Modern gardeners -- perhaps looking for a touch of instant aristocracy for the patio or just the right accent for the herb garden -- are reaching into their pocketbooks and buying lichen-encrusted stone statues, elegant sundials and handsome cast-iron urns from gardens of long ago.
The garden antiques business is booming, and dealers specializing in antique garden ornaments of every description have cropped up like dandelions.
Old garden ornaments have always lurked in the musty corners of antiques shops, but in the past few years, garden antiques have emerged as a category of their own, says Leanne Stella of Stella Show Management. Her company puts together antiques shows around the country, including the Chicago Antiques and Garden Fair and the Gramercy Garden Antiques Show in New York.
European antiques are in particular demand, especially stone, pottery and metal pieces from France, says Marty Shapiro, owner of Finnegan Gallery in Chicago.
"French garden antiques have a flair that English pieces do not," Shapiro says. "They have a lot more frills."
French glazed pottery, terra-cotta olive jars from Provence and stone statuary of all kinds, aged by time and weather, are very popular now. Shapiro and his wife and business partner, Kaye Gregg, shop at antiques fairs in France, England, Italy, Belgium and Ireland, sometimes by flashlight before dawn, and take their finds to 16 garden shows around the United States every year.
"The market is really broadening," Shapiro says. "A lot of people have the confidence to bring architectural fragments, cast-iron benches and marble urns inside their homes. Outside, people are nesting more, working more on their gardens, and they are willing to put a little money into antiques for outside."
Truly old and unusual pieces are not cheap. A fine old statue of a rooster, a peacock or a shepherdess might cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the age, condition and provenance of the piece. Matched sets, such as a pair of urns or statues representing the four seasons, are likely to command premium prices. The most expensive pieces may cost $10,000 to $50,000.
For gardeners on a budget, smaller pieces and fragments of garden ornaments are a good deal. Sections of beautifully decorated old iron or terra-cotta garden edging are available for about $25 apiece. Well-worn garden tools, some more suitable for display than for use outdoors, often cost less than $100.
Reproduction pieces can't match the aesthetic pleasure of owning something with a his-tory, a link to the artisans of another era, Shapiro says.
"If you can't appreciate the construction, the details and how a piece has held up over the years, then you shouldn't be buying an antique," he says.
There are great finds at flea markets and flower exhibitions. Shows devoted to garden antiques offer the widest selection. The Chicago Antiques and Garden Fair (planned for April 11-13, 2003) brings 60 to 70 dealers specializing in garden antiques together under tents at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
The garden antiques trade is surprisingly responsive to trends.
"There is constantly something coming through that is a new antique," Leanne Stella says.
Wire furniture and plant stands are a hot trend Stella spotted at this year's sales. Cement faux bois furniture, popular in the 1920s and '30s, also has come back into fashion. Architectural pieces such as column sections and terra-cotta facade embellishments are being rescued from salvage yards and used to support garden tables and benches.
Sleek American garden furniture of the early 20th century is also in style now. Joni Lima and Joseph Spaider, owners of Iron Renaissance in Damariscotta, Maine, specialize in furniture made by John Salterini, Floren-tine Studios, Lee Woodard and other manufacturers from the 1920s through the 1950s.
The nice thing about garden antiques is that when your grandchildren inherit them, it will still be perfectly all right to leave them out in the rain.
Where to find old pieces
Fine old garden ornaments have become a spe-cialty in the antiques business. Garden antiques shows are the best place to find a wide selection, but flea markets, antiques malls and garden shows of all kinds are good places to start.
* Stella Show Manage-ment, 147 W. 24th St., New York, NY 10011; 212-255-0020 or www.stellashows.com, organizes several garden antiques shows every year, including the Antiques and Garden Fair at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Gramercy Garden Antiques Show in New York. Information about the shows, and links to other events, are on the company's Web site.
* Finnegan Gallery, 2030 N. Mohawk, Chicago, IL 60614; 312-951-6858, takes European garden antiques to a number of shows every year. The warehouse in Chicago is open by appointment.
* Iron Renaissance, P.O. Box 1240, Damariscotta, ME 04543; 207-677-2656, specializes in vintage wrought-iron furniture. The company does not have a catalog.