I was at an auction in Keene a couple of weekends ago, hosted by Keene Auctions under a big tent… all socially distanced and so forth. It was nice to get back to an in-person auction. The immediacy of the back and forth between bidders and the auctioneer, the humorous commentary and the occasional dropped pieces all add up to great entertainment even if you’re not in a buying mood. Of course, I always am. Along with that comes the chance to get some really good deals.
When folks have a whole week or even just a couple of days to bid on pieces at an online auction, the prices often jack up a bit higher than a live, in-person sale. Sometimes, though, despite the fun of it all, I often break my own rule of not bidding on something I haven’t carefully previewed and occasionally go home with a real clunker of a piece just because it was priced so low.
Aside from the aforementioned occasional buyer’s remorse, there’s another feeling that sometimes washes over me at an auction. It’s sadness — sadness over piece after piece of old, usually Victorian style pieces that no one bids on. It’s what we call brown furniture and it’s just not popular at the moment. Antique dealers often let old China cabinets, sideboards, armoires and dressers pass by because they’re that old dark brown and often somewhat fussy looking. The auctioneer is lucky if he can get someone to buy it for $20, when back in the 1990s it would have sold for $300.
At that auction a couple of weekends ago, there was a lovely old Empire-style chest of drawers complete with its glove drawers on top that looked to be in great shape, still with its original hardware, yet nobody wanted it. I think it indeed went for $20. The craftsmanship of the piece though. Some turned wood-shaped drawer fronts and terrific detail. But it was big, heavy and dark brown.
I went into Twin Elm Farm in Peterborough last weekend to give my booth a little fluff and add a few pieces. I was perusing the other booths and in one of the front rooms of the old farmhouse, a dealer named Judy had a gorgeous… (drumroll please) Empire bureau. It looked virtually like the one I’d just seen at the auction, except it didn’t. It had been refreshed with a coat of black paint with only the glove drawers and the very top left in its natural wood color. The hardware was over-the-top, chunky rosette pulls in vivid gold. The surfaces felt silky smooth to my fingertips. It had a “sold” ticket on it as well.
I went to the front counter and asked owner, Louise, about it. Did Judy buy all new hardware? What a bold choice if she did. It turns out, no, she didn’t put new hardware on the dresser. She painted it. Just like she’d done with 80 percent of the rest of the piece. The black she used was Coal Black from Fusion Mineral Paint. Louise and I chatted about what a gorgeous job Judy does with her painted pieces. She even has her own label: Painting Contessa. I gave Judy a call to chat a little bit about her style and techniques.
Judy Patten and her husband have lived in Jaffrey for almost 20 years. Their youngest child is 21 and Judy decided to get back into the craft of refinishing furniture that she’d taken a break from years ago. In my opinion, she’s now raised the bar for all of us dealers at Twin Elm with the quality of work she displays. Looking through the before and after photos on her website (paintingcontessa.com) and both her Facebook and Instagram pages, you’ll be struck by her creativity and attention to detail. Even the most questionable of pieces I would have predicted to be bound for the dumpster she suddenly turns into an artful piece you can certainly envision in your home.
She’s not afraid of using compounds and fillers to really dig deep into damage; her husband has a passion for woodworking, too, and offers a helping hand. Unlike me, she finally gave up having her home taken over by the disarray of someday fix-it pieces and crates of treasures yet to be attended to. She’s got her own studio in the historic old mills of Harrisville. She tried her own stand-alone shop on the second floor of what’s primarily a salon in Peterborough but gave that up and got the booth at Twin Elm, allowing her time to go out pickin’ and pokin’ around the region. She’s soon going to be offering her favorite paint line in her booth and I can’t wait to try it. It’s Fusion Mineral Paint hailing from Canada. It’s an acrylic paint steeped with minerals that is self-leveling and features a gorgeous color pallet. I thought they were a tad pricy, but Judy told me that Empire chest only took half a pint. This stuff goes a long way.
So, add mineral paint to the lineup of paints to try when refinishing a piece. First there was milk paint, then chalk paint and now mineral! Or visit her online pages and her booth if you just want a gorgeous piece ready-to-go. Her prices are quite reasonable too. She’s the Painting Contessa!