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Furniture Provenance HOME STORIES

“The Provenance of Furniture”

Anne Jaeger

Portland Tribune “Home”

“That piece just speaks to me!” Usually that statement refers to art, but some buyers won’t even consider a piece of furniture unless it really speaks to them.” Some of us are drawn to contemporary furniture, the kind of couches, chairs and accoutrements which allow us to create our own stories while living our lives. Then there are the people who prefer antiques, not just for their lasting beauty but because of the history. There’s a certain psychology behind the provenance’ of furniture. “I buy emotionally, I sell emotionally. I want people to bond with their pieces” says Bernadette Breu, a local expert on the psychology of furniture. It’s that simple; it’s not the sale, it is the sentiment. You’d wonder how anyone could make a living just waiting for the right person to find that one right sofa that “speaks to them,” instead of settling on the right sofa for right now. But Bernadette Breu Antique stores were filled with oddities: history lessons, in themselves.  Here you’ll find a table owned in the 1930’s by Hollywood swashbuckler Errol Flynn, a long manly table with what appears to be hand paintings of important historical figures on each end. The kind of table that fits Flynn’s personality to a tee judging by one of his famous quotes; “I am the epitome of 20th century Cosmopolitanism but I should have been born an explorer in the time of Magellan.” Hmmmm, maybe that’s who the painting depicts?  Or I can tell you right where to find a life size paper Mache’ giraffe once used in a Macy’s department store display window in the 1930’s. Not to mention Cecil B. DeMille’s garden fountain. Heck, chances are that fountain had many brushes with greatness, what with DeMille’s penchant for women like Gloria Swanson and such. Anway, you get an idea of the stories this kind of furniture tells, why it sells, why it has its own unique market.

People like Nora Sarkissian; “We don’t buy furniture just because it would fit into a space” says Sarkissian, “it has to speak to us.” Sarkissian and her husband have a condo in the Pearl and travel all over the world looking for exquisite furniture sewn together by one thread; “We (have to) fall in love with our pieces.” The couple recently went scouting for a desk chair and locked eyes on something completely different in Bernadette Breu’s shop. “My husband was immediately drawn to it” she says about a chair befitting a King. This hand carved and crafted wood high backed chair likely has a story unto itself and it’s about to make history again. The $1,500 chair will be completely refinished to show the fine woodworking highlighted with antique gold gilt, a maroon red velvet cushion and fine tassels. Only one person will sit in this chair, the worldwide Pope of the Armenian Orthodox church on his pontifical visit to San Francisco. Sarkissian says “It is a very, very spiritual chair” befitting the “highest respect we can give our Pope” on this rare visit. The hand caned seat is elegant and regal; the hand turned woodwork has height, mass and power. “That’s why we could instantly see the pope sitting there” says Sarkissian. After the pontiff’s state visit the perfected piece will be donated to the church.

That is the connection Bernadette Breu feels for; “I like to play cupid, matching people with possessions.”

Breu has been in the antique business 15 years and sticks to a very personal way of finding her wares. “People are always interested in the story of pieces and always ask where I got it?” That’s why Breu doesn’t shop antique shows or mass estate sales. She wants people to bring the story to her. Like the family from Vancouver, Washington who came in to sell their heirloom treasure, now the Pope’s chair. Breu says people who shop with her want to give their home a history, partly because we move so much and want the security and individuality of older things, not to mention the talking points. Perhaps that’s why some of the strangest synergy happens in her shops. Take for instance, the second hand limbs Breu sells. Now, it seems to me someone shopping for a fake leg wouldn’t be a want, but a down right “need.” Breu says the articificial legs from the Civil War walk out the fastest. So, what would you do with a stump heavy as a tree trunk, made of hollowed out wood, joints of iron and covered in flesh toned calf skin? Why make it into a vase, hanging lamp or umbrella stand of course! That’s exactly what a local artist who fell in love with the legs has done. (That’s a piece with a little “too much” history for some of us, Thank you.)

So when you are considering the provenance of furniture I guess it all gets back to the “trash or treasure” philosophy. Every picture tells a story, but when it comes to furniture you’re either making history or you’re living it. You’re buying conversation pieces that speak to you from the ages.


***Anne Jaeger is a correspondent on the national program “Smart Gardening.” In our region it appears Saturday mornings at 10:30 on Oregon Public Broadcasting. Anne was the host and co-writer for KGW-TV’s award winning garden show “Your NW Garden” Saturday nights at 7:00. Her radio show “Anne Jaeger’s Garden Party” airs on 93.7 fm every Saturday morning from 9-10 am. You can contact Anne through her web site: www.gardengal.tv.