NEW YORK – In a leafy corner of the Bronx, water bubbles gently in an enormous, cornflower-blue ceramic fish pond from China, home to meandering goldfish. A statue of Diana the Huntress towers over timeworn birdbaths from Italy and a generously long wicker lounge chair from France.
Entering the enormous white tent housing the New York Botanical Garden’s annual Antique Garden Furniture Fair was to experience a fantasy world of dream gardens.
“The feeling you get when you’re surrounded by these pieces, with all their history and stories, is something you just can’t get if you go to a store and pick up a bench or ornament,” explained Karen DiSaia, director of the fair, which ran in late April.
Vendors from across the country displayed garden and sunroom antiques, each booth staged to create a multi-sensory vignette complete with cascading flowers, rippling water and, yes, the occasional fish or two to bring the textures of worn stone, aged wood and smooth ceramic to life.
Martha Stewart attended, and called the fair “one of the few things that is very important for me not to miss” each year.
“This show gives one the opportunity to see the best of the best from dealers … who are selling fine garden ornaments and other objects that will enhance your own personal landscaping,” she said.
Some booths carry Asian items, like that of Pagoda Red, a Chicago gallery specializing in antiques from China. Others have a European feel, like that of Schorr and Dobinsky, antiques dealers in East Hampton, New York, which featured a pair of large, cast-iron lions from early 19th century England. Still others are quirky in a more local way, like one featuring a huge, 1960s-style owl lamp and a whimsical 1970s bistro table and chairs, each in the form of a sunflower, brought in from dealer Scott Estepp, of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Objects at the antiques fair cannot be by living artists and must date to before around 1975, although most are much older. They should be garden-themed, and exude character and uniqueness.
Eric Retzer of Pagoda Red said he sold “a pair of intensely embroidered, 19th century Japanese tapestries depicting bucolic scenes of chrysanthemums in a garden, and a wonderfully feathered cockerel and hen courting near a stream, both done in shimmering silver and gold silk threads.
“Our favourite sale was a grand, limestone, 18th century provincial Chinese River Dragon, originally meant to protect a village from flooding waters,” he added.
At a plant sale on opening night, Stewart said, she bought 24 large clumps of a woodland violet. “They’re already planted in my lavender garden.”
The fair is not just for those with a yard and a full wallet.
Many items also could work indoors, and “even if your whole house is done in Ikea, one really beautiful old thing transforms everything, and creates a conversation piece and forms a connection to history,” said DiSaia.
From old buckets used as planters to 18th century Chinese hitching posts and floral-themed artwork, the fair is really about viewing old things in a different and creative way, with a connection to nature and history.
Decorator Bunny Williams, who has been involved with the fair for years, designed the dramatic centerpiece this year around an enormous gazebo owned by Katonah, New York-based dealer and author Barbara Israel.
“In today’s fast-paced world, people come into a show like this to feel the phenomenal energy of things that have been here much longer than we have,” DiSaia said.
“You can’t get that experience by shopping on the Internet. You can only get that feeling when you’re face to face with these things,” she said.
The more imposing pieces included the Diana statue (from Bob Withington of Portsmouth, New Hampshire), a 19th century Mercury statue (from Greg Kramer and Co. in Robesonia, Pennsylvania) and a pair of Japanese stone lanterns originally installed at a 19th century estate designed by architect James Renwick in Bristol, Rhode Island.
The trend in sales this year was toward fountains and urns, DiSaia said, and the always popular outdoor benches, chairs and tiny cast animal figurines. Various architectural elements for use as wall art also sold, she said.
“Every year I try to bring something that really stands out,” said Bruce Emond, a dealer at Village Braider Antiques in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who brought the two enormous stone lanterns this year. “One year I had a 2000-pound turtle, and last year I had a really amazing well head.”
“My job is search all year for things that you just can’t buy anywhere else,” he said. “They have to be beautifully designed and have a certain simplicity. Oh, and they have to be old.”