December 20, 2014

The Old Breed

Every home needs an antique or two. Modern or minimalist places are no exception. A well-placed piece of vintage furniture or an Old Master painting in a cool modern setting plays up and offsets the clean, unadorned angles of a sophisticated bare-bones look.

Of course, in a residence that already embraces bits of this and that from far-flung lands and distant ages, one more antique just makes the home that much more intriguing. And, not to be gauche, but nothing gives the suddenly successful a boost up the social ladder like instant ancestry and cultural status that comes with quality antiques. It's one proven way for the pound puppy to acquire a pedigree.

I like antiques that come with a good story. A console that wears valiant distress probably has lived an interesting life, and I'm happy to play a part in its continuing artistic evolution. English sideboards, French armoires, Biedermeier chairs, or a Pennsylvania Dutch wedding chest invest a home with character and a sense of place. An Empire sofa can be charming on its own and a great conversation starter.

Sometimes the most cherished antiques in your home are the ones you never even knew you wanted. You swan into a gallery, your eyes come to rest upon a small French writing desk and no matter what, you've just got to own it. Instances of antiques seducing potential buyers are commonplace. But I didn't know that experienced professionals in the trade were susceptible. I would expect them to be dispassionate, inspecting everything in terms of how much they might fetch by selling it to someone else.

Barbara Lentz, who owns The Source in Naples, set me straight. Dealers, appraisers, gallery owners and restorers are not immune to love among the ruins. "A distinguished Naples interior designer was leaving town and selling his fine things," she remembers. "So I went to his home to buy for the gallery and I saw this pair of amazing Louis XVI-style chairs covered in a Fortuny fabric of blue, beige and taupe. I bought them on the spot. They didn't match a thing in my own home so I put them in the gallery." But every day, she'd look at them and want them more and more. "One day, I just put them in the van, took them to my house and plopped them into the living room," she says. "Then I had to take every other single thing in that room out and start completely over." Lentz built a brand-new design scheme around that pair of Fortuny covered chairs. "It was completely unnecessary," she admits. "But I don't regret it. I'm still in love with those chairs."

Lentz, who has impeccable contacts abroad and travels to Europe frequently, was juggling successful galleries in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey when she came to Naples in 1995 as a part-time resident. Slowly, she closed the other stores and concentrated on the desires of discriminating clients here. Her focus is Continental 19th-century painted furniture, but she also has great knowledge of paintings. Her gallery is eclectic, spanning the years between 1820 and1940 in Europe and America.

With a great eye for design, she not only advises clients as to period, style and condition of antiques, but educates them about scale and balance in a room. "The most common mistake most people make when buying antiques for their home is not getting the size right," she says. "I find many people buy too small."

Most of Lentz' clients are buying to complete their décor schemes in homes in Port Royal, Pelican Bay and Bonita Bay as well as luxury condos. She also draws clients who are seasonal residents in Naples and end up shipping a piece back to primary residences in Canada, New England or the Midwest. She understands that love is where you find it. Furniture and decorative antique items in The Source gallery range from about $500 to $10,000.

If you don't already have an enormous estate in desperate need of monumental (and really beautiful) vintage garden artifacts, you'll want to run right out and buy property after seeing the inventory at J.L. Rawlinson & Co. in Naples. Here you'll come face-to-face with the marble and limestone classical statues, urns, fountains, columns and fantastical animals of your dreams. Most come from country manor homes in England and Ireland and grand chateaux in France. No reproductions in this sumptuous gallery; everything is authentic and quite old.

Gallery director Karin Wilkinson (she's British and one of three partners in the establishment) and her able assistant John Coddington (recently of St. Louis, Mo.) can provide historical information about the garden furniture, outdoor art and the architectural fragments. They've cleverly arranged the outdoor ornamentation in a separate bucolic setting in the center of the store.

The rest of the collection at J.L. Rawlinson consists of French and English high-impact furniture. We're talking huge mirrors, massive mantles, dining tables that seat 20 and sideboards that will immediately cozy up a room with 20-foot ceilings. The browsing here is strictly blue chip. The price range is about $900 to $165,000. Flemish tapestries find congenial floor space with a 200-year-old English desk, a French hutch lined with crimson damask that dates to 1740 ($79,000), a wooden faux-painted dog house modeled after a Louis XVI chateau ($18,500), a Chinoiserie town clock and a 400-year-old French cherry chest with a secret compartment and its original bronze hardware.

The inventory changes frequently because Wilkinson's two male partners live in England and send things to Florida by ship. The trip from Old World to New takes only about three weeks. Colin Gee acquires the furniture, wall art and decorative items. He never does auctions, but uses his extensive contacts to buy directly from estates. John Rawlinson is the expert on garden artifacts and architectural fragments. He has an architectural business in the Cotswold region and has been in the business for 25 years. He earned his Oxford University degree in history and he uses it every day when selecting only the finest things for the Naples gallery that carries his name.

There are more expensive treasures from England and France to be found at The Englishman, a sophisticated gallery that focuses on important European paintings as well as antique furniture and vintage accessories. The three partners, Tom McCarthy (who lives in England) and Rik and Jill Littlefield (Americans) operate galleries in Vail, Colo., and in Glebe House in London besides this newest Naples establishment.

The Englishman claims to offer one of the largest assortments of European 18th- and 19th-century original oil paintings in the United States, and they're as desirable as they are varied. The hunting and alpine paintings usually go straight to the Vail gallery. Here in Naples you'll find still-life paintings, genre scenes and marvelous animal portraits. One of my favorites is "Grey Boy," a depiction of a noble, tawny horse in a pasture. His tail is trimmed short and fanned out in the most charming manner. He can join your stable of fine art for $16,000. Of course, every work of art is brilliantly framed in the Old Master manner. If you're starting an art collection from scratch, The Englishman will prepare a custom art portfolio tailored to your taste. Since all the artwork in The Englishman is on the conservative side, your collection will be traditional.

Although the collection of furniture and art is not arranged vignette style, the Littlefields have done such an expert job of accessorizing their pieces (vases of flowers on tables, accent pillows on sofas, clever use of baskets,) that it's easy to imagine everything in a warm, residential settings. Here's another homey touch. When browsing, you're likely to meet the Littlefield "shop dogs," a pair of handsome, frisky boxers worthy of having their portraits done. They certainly fit the setting.

A completely different shopping experience awaits the antique lover at La Rocco Galleries in Naples. This emporium is highly unusual and quite specific. The owners, Margareta La Rocco and her daughter Katherine, are experts in Biedermeier furniture prior to 1840, classic Bauhaus pieces, some mid-century modern classics, French Art Deco (1920-1935) and selected pieces of Moderne, too. If you want a sleek and intellectual antique to complement your thoroughly modern home, La Rocco may be the place to discover it.

The inventory is aimed at the serious collector and the price range, about $3,000 to $150,000, reflects the intent and the quality. Getting a tour from Katherine and listening to her talk about the collection of French Art Deco lighting is like enjoying a free course in cultural history.

The La Rocco family lived in Germany for 22 years (military duty) and all speak German fluently. Margareta travels to the continent four times a year, concentrating on Germany and Austria, but she also makes buying trips to France and Italy. The gallery has been open for six years.

Part of the fascinating attraction of Biedermeier and French Deco lies in the extraordinary woods and veneers used to craft the furniture. They include cherry, pear, ash, mahogany, sycamore, birdseye maple and walnut, and often several woods are used in concert to make intricate geometric patterns. Many of the Biedermeier pieces are banded in ebonized wood trim. Chrome is the accent of choice for the Moderne and some of the Deco pieces.

The sophisticated La Rocco clientele consists primarily of knowledgeable collectors, many of them in New York and Chicago. In addition to museum-quality furniture and accessories, the La Rocco ladies are attracted to children's wooden toys of several time periods. They occupy a display case at the back of the gallery. The La Roccos will often come back to the States with an odd piece or two, just to keep things on the slightly eclectic side. I saw something I'd never come across before: an Austrian bentwood rocker with a hand-tooled leather seat and a back worked in an Art Nouveau pattern. At $2,000, it could easily be the focal point of a North Carolina mountain cottage.

So what does Katherine collect? "My own home is full of '50s and '60s furniture and I've got an amazing amount of plastic," she divulges. But her treasure of all treasures is an original shiny aluminum '50s Christmas tree festooned with pink flamingos. The feathers are genuine. She adores that tree and is toying with the idea of bringing it into the shop for a holiday display. If she does, I am going to get decked out in a Lily Pulitizer lime green and yellow dress and have my photograph taken in front of that tree holding a piña colada and wearing my Ray Bans. I'll mail it to my Currier & Ives-type in-laws in Boston in response to their annual musings about just what it is we do down here without snow for Christmas.

The Source

430 Ninth St. N., Naples

261-3750 

La Rocco Galleries

1010 Central Ave., Naples

434-5678

J.L. Rawlinson & Co.

370 12th Ave. S., Naples

263-1719

The Englishman

1170 Third St. S., Naples

649-8088