Finding a great antique is like duck hunting, only done indoors and year-round. Both the ardent antique shopper and duck hunter need plenty of patience, knowledge and stamina, and in the end, he or she must act quickly or see the best ones get away.
So how and where do you find great antiques?
Years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a valuable piece of advice: Go to Royal Street, and study the pieces that catch your eye. Talk with the merchants about each piece that interests you because they are knowledgeable and love to share their passion with potential buyers. Often, the shops will have some wiggle room in their prices, and in the end, even if you still cannot afford the object of your desire, you have the knowledge base to know a good piece when you see it elsewhere. From my experience, French Antique Shop, Keil’s Antiques, M.S. Rau Antiques and Waldhorn & Adler are among the most generous with their knowledge.
The same advice applies to any of the high-end stores on Magazine Street, where beautiful pieces abound and merchants are more like curators, ready and willing to share what they know with a customer.
It’s no surprise, then, to learn that the Travel Channel once named Royal Street the “Best Street in the World to Shop for Antiques” or that Magazine Street was recently featured in the New York Times and in a two-page spread in the Dallas Morning News last fall. This city is an antique shopper’s paradise.
But the real antique lover doesn’t limit him- or herself to the shops on Royal and Magazine streets. In this city of grand homes, there are plenty of out-of-the-box options that are worth considering.
First, estate and garage sales are treasure hunts. There are several fine local estate sale companies (a future column will cover these) that often have spectacular buys. You can learn when these take place by reading the classified ads in Gambit and the Thursday, Friday and Saturday editions of the Times-Picayune. Sales are generally arranged by geographical locations of New Orleans and various suburbs. If you are willing to get up early (lines sometimes form an hour before the published opening time), you can find some wonderful items at bargain basement-to-decent prices.
Some progressive estate sale companies send e-mail alerts to regular customers, so sign up for these at the sales. Also, don’t be shy: Talk with the estate sale owners, and let them know if you are looking for a specific item and what you are willing to pay for it. Often, they will call you ahead of time and let you know when such an item comes their way.
In a past column I mentioned the art of buying and selling at some of the local auction houses. Right now it’s a buyer’s market, so consider purchasing an advance catalog from one of the auction houses (New Orleans Auction Galleries Inc., Neal Auction Co. and Matthew Clayton Brown are the three biggest) to suss out what pieces you crave. Be patient, and buy your gem when it comes up.
One caveat: Now is not a great time to sell your antiques as prices are disappointingly low, as we recently learned.
I’m a big believer in scoping out the consignment shops (Renaissance Interiors, Oops Designer Home Consignments and occasionally Heirloom Furnishings) and wholesalers (Dop Antiques and Architecturals). These stores have high volume, fast turnovers and good prices. The trick to finding a great antique at these places is to go often, weekly if possible, and sniff out the merchandise. It’s worth the effort.
It also pays to go to small towns, particularly if you are looking for primitive furniture and artifacts. The Northshore has some fine shops. In future columns, I’ll explore some of my favorite small towns where good antiques of all styles can be found.
The Internet continues to be a viable option, although it isn’t for the faint of heart. Bidding on 1stdibs.com won’t get you a bargain, but at least you will have comfort knowing that the merchants are all meticulously screened and very reputable. As for buying online, it’s a leap of faith, particularly if you are purchasing a big, pricey item from an unknown merchant, as I did recently. In truth, I love the piece and am glad I didn’t chicken out, although I came breathtakingly close to doing so.
Finally, don’t forget to put the word out if you are looking for a specific antique. Tell your friends and neighbors what you are looking for. You never know when a friend’s favorite Aunt Tillie will go to her heavenly reward, leaving a house full of antiques that need a new home. Your friend may be willing to part with a treasure for the right price, making everyone happy.
And for the dedicated antique lover, it really is all about the hunt.