Anyhow, another of our actor/waiter boarders came from a well-to-do family in Chicago and had his room crammed with antiques he'd inherited from a relative. In lieu of cash (which he never had), he’d pay for his room and board by giving my mom an antique trinket or two every few months.
My mom would research each piece in her favorite book, “The Practical Book of Period Furniture” (which I still have) and do “show and tells” for me and my brother about what it was, why it was interesting, and how it gave us a way to “see” into the past. I’ve been “hooked” ever since.
Q: How are your antique pieces collected and how do you verify the style, period, and artisan?
The best way to collect antiques is incrementally over time, purchasing only pieces that you love and that reflect your personality and taste. Collecting antiques is like "grabbing the brass ring": when you come upon a piece that "speaks to you", buy it and add it to you collection.
Generally speaking, antiques come on the market as a result of what we call the “Three D’s: Debt, Divorce and Death”. I know this is kind of morbid, but it's a fact..
At C. Mariani, most of our important pieces are acquired through private transactions with individuals who want to discretely raise capital by liquidating one or more of their antiques. A steady stream of our business comes through European titled families that have been dealing with the Mariani family for more than a generation and have entire palazzos, villas and chateaus filled with incredible antique furniture going back generations.
But you have to be careful when dealing with Dukes, Duchesses, Viscounts, Earls, Baronesses, etc. When I first started working at C. Mariani, I hung up on a Yugoslavian “Princess” who I thought was some clown trying to punk me with a patheticly amateur Bela Lugosi accent. It wound up that Claudio Mariani had dealt with her for years and she was an important source for our new acquisitions.
We also have clients who have bought from us in the past and sell their the pieces back to us for a variety of reasons (sometimes it's to purchase another antique and other times it's because of the "3 D's": Divorce, Debt, etc.). When we buy a piece back after several years, it’s like seeing an old friend. I’ve bought and sold this pair of Maggiolini commodes twice over the past 5 years:
Pieces that we buy back or that come from known European collections are easy to vet since the provenance is already established.
Other pieces come through “spotters” that we have in Europe who locate important pieces as they become available as well as through other dealers and auctions. Those pieces require careful examination and vetting, a process that calls on your expertise in knowing periods, color, condition, shape, and style. Rare pieces that are stamped or are associated with a particular artisan require additional investigation. Below: an 18th century French Louis XV Chinoiserie Commode stamped "M. Criard", a matre Parisian ebeniste:
This vetting process is more art than science and requires years of experience in seeing, touching and even smelling thousands of antiques. With that experience, you come to know when something, like proportion or patina, is “right” or just seems “off” or “wrong.” There’s no one scientific formula for verifying styles, periods and artisans-and there's no substitute for the experience of working with antiques day in and out.Q: What is your favorite antique piece of all time? Why? What makes it so unique?
My favorite antique of all time is this second quarter 18th century Roman Tortoise Shell Secretaire. It’s beauty literally takes your breath away.
The exterior and portions of the interior are veneered in rare tortoise shell underlaid with pure 22k gold leaf to create a shimmering effect of unparalleled opulence. It also has bronze dore finials, mounts and hardware, all original. It has more than 65 secret drawers, doors, pockets and hidden cubbies concealed within.
The interior is so intricate in detail and richness that it boggles the mind. It looks just like a miniature version of St. Peters Basilica in the Vatican, only rendered in miniature out of translucent tortoise shell and gold. So the buyer of this piece will effectively have something on par with the Sistine Chapel sitting right in their living room. But then it retails for more than $1,000,000 USD.
The piece’s importance is underscored by its provenance. It was originally part of the household inventory of the Villa Marlia, near Lucca, in the Tuscan region of Italy and was owned by a variety of Italian royals including Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Duchess of Lucca, Princess of Piombino, and the Comtesse de Compignano. The piece was secreted from the Villa during World War II, ultimately surfacing in the 1960’s, still in the possession of an Italian royal, the Contessa Ferrari Lauretta.
It’s my favorite antique because of its rarity, workmanship, condition, materials, beauty and provenance.Q: What is your favorite antique period? Why?
That’s like asking a parent which child is their favorite. I like them all. But I guess if I had to choose one favorite period it would be Louis XV Rococo.
This period was really smack in the middle of the Golden Age of furniture and represented a dramatic break from the past. It was a period of whimsy, sensuality, and intelligence. It’s asymmetry and sense of fun flew in the face of all of the periods before it and after it.
For example, the preceding Baroque period of Louis XIV was grand, balanced and somewhat serious, much like the post-Rococo Neoclassical periods from Louis XVI to the Empire. Below is an 18th century Italian Louis XV Rococo commode that could only be described as "exhuberant!":
Although I ascribe to the saying that there’s really nothing new under the sun, I think that the Rococo style really blazed new ground in furniture design history. And, of course, its designs have stood the test of time. The look is still used extensively by the top interior designers and can be mixed with many other styles without looking out of place.Q: What is your favorite venue featuring antique pieces? Why?
That’s an easy one: C. Mariani Antiques (where I work). I call it “the Louvre with price tags” because we have more than 4,000 of the world’s best (and yes, most expensive) period antiques, primarily from the 16th to the mid 19th century.
For me, it’s even better than any museum because I get to snoop around, take out drawers, turn pieces upside down and examine them for hidden treasures and clues.
You’d be surprised at what I’ve found over the years: love notes scribbled on the bottom of a drawer, signatures of craftsmen, stickers from long forgotten antique dealers and once in a great while, a forgotten trinket or two. Once I found a small gold locket in a secret compartment. Another time, I found a lady’s fan. It’s fun.
My second favorite venue is the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They have the most amazing range of antique furnishings in their collection.