In the Trade
Mark Thormahlen used to work for the venerable English antique furniture firm Stair & Company on Madison Avenue in New York City (not to be confused with Stair Galleries, Hudson, New York, an auction house), and it shows. His Yellow Church Antiques—housed in a 19th-century church on U.S. Route 44 outside Millbrook, New York—is filled with the sort of formal, high-end English and Continental pieces that you don’t often see these days but which used to be the stock in trade of dealers who had tony shops and who exhibited at such premier venues as the Winter Antiques Show (where Stair & Company did, indeed, exhibit).
Yellow Church Antiques. It used to have a steeple, but a hurricane blew it off in 1955, according to Thormahlen.
Overall view of the shop’s interior.
The church interior has a rare and wonderful tin ceiling that retains an early painted earth tone surface. It’s worth a visit just for that.
Everything is polished and ready to go into your elegant home, assuming, that is, that you’re not furnishing it in mid-century modern. Thormahlen said that about half his business is with decorators who continue to design traditional rooms. “A lot of my decorators are old clients” from his time at Stair. The other half of his business is, as he put it, “walk-ins.”
This area of Dutchess County is the center of New York’s horse country. It’s filled with plenty of prosperous gentry and second-home owners. It’s a relatively short ride up the Taconic Parkway from New York City, just north of the city’s outer suburbs.
People do things here that you won’t find them doing in your average country town. It’s the site of the Millbrook Horse Trials, an equestrian event that attracts Olympic-level competition. The fox hunting Millbrook Hunt has been around for more than a century. The Sandanona Shooting Grounds, owned by outdoor firm Orvis, offers clay shooting and fly fishing and claims to be the “oldest permitted shotgun shooting club in the country,” with its main lodge dating to the administration of Thomas Jefferson. So the description of a “walk-in” around here doesn’t carry the same pejorative implication that it might elsewhere.
Despite the elevated tone of his inventory, Thormahlen operates Yellow Church as an old-fashioned roadside antiques shop. “I’m open year-round,” he said. “I’ve been here seventeen years. If I can get here, I’m open.” And he usually can get to the shop, since it’s only about five minutes from his home.
He said the traffic that passes his door offers lots of potential customers. “Everybody who comes up from the city or from New Jersey to see their kid at Hotchkiss [a prep school not far over the New York state line in Lakeville, Connecticut] has to come by my shop.”
One of the more unusual desks you’re ever going to run across, this is late 18th-century English. It’s oval and the entire back of the cupboard space (center photo) is covered by a satinwood dome. Thormahlen said that a similar but less fancy example is pictured in volume three of the classic Dictionary of English Furniture by Ralph Edwards (sort of the “Nutting” of English furniture). “I like to have things you don’t see very often. Sometimes that’s been my downfall,” Thormahlen added, acknowledging what many another dealer has discovered—rarity can work against a piece, since many buyers are leery of things they haven’t seen before. Be that as it may, Thormahlen priced the desk at $60,000.
This triple-back ebonized Italian settee from the late 18th or early 19th century with gilt decoration has its seats and backs covered in carefully restored red leather with gold chinoiserie decoration. It’s $18,500.
Mid-18th-century gilded French looking glass, $7500. Thormahlen said it is pictured in World Mirrors, 1650-1900 by Graham Child.
We’ve all heard talk about the depressed market for “brown furniture,” but Thormahlen said that he hasn’t seen a great change in his end of the business over the past 20 or so years. “It’s cyclical. It’s quiet and then it’s back up and then it’s quiet and then it’s back up. We had the same cycle at Stair and Company.” Stair closed its doors in 1999, well before the widespread aversion for formal furniture reared its head.
Business, of course, tends to slow down in winter, but as Thormahlen said, he usually has some decorating projects on the side that keep things active. “I’ve been really busy with a couple of them [decorating jobs] this year.”
Yellow Church had been on 1stdibs—that prime site for reaching decorators—but it isn’t any longer. Thormahlen’s frustrations with changes in management, revised fee structures, and the inauguration of tighter controls over dealer-client contacts eventually pushed him to leave. The breaking point came for him when management began to funnel all contacts between dealers on the site and inquiring customers through the central 1stdibs phone number, rather than posting dealers’ own contact information. That those calls were monitored was the last straw. “I left in early winter,” he said.
Being unencumbered by 1stdibs strictures allows him to strike better deals with his decorator clients. He said, “I can give Bunny Williams twenty percent. With 1stdibs “taking thirteen percent, I can give her only seven percent.”
But Thormahlen hasn’t abandoned web commerce entirely. He has signed up with Art-Design-Carta, a website to the trade only, launched late last year by 1stdibs founder Michael Bruno. Thormahlen is enthusiastic about Bruno’s promises to promote direct contact between dealers and designers, rather than acting as an intrusive third party running all purchases through itself.
An unusual—and colorful—“aesthetic” desk in the Orientalist taste from the late 19th century is $8500. It’s ebonized with gold, red, blue, white, and yellow decoration. Thormahlen thinks it might be American.
The Regency rosewood drum table is $24,000. The footbath on it is late 19th-century English and $2000. Flanking the footbath (but hard to see in this photo) is a pair of Regency ram’s-head cornucopia vases in delicate blue glass. “Usually you see them in clear or yellow, not in blue,” Thormahlen said. They are priced at $1500 for the pair.
In published reports, Bruno has acknowledged that the 1stdibs model he created played a major part in the drastic decline of foot traffic in shops across the world as decorators turned to browsing their computers rather than slogging around to shops. Bruno also has said that all purchases that result from the new site will take place between dealer and decorator alone and that his new site will not be taking additional fees when pieces are sold.
It should be pointed out that Thormahlen is hardly the first dealer we’ve interviewed who has expressed unhappiness with 1stdibs after assorted hedge funds injected tens of millions of dollars into the business and after Bruno sold off the majority of his stock. Bruno launched Art-Design-Carta shortly after his reported five-year non-compete agreement expired.
Thormahlen also has a website of his own, but when we visited, he admitted he doesn’t tend it assiduously. “Most of the items on it are sold.”
Thormahlen doesn’t do shows. He used to exhibit at the relatively nearby Washington, Connecticut, show that benefits the Gunn Memorial Library and Museum, but he gave it up about five years ago. It wasn’t because he didn’t like it. “I loved that. It was a sweet show, and the people were lovely.” But doing any show is a chore when you also are running a full-time shop.
Yet he still gets asked. “People still contact me to do shows like Palm Beach, Newport, or Baltimore.” He’s not tempted but also added, “I’d never say ‘never.’”
Of course, he participated in the Winter Antiques Show in New York City when he was on the staff of Stair, but then, as he said, “At Stair we had a million people. Now it’s just me and a truck.”
This is an aquatic scene from a roll of de Gournay paper. The London firm is known for its high-end hand-painted wallpapers. Thormahlen has three rolls, each 36" wide, at $18,000 for the three. He said they date from about 1970 and added, “One lady asked if I would cut it so she could just buy the ducks.” He didn’t.
A really nice rosewood Gothic Revival English bookcase, circa 1835, is $17,500.
A pair of large George II gilt looking glasses (one shown) from the mid-18th century is $58,000 the pair. The tall ladder, reflected in the glass, is original to the church. It was used to climb to the belfry.
Thormahlen grew up in West Texas and graduated from the University of Texas. His parents were not collectors. Nevertheless, he said, “I was always interested in art and decorative arts.” After graduating, he enrolled in Sotheby’s educational studies program and spent two years in England from 1987 to 1989. “At Sotheby’s in London I originally planned to study pictures. But I had a wonderful tutor, Megan Aldrich. She was head of furniture and decorative arts, and she taught me how to look at objects.” After finishing the program in London, Thormahlen moved to New York City in 1989 and worked at Stair until the firm closed a decade later.
Thormahlen wasn’t at loose ends for long. Like many Manhattanites—he lived on East 69th Street—he went upstate on weekends. “I needed a weekend house,” he said. A friend told him that the church on Route 44 was available. “I drove by; it was vacant; there was a sign in the window.” He opened the shop in April 2000. The former Presbyterian church has been an antiques shop almost continuously since the 1920s, when antique glass collector Arthur de Garis bought it and started selling out of it. Of his own tenure, Thormahlen said, “For the first couple of years I was only open on weekends. I’d drive back to my apartment on Sunday evening and drive back on Friday morning.”
Thormahlen’s tenure at Stair gave him a leg up when it came to acquiring inventory—and it still does. “I get a lot of my inventory from old clients. Their kids come in and pick out one or two things, and then there’s a houseful of things left.”
Thormahlen doesn’t envision any substantial change in his business. He doesn’t feel like an anachronism in the current antiques world, and he clearly likes being a shopkeeper. “It’s my shop. I’ve been here seventeen years. Come and see me,” he said.
Originally published in the October 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest