August 1, 2014

Confessions of a Naples Antique Dealer

English-born Colin Strong regrets that more people don’t know the recession has lowered prices on many antiques. Two years ago, he recalls, people were standing in line to sell him antiques at his downtown shop of wonders. “Today, the few who come in bring objects of little value,” Strong says, recalling a local auction where gold objects fetched less than if they had been melted down.

He gestures to a classical painting of nudes, Venus and Adonis, a copy he attributes to 16th century baroque master Francesco Albani. Once $65,000, it is now priced at $35,000. Among his treasures are such prizes as a partially gold-leafed Russian icon ($10,000); a large, rural landscape with figures by English master Joseph Horlor recalling John Constable’s style (signed, dated 1831, $17,000); and an exquisitely crafted and polished suit of armor just 15 inches tall ($10,000). Items range from a small but remarkable late 17th century silver ship on wheels, called a “nef,” that can roll on a dinner table dispensing wine, to two massive busts of Roman warriors inset with variegated marble, ideal for a grand space ($35,000 for the pair).

Lording Over His Treasures
Strong was in the British army in Cyprus during disturbances there in the 1950s. He opened his first shop in Brighton, England, which he calls “the home of English antiques,” in 1966 and moved to Naples with his wife, Linda, in 1982 after visiting a cousin here. He once owned the former site of the Harmon-Meek Gallery, later Congress Jewelers, on Fifth Avenue South and now presides over Colin Strong Antiques, 935 Central Ave. The shop is far from dusty or fusty; Strong parks his Porsche Carrera in front.

Now 72, he sits at his desk in a swiveling green wingchair, as comfortable as an English lord, which he is. Now an American, he holds a hereditary title—Lord Colin Strong of Brecon (a Welsh town)—and carries this name and a multicolored crest on his business card. He chuckles. “People call and say, ‘Let me speak to Lord.’”

Strong’s specialties are armor and vintage firearms. He also shows period paintings, miniature portraits, unusual furniture, porcelain, jewelry and several thousand “smalls,”   a dealer’s term for tabletop bibelots. The shop displays tidy arrangements of objects and glass cases in a space of 1,500 square feet. A back room holds attractive but less expensive pieces.

Some years ago, while visiting an antiques show in Mississippi, Strong acquired the six-shooter that killed infamous bank and train robber Jesse James at age 34 in 1882. An engraving above the trigger tells the story, and a firearms catalog credits Strong with locating and verifying this historic pistol. He sold it for $160,000 and today marvels at the buyer who resold it for $385,000, a $225,000 profit.

“You can’t know everything,” Strong says. “I always try to give a fair price. Most antiques business is done within the antiques trade. Without dealers there wouldn’t be any antiques at all. These dealers will put out several thousand dollars at a time, expecting to make a profit on their purchases. But a lot of amateurs are timid and afraid to spend. A good antiques dealer tries to make his basic stock available to get rid of it; to sell out and not just store items away. There is no business in that.”

Strong believes there are more eccentrics in the antiques business than any other. He says he could write a book about collectors he and his wife have known in Naples and England. Strong remembers a wealthy collector who lived in Naples’ upscale Gulf Shore neighborhood and delighted in buying cheap gewgaws he kept in his worn Cadillac. Finally, responding to neighbors’ complaints, he bought an expensive new car—and had the seller move all of what Strong calls “trash” into it.

On the Hunt
Strong once lost out to another dealer who was high bidder on the contents of a Naples house that had expensive, jewel-like Persian rugs on the floors. Little did he know, the loss was actually good; the other dealer learned, to his horror, that the house’s owner had glued the rugs down to keep them from moving, ruining them. Strong once offered a Naples woman $2,000 for a Civil War sword. “If you would pay that much, we’d better take it to an auction gallery,” she said, hoping for greater profit.

But then there are the lucky finds. Years ago, an antiques dealer was known for throwing people she disliked out of her shop on Fifth Avenue South. “She wasn’t very knowledgeable,” Strong recalls. “I saw a George II silver coffeepot I asked for. ‘You don’t want this,’ she said. ‘It’s plate!’” Knowing it was sterling silver and not plated, Strong said, “I collect plate.” He bought it for $200 and sold it for $2,000.

“Naples used to be tremendous for antiques,” he says. “I bought a house contents full of Thomas Hart Benton paintings.” Museums now hold most of this famous 20th century American artist’s works. “A few years ago, I bought the personal library of John Houkes, the retired Dutch-born librarian of Purdue University. He had a superb collection of 17th century Dutch books.

“Sometimes armor came in, like a 16th century suit, Austro-Hungarian and worth $50,000. A man cleaning out a garage here brought in boxes of solid gold medals. There were lots of Tiffany & Co. and Georg Jensen silver. But now all of that seems to be drying up. Many houses now just have bric-a-brac. I don’t buy bric-a-brac.”

In his English days, Strong often selected items by going door to door. He bought a large, overstuffed sofa called a chesterfield and lashed it to the roof of his tiny British Austin. After driving four hours in the rain, he estimated the weight of the sofa with the rainwater it had absorbed would soon collapse the car or run its tires into the road. “When I got back, the chesterfield was ruined.”

He found a player piano he knew he could sell for 100 pounds. Going to the expense of hiring a van and movers, he took it to his client, who didn’t want the piano at any price. They settled on 10 pounds. “Don’t ever buy something for someone without checking,” he advises.

He admits to paying a large down payment on a piece of furniture, but he could never locate the house again to claim it and simply wrote the venture off.

Along the way, Strong acquired his own collection of boxy Austin 7 vintage cars (1922–’39) and led a Naples parade in one.

Strong notes a difference between American and British collectors. “Americans don’t want the bacon,” he says. “They want the sizzle. They buy anything with a story behind it. The English will take or leave the story, being more interested in the object.

“American gun collectors are interested in two makes: Colts—I’ve seen barn walls full, all looking the same—or Smith & Wessons.” Among his treasures is a rare Colt repeating rifle. He sighs and says, “Nobody seems to be interested in blunderbusses (early shotguns) or muskets, but I am fascinated by them.”

Impact of the Recession
Strong welcomes savvy collectors. “They know what they want—the going price, [hall]marks, variations, everything.” But he is daunted by today’s trade. “Selling antiques is becoming a dying art. There are fewer dealers. With the recession, you would think people would want to sell things. I find just the opposite is true.

“Now when I open boxes of items that are offered, they disappoint—broken teacup handles and chipped edges. Some would-be sellers say, ‘My grandmother bought it, and she lived to be 94!’ Well, she could have bought it the day before she died. Today, if someone is looking for silver, the first thing they want to know is its weight—to be sure it has some value—not its age, craftsmanship or rarity.”

Silver has toppled as a collectible, but Strong believes “you can always get value” with fine     jewelry. One of his early finds was a gold Renaissance dragon pendant with green enamel and diamonds. “I sold it for 500 pounds, quite a lot in 1966,” he says. The Strongs’ first house cost about 2,950 pounds, not quite six times more.

History Lessons
The dealer recalls when people in their 20s and 30s were interested in antiques. He finds that’s not the case anymore. “They don’t want to know. They also don’t know history. The Internet has a lot to answer for. Maybe seeing great objects pictured on the computer keeps them from collecting,” he muses.

Strong gained his expertise in appraising by observing rare objects, reading about them, attending auctions and forever checking catalog prices. Most would-be sellers have no idea of the real value of an object, he finds. An amateur seller once told Strong a firearm was in the American Revolution. “The gunmaker must have been very clever,” he says, “because the percussion cap [allowing shots to be fired in bad weather] wasn’t invented until 1830—by a Scotsman, Alexander John Forsyth, a clergyman.”

Has Strong known dealers attempting to fool with false attributions? “A lot of times I have thought people were crooked. But I think, ‘Let your eyes be your guide and your money the last thing you part with.’” He was fooled by a customer who looked like a hobo but was a scion of the family that manufactured Wilkinson Sword razor blades and an engraver to royalty. He said he would buy one, two, three, four, five rifles for his collection. Then his elegant, younger wife entered the shop and drew 10,000 pounds in bills from her large purse stuffed with money.   
Strong also visited a woman who insisted he buy what she had to sell immediately. “Otherwise,” she said, “they will come out from under the bed and take it!”

Strong can be found most days in his shop from “ten-ish to four-ish” answering phone queries, such as one from a man who wanted to sell a modern painting he had paid $10,000 for locally. Hanging up the receiver, Strong shook his head. “His dealer probably paid $1,000 for it and sold it to him for $10,000,” he says. “There is no way he will get it back.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Advertisement