Acquiring Antiques

Finding the perfect piece can be invigorating, not scary.

My living room is having an identity crisis. When I moved into a new house some months back, I decided I was going to pitch the hand-me-down furniture I had accumulated and start over with something more sophisticated. I am attempting to decorate with antiques – a formidable task. At first it was really fun, strolling New Orleans’ streets in search of a secret treasure trove of antiques. But lately I’ve been feeling stuck; I find amazing things – mid-century modern lamps! A great Persian rug! An ornate carved sideboard! – and can’t quite figure out how to make them work.

Antique shopping and decorating should be done with care, and with a particular vision in mind. But that doesn’t necessarily mean everything has to match. Letting your personality and taste speak through the personality of the antiques is what gives them that special quality, and a large portion of the reason many people chose beautiful and one-of-a-kind pieces over new, mass-produced goods.

“In the past, the fashion was to decorate rooms strictly in one period with the window treatments, rugs, upholstery and even the walls all matching,” says Caroline Bozier, designer for M.S. Rau Antiques. “These days, though, it’s rare for people to stick to one period or style of furniture. By being eclectic in your choices and picking pieces that you really love rather than looking at them academically, antiques get a fresh, modern look.”

The older homes that populate New Orleans provide a fantastic backdrop for antiques. Beautiful wood floors and dramatic high ceilings work well with older styles of furniture and décor, though modern architecture can be just as well suited to display your precious items. One niche style of antique décor is Chinese furniture, which is the specialty of Silk Road Collection. Donald St. Pierre of the antique purveyor says many people choose Chinese furniture for its durability, and of course its bold coloring and designs.

“Use an antique in a modern or contemporary setting as a focal point,” says St. Pierre. “One design concept centers around the idea of similarity – Duncan Phyfe end tables on either side of a sofa, or matching chairs around a dining room table. Another design concept centers on the idea of contrast; it can be very exciting to the eye to see a 250-year-old antique Chinese cabinet with a painted opera scene on its doors standing elegantly next to a contemporary leather sofa. Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend placing five different styles or period pieces all in the same room. They would all be competing for attention and wouldn’t be presented in a coordinated setting.

“I think the fact that a person is extending the life of an antique by placing it in their home or office is in fact modernizing it by using it in a new manner,” he continues. “Using an antique instead of a new piece of furniture having to be produced is also a green use – reuse, refresh, renew.”

Dunn & Sonnier is equally as popular for their beautiful floral arrangements as they are for their haunting collection of antiques. Old wax-laden candelabras, dark wood rustic dining tables and unusual artwork populate Dunn & Sonnier Antiques, and the store is a great place to go if your esthetic veers more towards the moody, dark and romantic. Check back with them often, as the store’s two proprietors have new merchandise constantly.

Cary King and Terry Voorhies of Piranesi point out that many pieces we know as antiques are actually re-imaginings of much older pieces, with motifs and designs of the Greek, Roman and Etruscan times popping up on antiques from a century or two ago. Antiques that aren’t considered super-fine pieces can be painted for instant updates, as well.

“Paint those old dark wood Victorian pieces white,” says King. “Recover them with a jazzy fabric, and voila!

In terms of actual furniture, King says go for functionality. “It’s fun to mix a modern coffee table or dining table, contemporary sculpture, artwork or lighting with older pieces. We also like to use good reproduction dining chairs with an antique dining table and other antique pieces for the dining room. Dining chairs need to be comfortable and sturdy as they can get a lot of use; antique dining chairs can sometimes be small or fragile.”

King also advises that antiques are definitely not impulse buys. “Start slowly,” she says. “Visit shops and look, look, look. Stick with reputable dealers and educate yourself. Visit auction houses and look some more.”

Auction houses are definitely a great way to get acclimated to what you like and dislike, and also to find what eras typify your style. While some people purchase antiques simply to purchase an antique, visiting auction houses proves there are many incredible pieces out there, ripe for the buy. Crescent City Auction Gallery is one of them, and they carry something from virtually every era imaginable. No matter what you are looking for, be it modern art, heirloom jewelry, beautiful silverware or a Jacobean bookshelf, they’re bound to have something to suit your style.

“The best secret for people just starting out looking for antiques is to start with auctions and consignment stores,” says Adam Lambert of the auction gallery.  “There are often bargains to be found, especially on everyday functional antiques.  Auctions have items ranging from under $100 to the high tens of thousands, depending on which auctions you go to. …  The variety at auctions is also a plus for a new collector.”

Patrick Dunne of Lucullus says he looks at antiques from a more ideological standpoint. “The point of living with old things is not just about the beauty and the form; it’s about connecting with the past,” he says. “Putting antiques in a modern setting is the perfect expression of the continuum of time.”

He goes on to say that it’s actually the younger set, the burgeoning collectors, who are embracing the styles and shapes of years past. “Among our younger buyers there seems to be a desire to get away from the stark frigidity of modernism. … Antiques don’t have to be fussy and prissy; part of the expression of decorating is incorporating the old with the new.”

For those of us just hopping onto the antique wagon, Dunne says to start simple. “I would say go out and buy some wonderful antique armchairs. If you really wanted to modernize them, cover them in edgy fabric, but personally I don’t understand why anyone would want to modernize an antique.

“If I was thrown into a modern apartment, I would rush out and buy arm chairs to stabilize myself,” he jokes.

Starting with furniture may be overwhelming for some. Odds and ends, art, silver sets and glass can also be good ways to start your antique collection, and usually carry a smaller price tag than a settee or dining room table. Dunleith Designs on Magazine Street carries everything to dress your room floor to ceiling, but owner Ken Rogers stocks some incredible art, vases, silver and crystal. Adding a candleholder here, a lamp there, and even decorative wall adornments won’t look out of place with more modern décor choices, and those are a small investment from a fiscal standpoint.

If you can afford the splurge, nothing adds drama, mystery and beauty as effortlessly as an antique chandelier. Be it cut from crystal, wrought with iron or laden with gold, a chandelier in any room, formal or informal, is an instant conversation piece. Classic Chandeliers has a showroom replete with chandeliers from a variety of eras and designs, ranging from small to large enough for a grandiose ballroom.

If there is a central theme that can be discerned from these expert tips and advice – other than start small – it has to be that an antique must be more than just a piece of history to you. An antique, like the rest of your interior design, should be an extension of you, and based off of how you perceive your world; not how you want the world to perceive you. Do not buy a piece if you’re not in love with it, because then it will just take up space, like that awkward guy who came to the party that no one really wants there, while the rest of your antique friends mingle happily throughout the house.

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