New dealers and specialty auctions harvesting vintage garden ornaments are raking it in all year long, and, surprisingly, much of the business is done in the heart of New York City and its environs. The topiaries of the English gentry, Grecian urns, woodland nymphs, Roman columns, elaborate benches, architectural bird baths, pedestal sundials, and menageries of carved fanciful beasts are landing in American houses and gardens. The prospects are so strong for weathered cast iron and stone furnishings and creatures that plastic pink flamingos face extinction and leaden jockeys are a dying breed.
Just as many collectors in the 1980s filled their homes with paintings and antiques, the acquisitive of the '90s are returning to nature with gusto, decorating the outdoors, where they're less likely to run out of room, money, or mail order catalogs. In the pursuit of garden ornaments, they're navigating an international maze of resources unknown a decade ago.
Seeds of this trend were sown in 1989 at Sotheby's New York sale of the collection of the late Campbell Soup heir John C. Dorrance, when London dealer Miles
D'Agar paid $66,000 for a pair of 18th-century Portland stone recumbent lions, calling them a bargain. He also spent $15,400 for an 18th-century cast lead figure of the Roman god Mars -- not bad, considering that he said one buyer paid $16,500 for a 15-year-old Italian cast stone figure of a hunter, one of the many high quality reproductions in the marketplace.
A dozen dealers pitching wrought iron garden furniture, sculpture, urns, architectural fragments, and fountains are among the 91 exhibitors at the trendy Fall Antiques Show on the Hudson River Piers in New York City, Wednesday through next Sunday. Vintage garden ornaments will bloom for the first time at the scholarly and expensive International Fine Art and Antiques Dealers Show at New York's Seventh Regiment Armory, Saturday through Oct. 29. The Garden Antiquary, a new business launched on a grand scale at an 8-acre site in Cortland Manor, N.Y., will fill a booth with 19th-century antique garden furnishings, including cast iron benches. A dazzling array is displayed at the firm's gardens, open by appointment only; call (914) 737-6054 for details.
"Instead of a shop we decided to develop a place where all the pieces could be seen where they are supposed to be," said Moshe Bronstein, who runs the Garden Antiquary with his wife, Esther. They assembled their inventory on trips to Europe and Mexico, helped by Esther's father, New York antiquities dealer Edward Merrin, whose urban gallery at 724 Fifth Ave. also displays garden sculpture including 18th- and 19th-century knock-offs of Greek and Roman works.
"We were in the flower business in New York," said Mr. Bronstein, an Israeli farmer who visited the States in 1985, met his wife, and stayed. "We decided 18 months ago to sell it and go into garden things." They teamed up with landscape architect Patrick Chasse of Landscape Design Associates in Northeast Harbor, Maine, and Rosedale Nursery in Hawthorne, N.Y., transforming a wild wooded site into a one-stop shopping showplace, enabling buyers to spend more time enjoying their gardens and less on the prowl.
"When we sell a piece we can have the landscape architect look at the [client's] garden and give an idea where to put it, and Rosedale can tell them what to plant next to it, and then plant it as well," Mr. Bronstein explained, leading a visitor around the man-made pond where a giant limestone frog is hiding in the grass at water's edge and a pair of Japanese bronze cranes are wading in the shallow marsh. Three marble columns ($1,800 each), one fallen, another half-standing, create an instant ruin. The second-century headless Roman figure is from Mr. Merrin's stock. "It looks better outside than in the gallery," Mr. Bronstein observed.
The Garden Antiquary's barn is filled with 19th-century French cast iron water pumps, some measuring 5 feet high and costing over $10,000 each, Italian fountains, wooden studded Mexican doors, and American Victorian garden gates. The French gazebo alongside the barn costs $22,500. Two large weathered brown metal sieves with handles, resembling modern sculpture, cost $750 each. They're from a Maine fishery. The $4,800 horse weather vane on the cupola is English.
In January, "Elizabeth Street," a garden ornament gallery in New York's Soho district, will exhibit at the elegant New York Winter Antiques Show, where gazebos, trellises, sun dials and planters were introduced five years ago by New York quilt and folk art dealer Thomas K. Woodard and his partner, Blanche Greenstein. The pair still stocks some majestic pieces with four-figure price tags but focuses on ones of more manageable size and cost, usable indoors, including late-19th-century terra-cotta orchid pots ($175), straight-sided flower pots ($16 and up depending on size), bee-hive shaped rhubarb forcers ($325), and English glass hyacinth vases ($300 and up).
In contrast, Elizabeth Street's 17,000-foot warehouse-gallery is home to more deities than Mount Olympus and more fauna than a woodland. Highlights include seven enormous bronze and marble fountains designed by French architect Jacques Greber for Peter A.B. Widener's 1907 Lynnewood Hall estate in Elkins Park, Pa., called an American Versailles. The huge central fountain of mermaids and mermen is priced $1.2 million, six smaller ones with bronze putti are $250,000 each; packing and shipping are extra.
New books can help the novice distinguish the genuinely old from modern look-alikes and some awful fakes. The most informative, "Antique Garden Ornament, 300 Years of Creativity: Artists, Manufacturers & Material," by John Davis, published last year in London by Antique Collectors' Club, costs $81.50 postpaid; call (800) 252-5231. "The Official Price Guide to Garden Furniture and Accessories," by Margaret Lindquist and Judith Wells (House of Collectibles, $10),proves outdoor ornaments are prices antique and new items, and lists dealers and other sources.
According to Elaine Whitmire, Sotheby's garden ornament specialist, dozens of part-time dealers throughout the country sell from their own gardens rather than shops. The appeal is broad-based: Jody Wilkie, of Christie's New York, said the majority of buyers at its June "summer furnishings" auction were private collectors.
In an eagerly awaited London sale last week, Christie's offered 1,200 lots of garden and architectural furnishings, surplus stock of T. Crowther & Son, Ltd., one of the oldest and most prestigious names in the business. Crowther has been saving these treasures from wreckers' balls since the late 19th century, and many hadn't seen daylight in almost a century.
At Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, a National Register of Historic Places site whose 15 thematic gardens and 22-acre topiary are run by a non-profit foundation, nine dealers, several from the Big Apple, will display their wares Thursday through Saturday in a benefit show called "Decorating the Garden." Call (410) 557-9570 for details. The preview features Bunny Williams, formerly a decorator with the elite New York firm of Parish-Hadley Associates. Last year, she and decorator John Roselli opened Treillage Ltd., a Manhattan shop specializing in unusual garden accessories, antique and modern, for use inside or out.
Also at Ladew, Baltimore antiques dealer Colwill-McGehee is offering decorative and fine arts objects related to flowers, John C. Newcomer of Funkstown,, is featuring cast iron garden furniture, Stubbs Books and Prints of New York is bringing books on horticulture and gardens, and John S. Coles, an Arlington, Mass., artist, is showing his water colors of gardens.