When you make the pilgrimage to Barbara Israel Garden Antiques in upstate New York, come prepared to shed your notions of what an antiques showroom ought to be. Located at Barbara Israel’s 19th century farmhouse home in Katonah, New York, the shop showcases its magnificent collection of fountains, statues, urns, and other architectural garden pieces in the farmhouse’s surrounding formal gardens—if it sounds like a magical experience, it is.
Having gotten her start following the fortuitous purchase of a 40-piece statuary collection, Barbara founded Barbara Israel Garden Antiques in 1985. Thirty years, one book, and hundreds of exquisite objects later, Barbara is considered an elite authority on the subject of garden antiques, including sundials, fencing and wellheads from America, Europe, and Asia. We recently took time with Barbara to hear about her incredible career and learn more about her affinity for garden antiques, which began in her childhood. To learn more, read on.
How long have you been in business?
This is Barbara Israel Garden Antiques’ 33rd year in business. In 1985, I was working for a local auction company and went along one day on an estate cleanout. To my utter amazement I ended up buying 40 garden statues…and then figured I’d better find a way to move and sell them!
What is your chosen area of specialty?
Barbara Israel Garden Antiques specializes in antique garden ornaments from America, Europe, Asia, and beyond. We stock a range of sundials, statues, fountains, urns, wellheads and furniture dating from the 14th to mid 20th Centuries.
What specifically drew you to garden antiques?
I’ve had a fondness for gardens since early childhood, having spent hours sneaking into a nearby hillside garden that was populated with statues of the first twelve Roman emperors and water cascades. I also spent a lot of time playing in my grandmothers’ gardens. I have a love of landscape and sculpture and a deep appreciation for history and material culture. My stumbling onto those 40 statues in 1985 brought these interests together beautifully.
It’s a delight to hear that your passion has roots in your childhood! Who are some of your favorite artists or sculptors?
Among Neoclassical sculptors, it’s hard to beat the lesser-known Edward Sheffield Bartholomew (1822-1858). I am lucky enough to have owned and sold Bartholomew’s impeccable marble figure, Eve Repentant (1855). Replicas of important works by neoclassical sculptors Antonio Canova (1757-1822) and Bertel Thorvaldsen (ca. 1770-1844)—two of my favorites—never fail to find enthusiastic buyers, either. In the world of cast-iron foundries, I have a singular appreciation for J.W. Fiske Iron Works, one of the great New York firms. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing J.W. Fiske’s great-grand nephew, Joe Fiske, for many years. I also have a particular fondness for the obscure French maker, C.A. Villard, because of the exceptional quality of their casting, and their penchant for quirky design details.
What pieces are you currently sourcing?
We are currently on the hunt for a superb carved-stone fountain, a set of bronze Muses, and a fine pair of sphinxes.
What was your rarest find?
The Eve Repentant may have been the rarest find (among many rare finds!). It had been languishing in a collector’s backyard and was in terrible condition, but I envisioned how beautiful it could be once restored and I bought it on the spot. It was only after doing extensive research that we were able to prove that it was the original Eve, and the one at the Wadsworth Athenaeum had been a later version. We suggested that the Athenaeum change the label on theirs and they did! Another time we found an extremely rare pair of stamped “M.H. Blanchard & Co” urns from 1869, hanging out on a private seller’s porch. Everything else at the house was mediocre at best, so when we stumbled upon these, it was thrilling!
That does sound like sound like a sensational moment! To further highlight how unprecedented the label change on the Wadsworth Athenaeum’s Eve Repentant was, describe your authentication process to us.
In the case of Eve Repentant, we doggedly followed a trail of letters and old sales records — revealing that we, in fact, owned the original. Most of our research materials, which are vast at this point, result from my having written the book Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste, Abrams, New York, 1999 (available through Barbara Israel Garden Antiques). Because of all the background work that went into the book we have information on all sorts of stone makers, composition/cast stone, bronze, cast iron, zinc, wrought iron, terracotta and stoneware. We have oodles of vintage and antique trade catalogs that help us identify pieces as well. In the case of the cast-iron and zinc makers and manufacturers, it’s fairly straightforward to authenticate marked pieces, as we can search our catalogues and lists. It’s harder when pieces aren’t marked, but as with any longtime dealer, that’s when the years of experience come into play.
One tricky factor of the present day is that there are so many reproductions being made in Asia, and some of them are convincing copies of 19th century models. We keep vigilant, up-to-date records as to what’s on the reproduction market so that we aren’t led astray. With stone statues and the like, we look at the quality of the carving and the aesthetic “feel” of the piece to help determine age and authenticity. With cast/composition stone pieces, the best examples date to the mid-to-late 19th century. Some stoneware pieces date as early as the mid-to-late 18th century, with the finest examples having been made by the Coade manufactory in England.
What additional sources of scholarship do you use to assist your research?
Our extensive collection of trade catalogs is our first go-to source. We also frequently turn to old auction catalogs and garden books, placing a special value on those volumes by Edith Wharton and Charles Platt and the like. We also seek out vintage magazine and newspaper articles on garden subjects—the most delightful ones are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the writers weren’t afraid to be opinionated! Additionally, we’ve gleaned a ton of information from 19th century City Directories and Dun Reports, especially when researching cast-iron foundries.
Describe a recent project that you worked on.
We recently had a lot of fun finding ornaments for a historic plantation-turned-residential resort. The designers on the project were incredibly enthusiastic and cared very deeply about finding pieces that were authentic to the Victorian-era setting. They now have a wonderful collection of rare cast-iron urns, benches, and fountains that look right at home on the property. Another project that is ongoing is our working relationship with Untermyer Gardens in Yonkers, NY. The revitalization of this exceptional garden (that had essentially gone to ruin decades ago), is beyond inspiring. The ultimate goal is to restore long-lost or vandalized ornaments, but in the meantime, the discoveries we’re making are fascinating.
Both of those projects sound absolutely dreamy! To turn the perspective inwards a bit more, what’s your holy grail item?
There’s no one holy-grail item, but I am always seeking unusual antique armillary spheres because they are so popular with collectors! I am also always on the hunt for beautifully carved stone ornaments. And every now and then we find a suite of objects, made with sensitivity and whimsy and with a unified design scheme—and THAT feels like the Holy Grail! We once sold the most gorgeous collection of Art Moderne granite ornaments: four benches (each with a different animal frieze), the most delightful sundial and birdbath, and an enormous fountain, all by the same sculptor’s hand. Our only disappointment was that we never uncovered the identity of the artist! And to add one more to the list, stoneware pieces by the Coade Manufactory are rare and beautiful and I’d give an arm and a leg for most of them.
Tell us about the one item that “got away.”
Many items have “gotten away,” but the one that comes to mind is a beautiful carved stone trough that was originally paired with a wall fountain that I own. I’d love to reunite these pieces but so far haven’t managed.
What is your greatest virtue in this business?
The things I’m most proud of are: 1) our standards for accurate research, connoisseurship and scholarship, 2) our commitment to seeking out and stocking the rarest, most beautiful objects, 3) raising awareness about, and at times facilitating the return of, stolen garden ornaments and 4) the personal service we give our clients.
What is next for you and your business?
We are busy exhibiting at four antiques shows per year, expanding our online presence, executing buying trips abroad, and writing our e-newsletter, Focal Points.
How does Chairish uniquely serve you and your clients?
I love the ease of communication between buyer and seller on Chairish, including the way the company steps back to let the dealer develop relationships directly with the collector. I also appreciate being asked for my opinion on what’s working and what isn’t—it makes me feel that I have a stake in how the site develops. Also, the Chairish support team is superb!