Treasure Hunting

Antique shopping in New Orleans
Neal Auction Company

New Orleans is filled with old-world charm. The architecture, the cuisine and the traditions all hearken back to another time, one before mass manufacturing, box stores and suburban sprawl. The appreciation of old ways – close-knit communities, locally owned businesses and 100-year-old homes – comes with a unique aesthetic palette and a love of both history and quality. So it’s no wonder that New Orleans is also an antique mecca, a city replete with hand-carved and crafted furniture as well as the dealers and design experts that keep area stores and homes well stocked.

The city is a treasure trove of antiques, and if you’re in the market for beginning or adding to a collection, it’s a great place to begin what many local dealers refer to as “the hunt.”

“I love the hunt,” says Nancy Napoli, owner of Empire Antiques. “It’s the treasure hunt that keeps me going,” she says. Armed with a flashlight and a daring spirit, Napoli has found herself wandering the streets of Genoa, Italy at 5 a.m., in search of the perfect pieces to bring back to America for sale at her Magazine Street store. “I’ve been places where I was scared, places where I’ve been awed. I’ve been lost, left without transportation – it’s been an adventure,” says Napoli. Of course, customers of Empire Antiques reap the benefits of such exciting travels.

 Napoli specializes in 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century European antiques. Additionally, Empire Antiques now carries fine vintage jewelry, most of which is also European. Presently, Napoli is enamored with a once-in-a-lifetime, pristine piece she recently brought in to the store. The 17th-century Italian scagliola table contains a map of the world (or what was known of it) along with the signs of the zodiac.

“It’s truly fantastic. The table features an old art form people don’t often put into commerce, so it’s an honor to even have it,” she says.

Wander a few blocks down Magazine Street and you’ll find Rivers Spencer Interiors. A boutique design studio specializing in luxury residential interiors, Rivers Spencer Interiors’ showroom features a mix of the old and new – a carefully curated collection of 18th- and 19th-century European antiques accompanies pieces of Spencer’s own private label upholstery line and a collection of furnishings that she designs with local artisans.

“I grew up in a house filled with antique pieces, and I’ve always loved fashion, clothes and anything to do with aesthetics. I’ve always had a tailored vision of my style,” says Spencer. The beauty that accompanies quality craftsmanship appeals to Spencer, who aspires to achieve such quality in her own designs. A student of art history, Spencer also loves the way style evolves over time and how you can identify an antique’s era by its style.

Gerrie Bremermann, owner of Bremermann Designs, is likewise drawn to the connection of history and style. She specializes in 18th- and 19th-century French antiques.

“French antiques tell the history of France. No one created more style and beauty than the French in the 18th century,” says Bremermann. After designing a small powder room in a Junior League showhouse in the 1970s, Bremermann’s interior design career was born. Shortly thereafter, Bremermann added a French antique shop to her business.

“French architecture and design became my passion and still is,” she says. “Exquisite craftsmanship.”

One of Bremermann’s favorite pieces at the moment is an Italian settee crafted in the French Louis XV style. The newly upholstered piece will soon find a new home for itself along St. Charles Avenue.

Located on Jefferson Highway, Dop Antiques is a direct importer of European antiques receiving shipments every two to four weeks. Sprinkled in to Dop Antiques’ collection are occasional pieces from China, India and Egypt. A native of Holland, owner Michiel Dop began selling antiques in New Orleans as a wholesaler in 2000 before becoming a retailer just a few years later.
Dop’s favorite characteristic of an antique is its true uniqueness.

“There’s not a second piece made exactly the same. They were handmade, not mass produced,” he says. “If I had to sell the same thing every day, I would go crazy.”

Another exciting part of antiquing, says Dop, is “the unexpected find.”

“I had a silver tea set on a platter, and it had probably been here four to five months. My wife came in and looked inside it, and she found $1,400 EUR in the sugar bowl, about $2,000 USD,” says Dop. Other remarkable finds include fake teeth as well as a picture book full of original photos taken by a French soldier during World War II.

Marie Louise de la Vergne, Partner at Matthew Clayton Brown, also tells of a notable find, although in her case it was the antique itself. A huge fan of “the hunt,” de la Vergne and her company offer private brokerage, auction and appraisal services. Once, while at an auction, de la Vergne encountered a bed she recognized as carved by Samuel McIntire, an American architect and craftsman in the late 18th century.

“I just about dropped everything in my hands to see what they had to say in the catalog,” says de la Vergne, “and they didn’t have it down as his work.” Thinking she would need more money to purchase the bed, de la Vergne called her father, another antique enthusiast, frantically whispering what she’d encountered.

“He keeps telling me to speak up, and I tell him I can’t. He says, ‘I still can’t hear you,’ and I said, ‘Turn the TV down!’” she recounts, laughing. After a quick search in Early American Fine Points of Furniture by Albert Sack, she was able to confirm the bed’s notable past and acquire it for a steal.

Auctions present a fun, and excitement-filled hunt, one quite different from strolling store to store, and a few local auction companies mean opportunities year-round for local hunters.

Neal Auction Company specializes in the presentation and sale of 19th-century American furniture, paintings and decorative works of art. They hold five to six auctions annually, which include a variety of antiques and fine art consigned to the company by private collectors and estates, as well as by public and private institutions.

“The most memorable and rewarding ‘antiques experience’ for me locally was handling the contents of Houmas House Plantation – the Collection of Dr. George Crozat – which we sold on-site in Darrow, Louisiana, in May 2003,” says Neal Alford, president and co-founder. One highlight from the auction was the sale of a mid-19th century etched glass flycatcher.

“The flycatcher was the perfect example of old-time ingenuity where aesthetic meets function and form. That piece realized some $9,000,” he says. “The fervor that an on-site auction of this caliber generates is remarkable, particularly when the collection is as thoughtful, refined and diverse as the one at Houmas House.”

Located in the heart of the city’s historic Arts District, New Orleans Auction Galleries specializes in fine paintings, furniture, sterling and coin silver, estate jewelry, decorative arts and more. New Orleans Auction Galleries will hold an estates auction this month on October 11-12.

Estates auctions present a great opportunity for antique and art lovers to view often-diverse collections, which is one of Ireys Bowman’s favorite aspects of the auction. A specialist in Continental and English Decorative Arts and Furniture, Bowman has been with New Orleans Auction Galleries since its early days. According to Bowman, the endless variety of the pieces and the opportunity to meet and work with exceptional clients coast to coast make her job a joy.

Empire Antiques. 3617 Magazine St. 897-0252.
Rivers Spencer Interiors. 3909 Magazine St. 609-2436.
Bremermann Designs. 3943 Magazine St. 891-7763.
Dop Antiques. 300 Jefferson Highway, Suite 201. 231-3397.
Matthew Clayton Brown. 522-5058.
Neal Auction Company. 4038 Magazine St. 899-5329.
New Orleans Auction Galleries. 510 Julia St. 566-1849.




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