk-store parking lots. There was one store, however, that was always closed.
One day, its front door was open. Finally inside, my curator’s sense suggested that there was something that needed saving. I walked the length of the cluttered store and literally bumped into the proprietrix, a woman of great girth, who was blocking access to a back room.
“Anything back there?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, baby, this place is an Aladdin’s palace of goodies, you just go on back.”
In the dim distance, I could see a leg, two legs. Could it be? I thought. In this ignoble place? Sure enough, there was one of my chairs. The pale green finish. The soft tarnished silver-leaf decoration. The pink ballet dancers.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said trying to sound calm, “but, do you have another one of these chairs?” Stay cool.
“Yes, baby, there’s one in the ladies’ boudoir.” The ladies’ boudoir? Is that a euphemism for toilet? “Could I see it?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t usually let men in there, but I can’t fit in anymore. So you go get it.”
I slogged over, flung open the door, and there was the companion.
“I got them from a junk,” she pronounced it as jun-kay, “dealer in Florida,” whose name was Ramon.
“What you want for these chairs?” I asked.
“Well, I paid a lot of money for them, but I’ll let them go for $200 for the pair.”
I lapsed into silence, overwhelmed by the thought of ownership after all these years. She mistook my silence for haggling. “Okay, I’m giving them away at $150. That work for you?”
Many years later, as I write this, I can look from my office and see my old friends, flanking a genuine Italian commode, smiling across the room at me.
- Christopher Kent is a member of the WorthPoint board of advisers and director of evaluations for WorthPoint. He is also an antiques and collectibles generalist, fine-arts broker and president of CTK Design.
WorthPoint-Get the Most from Your Antiques & Collectibles