When one thinks of the consummate antique dealer, the image conjured up is that of someone buried in the bowels of dust-filled basements, hoping to discover untold treasures beneath the grime. The last thing one would imagine is an aficionado of the great outdoors, specifically the golf courses of the world, but antiques and golf – these are the joint passions of Chantal O’Sullivan.
Owner of two highly respected antique showrooms – one on Francis Street, Dublin’s antique quarter; and one on 10th Street, New York, the antique epicentre of the States – Chantal is an expert on 18th and 19th-Century Irish and British furniture, yet she’s also a mean golfer and has played with the likes of Bill Clinton.
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As it happens, she got her love of antiques from her mother and her passion for golf from her father, and for a while in her late teens and early 20s, of the two, it was the outdoor life that really attracted her.
“My dad was a great golfer. There are five of us, and we all played. I played interprovincially while I was at High School in Rathgar,” the Dublin native explains, adding, “After school, I went to Australia to find myself, and I loved it. The outdoor life there is great. I stayed for two years, this was 1979/1980, and I nearly thought of staying there, but I came home to see what Ireland had become like, and I never went back.”
This is where Chantal’s antique-loving mother came in. “My mother sent me down to help an antique-dealer friend of hers who had opened a business. I got bitten by the bug. I worked for him for eight years, and then opened on my own,” Chantal reminisces.
She says that she had been surrounded by antiques even before then. “My mother was a hoot. She was very witty and very glamorous, and used to wear turbans like Elizabeth Taylor. She had poor health, but when she was on form, she’d go to auctions and buy up the place. There would be at least 10 dining tables in the garage, and she used to say, ‘When your father comes home, don’t tell him the dining table is different’,” Chantal says with a laugh.
Chantal says she was attracted by three things in the antiques business – the antiques themselves, doing the deals, and meeting people, but being in business on her own wasn’t all plain sailing. “You learn it by making mistakes. For example, in the early days I bought a table that I thought was 1820, but it turned out to be 1960. It was made to look old. When I was looking at it, I could see that the metalwork had unified scratches on it. I should have twigged it then, but I didn’t. But I didn’t make that mistake again,” she says.
One reason why it’s not an easy business is there are a few charlatans in it, but Chantal has developed her own sure-fire way of doing things. “I go completely on instinct,” she says. “If anything puts me off, even though I’m not aware of what it is, I won’t buy it,” she says,
She says she has had some great mentors along the way, name-checking three well-known dealers back in the day – the three Orken Brothers of Mill Street, Dublin 8. “They always each got a new Crombie coat at Christmas. Their famous customer was Tommy Steele, the singer. They always had the Irish whiskey out for him,” she explains with a laugh. Over the years Chantal herself has had many famous clients, but she’s far too discreet to name them.
Through these and other mentors, her own studies, and through personal experience, Chantal has learned everything there is to know about her speciality. She gets her stock mainly from private houses in England and Ireland, and she also has some handpicked experts who buy for her.
“I also have people who would have bought from me in the 1980s and 1990s who are now downsizing and their kids are selling the stuff back me,” she says with a laugh. “You could say antiques are very green, they’re being recycled all the time. I like that idea.” She adds that lots of young homemakers are also coming to her, as they want something special. “Brown furniture, as some call it, was out of fashion for a while, but it’s coming back,” she notes with satisfaction.
Chantal opened her first shop in the late 1980s and increased its size several times; she now has three adjoining buildings in Francis Street, and is known by some as the queen of the street. In the meantime, she also opened in New York, and this year she is celebrating the 25th anniversary of her shop there.
“The Americans used to fly to London a lot and I thought, ‘Why not bring my stuff to America and save them the plane ticket?'” the genial entrepreneur, who is called Chanty by friends, says with a laugh. “When I opened first, I did a lot of pr; I spoke a lot about antiques, making people aware I was there.”
She also made sure to have a shopfront in the right place. “I’m in the West Village on 10th Street, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Tenth Street is the place to have your antique shop,” she says proudly.
She’s had her challenges over the years in the New York shop, including 9/11 when they were closed for six weeks, and Hurricane Sandy was another worrying time. “We were having a big exhibition of Irish silver. The exhibition opened on a Thursday, Hurricane Sandy started on the Friday. We’d no electricity, the alarm couldn’t work, and we had promoted the exhibition hugely. I had to have a police car going round and round all weekend,” she recalls.
Happily, New York was where she also had one of her biggest business coups. “There was a fire insurance sale in New York and one of the things listed was an ‘Irish table’ so they called me to come and view it, as I’m an Irish dealer,” she explains, adding, “The table wasn’t worth much at all, but there was a magnificent grandfather clock and a set of dining chairs. I had to buy the whole lot to get the clock.”
She had spotted the clock was valuable by rubbing the smoke damage. “I saw it was Cuban mahogany, and knew there was a fair chance it was Chippendale. I sent the [clock’s] works to London to be restored,” she says.
Chantal still didn’t realise how valuable it was until sometime later, when she met the underbidder for the lot. It was the type of sale where you put your bid in an envelope so no-one else knows your offer, and even though he was disappointed, she’d once done him a favour, so he told her the history of the clock. “He told me the clock had been owned by George III, and played 40 waltzes. It took a year-and-a-half to restore it, but it was great, I made a lot of money. That gave me a boost that year. It was 1998/99.”
In the main, New York has been a big success – her clients include New York fashion designers, Hollywood greats and tech giants – and she’s planning to have a big bash in November to celebrate. It’s been hard work; when she’s in the States, which is roughly half her time, the charming dealer is constantly networking. She is quite high-profile, and is a member of the American Antique Dealers League and on the board of the American branch of the Georgian Society. “I really have two lives; I’m sort of cut in two,” she says. “When I’m there, I’m out five nights a week; I’m entertaining decorators; I’m meeting people all the time.”
She has a busy life here too, but it isn’t quite as hectic as New York, and her home in Killiney is a lovely haven to escape to after a busy day. She bought the house 14 years ago – it’s an Italian villa-style residence, dating from 1830 – using the same guiding principle she has used ever since she started in the business: her gut instinct.
“I was looking for a place in Killiney because all my friends lived here, and I had spent a year minding a friend’s house and fell in love with the area,” she recalls. “I happened to be at a dinner party locally, and the host’s daughter and her friend came in to say goodnight, and as they were leaving the room, the host said, ‘That girl’s mother is selling her house here.’
“I came around that night after the dinner, as I was leaving for the States the following morning. I put my foot in the hall door, and apologised for being so late. The owner asked if I wanted to look downstairs, and because the kids were asleep down there, I said no. So I never looked downstairs. I asked what they expected, I offered them that amount, and I said, ‘The offer is only available for 48 hours’.”
Effectively Chantal bought the property sight unseen, but it all worked out. It’s a wonderful showcase for her lovely collection of paintings – some by good friends, some by artists she admires – and for the many period pieces she’s chosen to keep for herself. And unlike her mother, nothing is hidden away in the garage.
O’Sullivan Antiques, 43/44 Francis St, D8; 51 East 10th St, New York, New York 10003, see osullivanantiques.com
Edited by Mary O’Sullivan
Photography by Kip Carroll
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