ARTICLES

How to live happily with an antique fanatic

My wife's mad about antiques. But don't feel sorry for me—I scour old barns for fresh discoveries and act as a pack mule, but I never pay more than twenty dollars for a gift that will make her forgive me for anything

KEN JOHNSTONE May 21 1960
ARTICLES

How to live happily with an antique fanatic

My wife's mad about antiques. But don't feel sorry for me—I scour old barns for fresh discoveries and act as a pack mule, but I never pay more than twenty dollars for a gift that will make her forgive me for anything

KEN JOHNSTONE May 21 1960

How to live happily with an antique fanatic

My wife's mad about antiques. But don't feel sorry for me—I scour old barns for fresh discoveries and act as a pack mule, but I never pay more than twenty dollars for a gift that will make her forgive me for anything

KEN JOHNSTONE

“LET’S GO ANTIQUING!” is a golden phrase that has extricated me many times from impossible domestic situations. My wife, Liz, runs a ballet studio in Montreal and we live in an old stone house on the Richelieu River about thirtyfive miles away. A few months ago 1 fell in with the boys and completely forgot that it was my wife’s birthday. On our way home that night — reminded of my lapse by a more than usually frigid silence—I said casually, almost gaily, to my wife, “Let’s go antiquing tomorrow for your birthday present.” If I had öffered her the Taj Mahal, it could not have worked as well; she would have wanted to exchange that impractical gift immediately. She beamed; the thaw set in; and we spent a most pleasant evening together. Next day, Sunday, we went antiquing. Her birthday present cost me exactly three dollars. It was a twelve-foot bench that she found in an old barn.

I said we go antiquing, but I had better explain what I mean. The British Antique Dealers Association and an official Canadian definition describe an antique as an article more than a hundred years old. But a more popular definition — the one we prefer — is that an antique is simply something that is not in common use any more. We wouldn’t think of walking into an antique shop and picking up a Chippendale chair or a Duncan Phyfe sofa worth hundreds of dollars.

But, like a lot of other people, we have discovered the charm of the simple lines and clean

construction of much early-Canadian furniture, which is reasonably priced. We are strictly bushleague collectors. When the price of an item goes over twenty dollars my wife pushes the panic button, and when I consider some of the deals she has pulled off. reselling articles she has retrieved from somebody’s dustbin and refurbished. I have to admit the hobby is not expensive.

Ever since I’ve known my wife, she’s had an incurable weakness for second-hand stores, auction and rummage sales, pawnshops, and those dimly-lit, grimy-windowed dives in unlikely locations with miscellaneous bric-a-brac piled in chaotic confusion on dusty display counters, and absent-minded proprietors even more difficult to locate than the merchandise. She could once spend hours pawing through junk, though she rarely bought anything. This changed ten years ago when we put a down payment on our home and had to furnish it. Since then we’ve poked through countless barns and sheds, prowled through abandoned farmhouses, climbed over piles of tables, chairs, armoires, breadboxes. spinning wheels, spool beds and milk churns. We’ve learned a little about Canadian antiques and a lot about scraping and refinishing old furniture; we’ve made the occasional exciting discovery of some trifling treasure, and we’ve had a lot of fun. It’s become our favorite hobby; or more honestly, it’s my wife’s favorite hobby. I just go along as a sort of pack mule, to lug the furniture and restrain her more vio-

lent and expensive outbursts of enthusiasm.

And I mean lug the furniture. We made one trip in our old convertible that I'll never forget, a hundred miles cross-country over a bumpy and winding road. We had the top down. My wife drove and I stood up in the back seat, facing backward and hanging on for dear life to a six-foot armoire, while she shouted out from time to time advising when we were going up a hill, down a hill, turning right, turning left, and so forth. This information was sometimes less than helpful, since she never could tell her right from her left. I had barely survived the clouds of smothering gravel when it started to rain. Finally we got home. My wife wasn’t tired at all. She began to clean the armoire. By now the rain had given way to a scorching sun, and the gravel road in front of our place yielded a billowing cloud of dust every time a car passed, and I had to get out the hose and water the road so she could clean the armoire in the ditch by the roadside. She was using lye and the ditch was the only safe spot to rinse it off. In the end, she waxed the armoire and sold it to a friend for a twenty-dollar profit which she flatly refused to split with me. After that I traded in the convertible for a station wagon, and now I don’t get wet or dusty any more — just tired.

Our first venture into the antique market was via a second-hand store in St. Hyacinthe, Que., where we proudly bought a kitchen table for two dollars and a sofa and two upholstered chairs for five dollars CONTINUED ON PAGE 65

Home in triumph with the day's swag, Liz holds a wooden horse and rocker; Ken carries old glassware; Nicky, their dog, carries Liz's discarded ballet slipper*

continued from page 32

‘The peasant-style beds must have been made for pygmies; my feet used to stick out eight inches1

each. These, together with a couple of ancient beds with straw ticking and a magnificent old wood stove with a bluebird-tiled front which we found in the place, comprised the first furniture for our country home. The beds, peasantstyle. must have been made for pygmies, for my feet used to protrude from the bottom a good eight inches. One of them even had a trundle-bed, a smaller bed on rollers, that slid under it. I am happy to report that they are now in the barn, awaiting some unwary buyer.

My wife is a very erratic buyer, a creature of whims. One time she had a passion for tables, so she bought tables. Another time it was chairs, and the chairs pilled up. Then armoires. Never anything small..She loves to buy and she hates to sell. At present count, the barn contains three beds, two armoires, three tables and about eight chairs, one a rocker. She never went for rockers; I bought that one but she won't let me bring it into the house.

She’s made some first-class mistakes. Despite the growing volume of expert literature on antique silver, glass and furniture, she prefers to rely on her instinct and her love of a bargain.

A fury of frustration

Sometimes she is teased for her bargaining instinct. Right around the corner from my wife’s dance studio is the Victoria Furniture Repair Company, once run by Nat and Harry Davis, veterans in the antique business. When my wife got a spare moment she rummaged through their shelves. One day she came home in a fury of frustration. She had been dickering for days with Harry over a glass pitcher and he had finally agreed to her offer of $1.50. But she hadn't taken it right away. Oh, no. She had to ponder it a few days to tantalize herself with the terror that someone else might pick it up. Finally, she went in to close the deal. Ed was on hand. She counted out the $1.50 and announced firmly that it was the agreed price between herself and Harry. “Too bad you said that,” said Ed. picking up the money. “I would have sold it to you for a dollar.”

But my wife’s favorite antique dealer is probably Antoine Prévost, who operates the Chambly Antiques, sixteen miles from Montreal. Long loose - limbed Prévost looks younger than his twenty-nine years. After a nine-year career in interior decorating and furniture design, he took over a broken-down old stone house, filled it with Canadiana, and soon had a thriving business going.

I think what appealed most to my wife about Prévost, apart from his boyish good looks, with me getting a little long in the tooth, was his disarming candor. He revealed to her all the secrets of paint removal and wood refinishing. He pointed out the different periods infurniture and told her what to look for when she shopped. One day, when we were admiring what seemed to be 'a beautiful specimen of a diamond-point armoire in his shop, he laughed, opened one of the doors, and showed us how the characteristic wooden diamond panel had been added1 lately to what was actually a very plain armoire. “I was taken,” he admitted. “I bought it at night and thought I had a find.”

Anxious to put her new-found knowl-

edge to work, my wife combed the countryside that summer, and in a little village. uncovered the ultimate dream of every collector of Canadiana, a commode with a diamond-point panel door. It was ridiculously cheap, only twenty-five dol-

lars. Even I agreed that she should shoot the bundle. She took it home, cleaned, and waxed and polished it. and then showed it to Prévost. He took one quick look. "The door can be salvaged," he said. "The rest of the piece is useless. It

has been cut down and utterly ruined.” Prévost is one of the four hundred listed and licensed antique dealers in Canada. Another twelve hundred unlisted dealers hang signs offering "antiques.” "People want practical antiques today,”

Prévost says. Franklin stoves of ornate design are in heavy demand, as are lantern clocks, milk glass, ruby glass and Port Neuf crockery.

We talk often with Prévost about treasures picked up for a few cents. “It happens rarely,” he says, although he knew a man who bought a silver wine taster for seventy-five cents that he later sold for $250. A bond salesman at Fredericton, N.B., found a long-stemmed glass in a barn, paid a dollar for it, and later learned that it was worth $250. A dealer picked up two Paul Lelong miniatures for $2.50 each and later sold them for five hundred each.

My wife has had some intricate financial dealings with Prévost. One arose from the fact that she may well be one of the great paint scrapers of this generation. She has removed paint from thousands of square feet of sideboards, cupboards, armoires, tables, chairs, walls, floors and ceilings. As soon as she sees paint on wood, she reacts automatically. She decided to put this considerable talent to work and earn an honest buck by scraping some small articles and carvings for Prévost. She accumulated such a respectable credit with Prévost that he began to wear a worried look, suspecting that she was working for a controlling interest in his business. When Christmas rolled around, however, she used her credit to buy presents.

How to lose money on a table

Then there was the affair of the kitchen table, from which she is only now recovering. She bought the table last summer in a little town for twelve dollars. It had stretcher legs, and the top was formed by two wide pieces of pine. She cleaned, scraped, sanded and waxed it. Then she tried it in the kitchen and found that it was too long. She offered it to Prévost, who paid her thirty-five dollars for it. She found another, smaller table and forgot all about the incident, except to gloat occasionally over her profit. Then, around December, she was back at Prevost’s shop and stopped to admire a magnificent stretcher-leg table. It had a warm golden finish. “How much is it?” she asked. “Eighty-five dollars,” replied Prévost. “Don’t you recognize it? It’s the one you sold me.”

She looked at the table with the expression of an unwed mother who has turned her child out for adoption years

before and then suddenly is confronted by the child grown up. Pain struggled with pride on her face. “What did you do with it?” she managed to whisper.

“I spent forty-five dollars worth of labor refinishing it and changing the legs,” said Prévost.

She left his place a distraught creature. Later, in the car, she recovered. “It was too big for our place anyway,” she remembered, “but I must be more careful in future.”

Dealers like Prévost employ scouts or “pickers” who prowl through the countryside in search of merchandise. Prevost’s picker is blonde pretty Harriet Hawkins, a former sculptor whose husband, Taul, works in a Montreal bank.

Some dealers have several pickers and the Elliott sisters, Elsie and Gwen, who are the biggest operators in their field in Quebec, keep a dozen pickers out antique hunting. They both were schoolteachers before they turned their hobby, collecting Canadiana, into a business.

They live in a rambling old farmhouse near Danville, Que., and the barns behind the house are crammed with all kinds of early-Canadian articles.

The Elliott sisters deal chiefly with antique dealers. They have no patience for the “lookers” who go shopping in the country for antiques. “Dealers know what they want; their time means money,” says the tall and rather severe-looking Gwen sternly. “People who come around and can’t make up their mind just waste their time and mine.”

My wife has a particular weakness for Gwen, who has a rule of setting a price and never haggling. Maybe it is because Gwen occasionally knocks fifty cents off a price when my wife ignores the rule and acts as though that fifty cents were all that we had to keep us in food for a week. Getting a concession like that is part of the fun in the wonderful pastime of pursuing antiques, which keeps us eternally intrigued by what we may discover next time we call on Nat Davis or Antoine Prévost or the Elliott sisters or, for that matter, any place where there is an antique sign. And beyond that, the vista is limitless: an empty house, an auction sale, a building being wrecked, a casual visit to a farmer to buy vegetables, a glimpse in the back of a country store. It’s exciting prospecting; the investment is modest; and the reward may be high if you are lucky. All you need is luck — and a strong back. ★