In the Trade
What do you do if you want to be a show dealer, but the shows at which you exhibit keep dying out from under you? That’s the question that Cyd and John Emmons, who operate their business, Gardenalia, from their home in Falls Village, Connecticut, are pondering these days. And they haven’t quite come up with an answer yet.
The Emmonses sell reasonably priced garden antiques, so they don’t expect that every antiques show is going to suit their inventory. Nevertheless, it has to be frustrating when about half of the 15 or so venues you’ve shown at during the last decade and a half have simply expired.
Cyd and John Emmons.
The structure in the foreground is the Emmonses’ potting shed. The barn behind it is their studio. The house, on the left, was only an open post-and-beam frame when they bought the property in the early 1980s.
Shows they liked and sold well at—Hildene, Gaglio’s Salisbury, Chatham Shaker, Dorset, Guilford, the Gramercy Garden Show at the 26th Regiment Armory in Manhattan, and Blithewold in Rhode Island—have bitten the dust. Others are still going concerns, but, given the current market, they just don’t work for Gardenalia’s stuff. The Emmonses, for instance, used to do the prestigious New York Botanical Garden show, but, Cyd said, “It just became too expensive.”
The result is that the couple is now down to a single venue—Trade Secrets, the show of garden-oriented antiques and plants that takes place each May in northwestern Connecticut.
“We’ve done it from the beginning, when it was at Bunny Williams’s house,” Cyd said. “It was very small in the beginning, but it just grows and grows.” These days the event is held at LionRock Farm in Sharon, Connecticut, and features about 65 exhibitors. (The event, which raises funds for Women’s Support Services, has certainly discovered an interesting niche. While other shows fade, this one, ending at 3 p.m., charges $125 for early buying at 8 a.m., $50 for regular buying at 10 a.m., and $25 for the last two hours of the show. And there’s a tour of area gardens the next day that costs $75 and sells out.)
Cyd and John confine their inventory mostly to pieces produced from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. And it turns out that one of the problems with selling antiques and vintage garden items these days is that nobody cares how old they are.
The slate sundial, dated 1841, is mounted on a granite pedestal from the early 20th century. The sundial is from Scotland. It’s incised with the name John McMaster McHare and is calibrated for 55° latitude (it doesn’t say whether it’s north or south latitude, but 55° N is just about where Glasgow is). The gnomon—the pointy thing that casts the shadow—is brass. The price is $2500 for the sundial and pedestal.
“It’s a decor market,” John said. Cyd expanded on that thought: “We found a dealer in England who turned out to be a good source. He had real stuff at a fair price. The fact that stuff was from England and old, we thought that would be a plus. It wasn’t. Clients didn’t care. We had a pair of greyhounds [garden statues] that had belonged to Sir John Gielgud. People liked that John Gielgud had owned them, but nobody cared that they were old.”
John pointed to an undeniable reality of the market: “The loss of the shows has been hard, but basically it’s the loss of the buyers. People our age have their stuff, and younger people don’t want it.”
Cyd cited the former Guilford show as an example: “Lots of people came to support the historical society, but they weren’t coming to buy.”
She added that Trade Secrets has been the exception. “We really do have younger buyers there.” And buyers come from a distance. She recalled three women who came from Texas. “They had gone to Brimfield and were mightily disappointed. Usually I don’t like it when women are in groups. If one likes something, another tries to dissuade her. But these women were gung-ho.”
This cement hoop basket is French, circa 1930, and $1750; the stone-dust Modernist urns are $295 the pair.
The large Mediterranean olive oil jar with metal stand is $1750. The cast stone mushroom colony on the right is from England and is $450. The larger brown sandstone trough to the left is $245. “It’s nineteenth century at least but could be earlier,” Cyd said. The smaller trough in the foreground is granite and relatively new. It’s $125. The dark cylindrical object on the far left is a foundry crucible, $125, from Florentine Craftsmen, a venerable maker of garden furniture and decorations.
The Emmonses say they miss the camaraderie that shows generate. “What we liked about it was the stories,” John said, to which Cyd added, “What I really miss are the other dealers. It’s the characters. Most people who become antiques dealers don’t follow some conventional pattern.”
But you can’t make a living on camaraderie alone, so, for the moment, the couple is selling by appointment from their home, which is on the road to the site of the respected Music Mountain concert series. And they don’t yet see an obvious path to the future. John said, “I don’t want to spend my time sitting in a shop or selling online.”
They have a website, but the person who had handled it for them died. Cyd said, “We get calls from the website, but it’s just sort of sitting there saying, ‘We’re here.’” And, while he acknowledged that there are now many relatively easy ways to handle one’s own website, John isn’t eager to take the project on. He said, “There’s sort of an inertia. Do we do it or not? We’re stuck in 2013.”
Adding to their dilemma is the fact that they are not all that interested in other types of antiques. They’ve sold some French Jaspé pottery, and John collects Marblehead pottery, but, Cyd said, “If there were not garden antiques, we wouldn’t be in the antiques business.” That’s what they love, and that’s what they want to sell.
These mostly lead miniature garden pieces were made by the same company that made the famous Britains toy soldiers. John said that after World War I, demand for the soldiers dropped off (for lamentably obvious reasons), so the manufacturer started making zoo, garden, circus, and farm scenes. “There are hundreds of different pieces,” he said. The Emmonses sell the pieces individually. Flowers start at about $8; the greenhouse with cold frame would be in the range of $500 to $600. The entire ensemble pictured here “could be over a thousand dollars,” John estimated.
The couple started their business in 2001 and feel that they just missed the golden age of the antiques trade, that they got into the game late. It would be hard to say they’re wrong. “We got in on the end of all that,” John said.
At one time, for example, they thought of moving to Hudson, New York. “I thought I could live there,” John said. If they had, they might have caught the antiques wave earlier, although it appears that Cyd was less enamored of the town. “I’m from the Midwest,” she said. “And when my parents would visit, they’d come by train, and we’d go over to Hudson to pick them up. And in those days [before the city’s renaissance], you’d lock your car doors as you came into town and wouldn’t unlock them until you got out of town.”
John called this a “major domestic frog,” used for holding flower arrangements in vases. This one, he said, was created by a woman named Ernestine Pole, who ran a florist shop at the Homestead Inn in Hot Springs, Virginia. “The shop is still there,” he said. “She came up with these in the early 1930s. This is one of the larger ones. It was patented in 1932.” John is an enthusiastic collector of florist frogs. He said the question of why they are called “frogs” is “a hot topic among collectors.” This one costs $350.
(Interestingly, Hudson—as a center of the antiques trade—shares a similar trajectory to what the Emmonses have seen. It peaked in the late 1990s and has been easing back pretty much ever since. At its zenith, the Hudson Antiques Dealers Association [HADA] had in the neighborhood of 70 members, almost all of them dealers. Today, HADA lists 35 members on its website, and not all of them are antiques dealers. The list includes “lifestyle” shops, boutiques, galleries, and food places.)
Luckily for Cyd and John, they don’t rely on garden antiques for the bulk of their income. They run a public relations firm, Cyd Emmons Associates, from their home. Cyd does the writing and schmoozing with clients. John does photography and design. Their client roster includes banks, hospitals, and retirement homes. Most are local.
Before they went out on their own, the couple had worked at the nearby Lakeville Journal newspaper. “I did the arts and lifestyle sections,” Cyd said. “I ran the darkroom and the camera room,” John said.
They decided their combined talents lent themselves to public relations, and, Cyd said, “I went to a local bank and told them they were doing PR but they weren’t doing it very well.” She got the gig, and they were in business. “Nobody here was doing the same thing. We had it pretty much to ourselves. And we’re always interested in hustling for jobs,” John said.
The mushroom garden seat is $425. “It’s a one-off,” John said. “There was a lot of handwork that went into making it. The bottom is from when somebody put it in a bucket of concrete to stabilize it, but that all goes below the surface.” The cast-iron urn is signed by J.L. Mott and bears a Water Street (New York City) address that dates it to between 1865 and 1869. It’s $175.
French faux bois flower box, $650. “It has to be brought in during the winter,” Cyd said, noting that she refused to sell it to someone who was going to leave it outside a summer house in Maine year-round. Freezing and thawing can destroy it.
Some of their earliest clients were local antiques dealers who turned to John for photographic work. “Don and Gloria Buckley [of Buckley and Buckley Antiques in Salisbury] were my first clients,” John said. “I did his developing.”
Other Salisbury dealers—the Corbins of Three Ravens Antiques and dealer and show promoter Russell Carrell—followed as clients. “I had a little stable of local dealers,” John said.
The involvement with these well-known and well-established dealers led the Emmonses to believe that antiques might be a nice way to add to their income. “We thought that antiques could be a client,” Cyd said.
Their backgrounds imbued them with an interest in the past. “We grew up being taught to appreciate old things,” Cyd said. “My great-grandfather was in the Civil War, and I grew up with his cape and hat and with my great-grandmother’s little bonnets.” In addition, she said, “My grandmother was just mad for family history and family things.”
And John noted, “My mother was the caretaker of the family’s things.”
Cyd said she learned something about John when they got into the antiques business that she hadn’t seen during all the previous years of their relationship. “There was a time,” she said, “when he would not part with five dollars, and then, when we went to auctions, he’d put up his hand and never take it down.”
Smaller frogs of various creatures. They are priced at between $125 and $350. For instance, John said, the crab in the upper left would be in the $145 to $195 range.
Japanese hollow metal frog of two koi. At 9½", John said, it’s “super large.” He has priced it at $395, and he said, “I’ve sold these for more, but this is a discounted era.”
John grew up in Meriden, Connecticut, and met Cyd when they were both students at Monmouth College in Illinois. Cyd was raised in Galesburg, Illinois, whose main claim to fame, she said, is that Carl Sandburg was born there. And “there are a lot of railroad tracks.”
One thing that Cyd knew about Galesburg was that she wanted to leave it. “I knew early on that I wouldn’t stay there,” she said. “Because of television, I got the idea that there were interesting things happening on the West Coast and the East Coast. John was from Connecticut; that was enough.”
This is a little 12-hole cast-iron lawn game (surrounded by frogs) from the 1920s or ’30s. You put the flag in the middle of your lawn and then spread out the numerals from which you putt toward the flag. It’s $295 and, Cyd said, “It’s one of those English things we like.”
“That was all I had to do—was be from Connecticut,” John agreed. However, Cyd said, it didn’t hurt that he “had gorgeous long curls.”
The couple moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where Cyd earned her master’s degree in theater at the University of Iowa. Then the couple set off for the East Coast, specifically to Boston. “We thought we’d take it by storm,” John said. Instead, Cyd said, “We were wretchedly poor. We lived in a building across from the Trailways bus station. I worked at Filene’s.”
Not that there was any need to feel particularly sorry for them. Cyd said, “We were young; we were vegetarian and walked everywhere.” Also, she noted, this was before Boston became the expensive, gentrified city it is today. “It was pleasantly down at the heels,” she said.
They had a downstairs neighbor with a connection to the prestigious Groton prep school who changed their lives. Cyd explained: “She introduced us to the world of independent schools. We discovered the private school thing. We found out that you could make a living without having the credentials required in public schools.”
Their first stop was at the Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut. “It was wonderful,” Cyd said. “It was a beautiful place, and they housed us and fed us and gave us money.”
“Cyd taught theater, and I worked in development,” John said.
They moved on to other private schools, and John took up photography after studying at the innovative Doscher Country School of Photography in Vermont. “But nothing lasts forever,” John said as a way to explain how they ultimately came to sell antiques and do public relations in Falls Village.
This diminutive garden set is $1250. Cyd said, “It apparently came from a children’s park in the Netherlands. Then it went to Belgium and England and then to here.” The black-painted gate weights on the table are $225 each. One is in the form of an acorn; the other appears to be a bottle. The weights are period; the chains are relatively old, and the clips to hold them are recent.
It appears certain that they will remain in the public relations business for the foreseeable future, but what about the antiques business?
“We’re stubborn,” Cyd said. “We’re still buying. Every weekend the hunt is still going on.”
For more information, contact Cyd and John Emmons, Gardenalia, 151 Music Mountain Road, Falls Village, CT 06031, (860) 824-0020, by appointment. Website (www.gardenalia-antiques.com).
Originally published in the July 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest