Uncovering antiques in central Europe



Before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and heralded the ultimate toppling of the whole Soviet system, the antiques of central Europe were mostly unavailable to the rest of the world. Pieces backed up in people's cellars, attics and barns for decades.

It wasn't until after the end of the Cold War that a market for antiques began to evolve again there. But these days, with vintage pieces increasingly scarce and expensive in western Europe, former Soviet bloc countries are becoming a hot spot for dealers, designers and lovers of goods that wear the patina of age.

"I've seen dealers from France, Italy, the Netherlands and particularly Belgium bringing trucks to some of the places we go," says dealer Tom Conrad, who last year launched Heart of Europe Tours, offering escorted buying trips to off-the-beaten-track spots he knows well in Germany and the Czech Republic.

During the two decades he spent as a fundraiser for an international aid organization, Conrad's job involved regular jaunts to Germany. There, and on excursions to what was then Czechoslovakia, he would spend his off-hours and weekends trolling shops and flea markets.

Conrad was amazed by the low prices and huge selection he found in central Europe. Yet the Philadelphia resident often was frustrated.

"I'd see a gorgeous piece of furniture, and I'd think, 'I'd love to have that.' But I could not figure out how to get it home," he says. "The cost of shipping would have been out of proportion to what it was worth."

In that problem, Conrad, now retired from fundraising, saw a business opportunity, offering not only buying trips to central Europe but also expertise in getting the goods across the Atlantic.

Heart of Europe Tours' seven-day packages start at $2,395 (not including airfare) and feature accommodations, travel via a chauffeur-driven mini-bus, and space in a shipping container. Conrad makes all the arrangements, including trucking clients' purchases to the port of departure and posting the customs bond necessary to get goods into this country.

"When you're in a foreign country trying to buy antiques, you really need someone who knows what he's doing," says Larry Marini, owner of Brick House Antiques in Wilmington, Del., who took Conrad's inaugural tour in September.

"I can't tell you how many places we went," Marini says. "We were on the go every day. Tom had shops lined up, but if we'd see a flea market along the road on the way, we'd stop there too."

Marini's finds included three rustic early 19th-century hand-painted armoires and a blanket chest, as well as some 1920s chairs made by the French company Thonet, inventor of the bentwood process.

Stops on the September trip included an antiques show in Prague in the Czech Republic and a wide array of shops and warehouses, including one quartered in a vast former textile mill, one housed in a Renaissance monastery, and one in a 13th-century castle, where the group discovered a cache of 17th-century glass wine containers, known as balloons, in the cellar.

Starting this month and continuing through the summer, Conrad will be expanding his shopping-tour concept with a series of five trips. Included in the lineup is an "Antiques Intensive" that makes stops in the Saxony and northern Franconia regions of Germany, as well as one of the larger markets in the Czech Republic.

"You can find anything in just about every period and style in central Europe," says Conrad, who is part of an antiques-sellers cooperative in Adamstown, Pa.

Gary Calderwood, who specializes in pieces by the top French designers of the art deco period, isn't surprised that people are looking to central Europe.

"I just got back from Paris, and there is a dearth of material and the prices are astonishingly high," he says. "I'm seeing dealers who are shifting periods, from pre- to postwar, because pieces are easier to get."

But Calderwood strikes a cautionary note regarding reports of the bargains to be had on such hot furniture styles as Biedermeier in places such as the Czech Republic.

"It's second- or third-tier stuff," he says, typically produced 50 years after the original Biedermeier designs of the 1820s.

In the house Conrad shares with wife Amy Gendall, a grant writer and fellow antiques buff, and their teenage daughter, he recently showed off some pieces picked up on the fall trip.

Among the items crowded into two rooms on the first floor: a 7-foot-long grain-painted carved storage bench; painted armoires and blanket chests; an 1890s rocking horse; and a rough-hewn bureau, elaborately painted with images of flowers in vases, that Conrad says cost him about $70.

For a wooden dower chest packed with exquisitely woven table linens that appear never to have been used by the bride they were intended for, he paid the equivalent of $50.

His favorite, though, might be the handmade metal sign that once graced a jazz club in a small town in Czechoslovakia.

Adorned with a series of figures playing musical instruments, it reads, in fractured English: "Dixilend Bend."

If You Go

Information about Tom Conrad's antiques-buying tours is available at heartofeuropetours.com or by calling 215-991-9892. Tours are limited to 10 people. Spaces are still available on several tours, including:

April 26 to May 2. "Antiques Intensive" visits Prague and the Bohemian Highlands in the Czech Republic, Saxony and northern Franconia in Germany.

May 18 to 25. "Secession and Modernism: Antiques and Design in Prague and Brno" focuses on two Czech cities.

July 23 to Aug. 3. "Antiques Extravaganza" covers Germany's Bohemia, Saxony and northern Bavaria, with stops in Zittau, Leipzig and Nuremberg, as well as Prague in the Czech Republic.

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