Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Antiquarian's Antiquarian • A Lovely Spring Visit With Robert E. Smith of Au Vieux Paris Antiques

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A 10 minute jaunt from my home exists a paradise undiscovered by many, yet treasured by the legions fortunate to have stumbled upon it. Although stumbled upon may not be the appropriate term; this idyllic gem and antique lover's dream has not a sign in front, nor a flashing marquis, ne'er a tattered flag exclaiming "ANTIQUES." Quite simply, that is not Robert E. Smith's style, and he likes it that way. 

A windy two lane road either coming into, or leaving Breaux Bridge, La––depending which direction you are driving--is filled with offshoots of small gravel roads, simple rural architecture, a bit of industrial and, of course, a "Vegas Style Casino" for good measure. (every rural two lane road has one, right?)

But this gravel road is different. It's special. It's home to Au Vieux Paris Antiques, one of the most carefully selected inventories of 17th, 18th and 19th century French antiques found anywhere. And it's here, in the middle of, well, nowhere. Close enough to the darling town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, yet certainly not considered 'in the city.' Take a walk with me, sweet readers, to this, the true South Louisiana that I love with all of my heart and am so excited to share with you. As I always say, I do hope you can visit once in your lifetime. It's truly a majestic (and magical!) area of the USA.



What lurks around the corner? 


   Hundreds year old live oaks with Spanish Moss pepper the property and greet you on the way in.

The structure featured here is called a pigeonnier {pronounced: Pee-jawn-air}. Original pigeonniers are extremely rare to find these days, but used to be a fixture on many plantations and smaller homes. The structures served as nesting areas for doves and pigeons; they are (or were) typically two levels, the top for nesting birds and the bottom for (!!!) dung. Yes, dung which makes for a wonderful plant fertilizer. I think that in other areas they are called dovecotes––but in France and Louisiana, they are known as pigeonniere's. 



As if the oaks weren't breathtaking enough; a perfectly manicured formal french garden envelops the front lawn, outfitted with a symmetrical arrangement of Anduze pots (or Vase Anduze as Robert educated me today) and a striking bronze obelisk sculpture to balance it all.  Spring is starting to bloom in Louisiana, but the crepe myrtles come much later. I can only imagine how decadent this space must be with the crepe myrtles exploding in color––surely just gorgeous.



Roses are coming in nicely.


And the main house, the Henri Penne house, an early 19th century Acadian style cottage that Robert restored himself over many years. He moved it to this site from its original provenance.



In speaking with Robert today, I learned so much more about this fascinating man. He is educated with a degree in architecture and for many years he completed major restoration and preservation projects for many historic Louisiana structures while also procuring antiques for himself, clients and jobs he worked on. 





Robert told of a time in architecture school when his professors––lovers of Bauhaus, International Style and more minimalistic approaches––scoffed at anything with a nod to the past. But Robert's love and obsession with all things old gave him the fuel he and his pal needed to sneak in at night and redesign the university architecture studio complete with chandeliers, Rococo art frames and, to his best recollection, "a candelabra or two––all very over the top." The next day, they waltzed in as if nothing had changed only to be met by sheer disgust from their peers and professors who swore they "brought in the tools of the devil" 
{Personally, I think the devil has fine taste if he/she fancies chandies and candelabras, don't you?}


A phenomenal commode from the early 1700s. In person, the patina is truly, truly extraordinary. Do the math––that is 300 years old, folks. 



Robert's inventory is as broad as the range of years he provides for. These candlesticks range, left to right, from Louis XIV through Regency, Directoire, and up to Charles X. 

 This flame mahogany daybed has original ormolu mounts with detailing so fine that the metalsmith would have used a tip much like a stippling brush to achieve the minute details. 




Robert has amassed a fairly exhaustive inventory of true Louis XIII furnishings––a rarity in this day due to the age.  


In almost every armoire, there is a treasure trove of either antique linens, china or silver. 


 Gorgeous drapery tie-backs. He has quite a collection going - about 6,000 pieces of drapery accouterments from what he told me. Unbelievable!




Stacks and stacks of beautiful antique french linens.

 A chandy that Robert referred to as 'humorous'––which I found a humorous observation, myself. 


 The neoclassical detail on these candelabras made my heart leap! And the chair as well. 



 I asked Robert about how he began to collect and where. He gently explained to me, in his very delicate way, that he began by saving every dime he had when he was younger, while on a strict budget from his income working at the local Natural History Museum. He competed with people of much more substantial means for the finds he so desired. With diligence, he bought only the best, the real and the rare. For him at the time, that meant true Louisiana antiques––extremely valuable castaways found in old barns, rural houses and with not a glimmer of their former beauty shining through. 



Adopting this approach has served him well, and he quickly reiterated to me something that I often say myself: "Good gets better; mediocre stays just that." Robert and I are of a similar mindset; we both will patiently wait to acquire an exquisite piece and happily stare at an empty room until the time comes {which explains why there are not too many blog posts about my house yet ;)} **I'll freely admit that from time to time I'm seduced by the cheap––inevitably, a few years later, I regret it. 


 In the summer of 1981, Robert traveled to France for six weeks. Familiarizing himself with the plethora of antique shops France had to offer, he began to acquire pieces to bring home. He repeated the voyage in 1983 and by 1985 had officially hung his shingle and Au Vieux Paris Antiques was open for business. 



 Over the years, Robert has been able to position himself six months out of the year in France and six months in the states. Imagine the handpicking he's able to do while there for that long! I'd think I had died and gone to heaven. 


Robert mentioned to me that the oldest pieces that he carries are from the time period of around c.1680 and the 'newest' are from around c.1835. The majority are 18th century French antiques. 

The structure below was also moved onto the property from another location and is what we know as a traditional Creole cottage. However,  Robert pointed out to me that at the time this home was 
built (c.1831) the details employed made it very unusual since many of the nuances were a throwback from what he considers to be c.1800 architectural aesthetics. 

All three homes on the property are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as they are such prime examples of classic Louisiana architecture. 



 I am continually impressed with the breadth of merchandise that Robert carries. He has everything from boiseries to art and architectural elements, down to the fine details like drapery rings. And all from so many differing time periods! It's such a treat for me to spend a few hours here and I feel honored to be in the presence of so much history, knowledge and beauty. This was the escape I needed on a ho-hum Tuesday, indeed. 



The man himself. THE Robert E. Smith. Antiquaire, historian, preservationist. 


If you are interested in perusing Robert's website, go here


I hope one day you can experience Au Vieux Paris, as it is truly a treasure. Robert is a fine gentleman and wonderful host, not to mention an extraordinary conversationalist. His diction and calm manner of speaking left me wanting to stay for hours more just to hear what he had to say. I walked in "thinking" I possessed a fairly vast knowledge of antiques, and left realizing that I have merely scratched the surface. Robert taught me quite a bit yesterday and now I am enthralled with finding out more and more of the details that make a piece such a rare and unique find. 

xoxo,

Andrea








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8 comments:

celeste.white said...

How did I not know this man existed mere miles from my home! How lovely! I may have to schedule a visit soon (if only to pretend I can buy every bit I love!).

Kelle Dame said...

Wow! This sounds like an adventure that my husband and I must make!! We live for meeting and experiencing such rare and beautiful beings. He would surely have to kick us out!
Thank you so much for sharing! I have another dream to make happen!
Glad to see you're back!
Kelle
xx

Ellen Kennon said...

Great post! I haven't seen Robert Smith since the eighties and he still looks the same! I'll definitely have to make a trip! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

What a spectacular post! You certainly captured Mr. Smith's love & passion for antiques. His wonderful smile says it all!
I dream of myself strolling along the beautiful grounds and a deep desire to become "lost" in his store for days!

All The Trappings said...

Wow!!! I am so glad that y'all enjoyed this post as much as I did writing it for you :) Everything at Robert's place is top-notch and not a detail out of place. I truly enjoy spending my time there.

Thanks for all of the support, y'all--it means the world to me :)

xoxo,
Andrea

E. Lee said...

Andrea!

Fab post madame! What a treasure this gent is. This exemplifies that the best really is worth the wait;)
This is going into my mental folder that I like to call "The Next House"!

decorative deluxe said...

So pretty I must go check Robert out - WOW!

Cote de Texas said...

one day we are going to go there together and then we are going to go....you know where - we googled it one day!!!! hehe.

this was a great article - one of your best eva!
from your fat friend.