Hunting the Fine, The Rare, The Serviceable

OUR DAYS ARE A MIXTURE OF THE GRAND AND THE GRITTY, THE SUBLIME AND THE RIDICULOUS, THE WONDROUS AND THE WORRISOME. ANY THOUGHTFUL PERSON BEYON D THE AGE OF PUBERTY CAN THINK OF A HUNDRED OPPOSITES THAT MERGE INTO THE COMPOSITE WE CALL LIFE. THE VIEW ANY ONE PERSON HAS IS BUT THROUGH A PEEPHOLE, A TINY VIEW ON TO A VASTNESS. EXPANDING THE WIDTH OF THAT PEEPHOLE IS THE CONSTANT CHALLENGE, AND AN ENDURING JOY.
I wish Jonathan was still around and that I knew him. We could share some wine and cheese and a thousand stories. I would invite him to go along on my next buying trip, for that is when seeing all that is there is so very important —not just  what is apparent, but all that there is.
Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.Jonathan Swift

On the good side, there is beauty buried under swipes of paint or long forgotten in cobwebby attics. Dangers abound as well—hidden damage caused by subsidence, water or other erosions that even the best restoration artist cannot fix. The skill of discovery and the quality of discernment are the two most important aspects of this business.

THE TRUTH IS THAT ALL THE EASY FINDS HAVE BEEN FOUND. GREAT DISCOVERIES AWAIT, OF COURSE, BUT THEY WILL BE UNCOVERED BY EXPERTS WILLING TO WORK HARDER THAN IN THE PAST.

The truth is that all the easy finds have been found. Great discoveries await, of course, but they will be uncovered by experts willing to work harder than in the past. More time, more travel, more research, more scouring. These experts also must be able to see beyond the mistakes people have made and how to correct those mistakes, some of which are truly horrendous but still fixable. This is the real salvaging part of my business and I love that.

It can be a huge amount of work. Depending on the nature of the problem—layers of paint that should never have been there, a horrid amount of encrusted soot, a missing nose or lion’s paw, holes poked through to accommodate haphazard modernization—correcting the mistakes sometimes requires a team of six or eight restoration experts, each a specialist in some aspect of cleaning and  mending.

A typical example is the wonderful Renaissance fireplace I found in Marne. The building, abandoned decades before, was serving only as a great place for the neighborhood kids to sneak in and hang. The French Revolution and the growth of the middle class were tough on royalty: the structure of the work market changed, multiplying many times the cost of maintaining a staff to clean and repair les grands châteaux. The turmoil of cultural adjustment threw a tremendous number of finely crafted buildings into abandonment. As the transition finishes, these abandoned buildings become rare.

The building in which this fireplace was found was a pavillon de chasse (smaller house near a château used as a hunting lodge). The roof had fallen; the stairs were giving way under our feet.  Yet the once-elegant fireplace stood tall and cossue (opulent) in beautiful white Savonnière limestone, covered by years of oil lamp soot and neglect. Careful inspection showed that she was still sound, worthy, and in need of rescue. A team of five strong men worked meticulously over two days to disassemble it, stone by stone, securing it to pallets for the move to the restoration warehouse.

There, other experts went to work. Out came the brushes, soap and water. No harsh chemicals. The secret is elbow grease and perseverance, centimètre by centimètre, for as many days as it takes. This one had little damage—no missing ornamentation, all stones in good shape.  When there is damage, a sculpteur sur pierre (expert stone carver) is called in.

Once cleaned and repaired, the stones are carefully palleted for transport, in this case across an ocean and a continent, to our store in St. Helena, California, where she stands ready for her next habitation.