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The Challenge and Charm of Old Urns, Chairs and Cherubs

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, January 10, 2008

By their age and rarity, garden antiques add a unique character -- an aura, really -- to the spaces they define. Finding them is fraught with problems, however, and placing them can be just as tricky. But the quest can be a lot of fun and the payoff priceless.

"Anyone can have a boxwood parterre," said William Morrow, a landscape designer based in the District, "but a boxwood parterre with a faux bois planter in the center of it is one of a kind."

The comment rekindled long-dormant memories of visits to the boxwood parterre garden of the late Georgetown doyenne Polly Fritchey. Like its owner, the garden was genteel and welcoming, and the spaces were subdivided into areas of paving and formal shrubbery, most of it choice and slow-growing varieties of boxwood. What set the garden apart, however, was the placement of a series of choice lead urns and lanterns.

Two, in the form of floral baskets, sat on the entrance gateposts. Inside the garden, two Venetian lanterns provided focal points both day and night. On a small, curving patio of herringbone pattern brick, cradled by old boxwood, sat an ornate rococo urn, large enough for a cherub to sit on each side. In height, scale and sheer sculptural beauty, it transformed what was a tranquil space in the city into a magical one.

Classically inspired ornament has its own pitfalls in the New World. A knockoff of Venus de Milo surrounded by stockade fencing and double-shredded hardwood mulch is a risky proposition. Any piece must take its cue from the architecture of the house, said Morrow, which explains why the leadwork in the Georgetown garden worked so well, set as it was against an imposing Victorian abode.

"These types of ornate garden ornaments have to be used very carefully," he said, breaking into a laugh and thinking of instances in which they were not.

Another danger is in displaying more decorative pieces or furniture than a garden room can sustain. Once you get the collecting bug, "there's a major danger of cluttering," said Maggie Judycki, owner of GreenThemes landscape design company in Annandale.

Another vital consideration for the outdoors is scale. A few years ago, I was in Notting Hill, that trendy antiques precinct of London, and saw a teak Arts and Crafts garden table and chair set by noted designer Ambrose Heal. I sprung for it, half on impulse but half on believing that its smallness would be an asset in my petite patio. It must have shrunk on the voyage to Alexandria. It was so undersized (and uncomfortable) that even the cat rejected it. Mr. Heal had a strange notion of human scale, even in the 1920s.

Moral: Don't buy anything (or much) on impulse. What I should have done was get the dimensions, make a mock-up and see whether it would work. But I was in London, and someone else was keen to get it. Or so the sellers said.

The other problem with impulse buying is that you must then try to fashion a context for the piece. It is far better to have a rational garden space and then find a sculpture or bench that will create a focal point than to try designing a landscape around that three-tiered iron fountain you just had to have. This is easier said than done, I should say, because finding the right piece is getting more difficult, and expensive. While garden antiques once were sleepers compared with interior pieces, bargains and steals are rare birds these days.

"They're becoming harder to find, the prices are skyrocketing, some of the stores that used to specialize in antiques are now doing reproductions," said Judycki, who has a sideline in authentic garden antiques, generally considered as dating before World War II.

Barbara Tapp, editor in chief of Art & Antiques magazine, said that fine statuary in marble, bronze, stone and lead fetch high prices today and that 18th-century English lead sculptures have quadrupled in price in the past five years.

The Internet, of course, is a major reason that garden antique bargains are scarce these days: Anyone with a computer can see what a piece might be worth on the international market. "No one is giving away anything anymore," said Sotheby's Elaine Whitmire.

But acquiring antiques on the Internet is full of risks. Art & Antiques correspondent Bobbie Leigh wrote recently that the market is awash in fakes from China and Eastern Europe. Go through an expert if you want to find pieces on the Web, she counsels.

It is useful to know that a lot of stone pieces are not carved but cast from a reconstituted mix of concrete and aggregate. This is not necessarily bad, but the age and quality of reconstituted stone can run the gamut from cheap, seamed concrete (not antique) from a discount garden center to Coade stone, a kiln-fired clay-based mix used for statuary and building ornament and made in England between 1769 and 1833. It is the most precious and expensive stoneware on the market today, Tapp said.

Coade stone is practically as hard as Mount Rushmore, but it is worth noting that a lot of antiques made for mild European climates don't weather well in an American garden, especially if they are already age-worn. Limestone is attacked by acid rain, and marble can crack from winter freezes. Most terra cotta pieces will soon split in a Washington winter.

This has prompted many people to keep garden antiques as conservatory or sunroom pieces or within the home proper. They can look fabulous indoors.

Where to find garden antiques? Pieces come up in sales. Dealers who specialize in outdoor pieces are an obvious starting point, otherwise general antique dealers or antique emporiums can provide fertile ground. Estate sales offer the prospects of some bargains, but expect to invest a lot of your time trying to find something that you like and is usable.

This weekend, the Washington Antiques Show is being staged at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Northwest Washington ( http://www.washingtonantiques.org). This year's show, which opens tomorrow, takes the garden and nature as its theme, and while most of the dealers are not exclusively garden antiques sellers, the theme should encourage them to offer more than the usual number of outdoor pieces in their mix, said Gretchen Bulova, who is curating the show's accompanying exhibition.

She recommends a publication called Maine Antique Digest ( http://www.maineantiquedigest.com) as a source of dealers and sales.

The Finnegan Gallery of Chicago is one dealer at the Washington show that does deal wholly in garden antiques. "It's a limited field," co-owner Kaye Gregg said. For dealers, garden antiques "are difficult, they're not the easiest thing to move around and, particularly in the case of iron, you have to know what you're looking at" to avoid deception. Her antiques, mostly European, vary in price from under $1,000 "into the five-figure range."

One way to find pieces full of character for the garden is to peruse architectural salvage yards or dealers. An old column, iron gate, finial, corbel or decorative sunburst could be just the thing to brighten a dull corner of the garden.

Whether you are buying a rust-patinated iron gate or a pair of carved French urns, observe the cardinal rule of antiques buying: Get your old man to pay for it. No wait, that's not it. "The first thing," Gregg said, "you have to love the piece."

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