Mainstreet Magazine October 2016
By CB Wismar
Article transposed here.
The thrill of the hunt, the elegance of the presentation
“I was hooked. I knew what I wanted to do. There was no turning back.” Alfons Sutter is smiling as he recalls the pre-dawn hours, years ago. When he ventured onto London’s Portobello Road. Into the middle of an early morning antiques fair.
“I had been classically trained in Switzerland to be a chef. Can you believe it? I had worked in London restaurants for ten years. And after hours, to unwind, we would explore the city.”
The chance encounter with the antiques fair changed the course of Alfons’s life. Soon the restaurant business was well in the past and he began collecting art deco pieces. Then, there was a stall in Islington’s Camden Passage. And a shop in Kings Road Market. ” I love the looking… the finding, I would only buy things that I would want for myself,” Alfons affirms. “That hasn’t changed.”
From London to New York, via Tokyo
Alfons decided to make the United States his home after a trip to Japan, to explore his new-found love of Japanese art, . After considering San Francisco, he opened Sutter Antiques in the New York’s Flatiron district.
“I was walking down the street, looking into the shop windows when I saw a gorgeous Japanese lacquer table. In the shop’s window there was notice offering a space for rent. I went in… and that was the beginning.”
With his uncanny sense of design and seemingly insatiable appetite to learn about the history of the artistic movements and the provenance of its most important pieces, Sutter Antiques became a serious success. Bringing the striking beauty of Japanese art pieces to an eager New York market.
In the mid-1980s Alfons met Frank Rosa, a young man from Brooklyn who had taken a hiatus from commercial pilot training while he worked to collect the next round of flight school tuition. The two have been partners ever since.
“I think one of the first places we went was to a weekend antiques fair,” remembers Frank. “I saw a pair of lamps that I liked and Alfons encouraged me to buy them.” Frank interrupts his own story to flash his engaging smile and to laugh at himself. “It took me 15 years to re-sell those lamps, but from that moment I started to follow Alfons and learn.”
Frank acknowledges that Alfons is the buyer. “Things whisper to him”, he says in all seriousness. “He has a sixth sense about what is valuable, what’s important.”
Moving from city to country
Weekend trips to Columbia County to visit friends and shop for antiques in the small shops that could be found in the towns. And along the back roads led Alfons and Frank to realize that they had fallen in love with the area. In 1990, Sutter Antiques moved from New York City to Hudson.
One vivid illustration of Alfons’ sensitivity to what has value is found in his story about visiting an Atlanta, GA antiques market several years ago. “I was there at 5am… you want to get to a show when the trucks are being unloaded so you can see what the dealers have. And what you want to explore before the crowds clog the aisles. By 11am I had walked the entire floor and wanted to get something to eat.”
Alfons left the show floor to visit a nearby snack bar and reflect on what he had seen, what called for a second or even third visit. “I was standing, waiting for my food and I happened to look down into a bag of trash that someone was about to get rid of. Something caught my eye. A little collage. I asked how much the chap wanted for it and when he suggested $10, we agreed, and the piece was mine.”
Clearly, the collage had “whispered” to Alfons. As he explored the newly acquired piece, he noticed a date – 1921 – and there was something else. The small collage bore a striking resemblance to pieces with the “Goldpunkt” (Gold Point) period of noted German artist Kurt Schwitters, a major force in the “Dadaist Movement.”
Back in New York, Alfons sought input from the experts at Christie’s, the international art auction house, who ventured “it looks like…”
In the art world as in the world of fine antiques, “it looks like” is never enough. Provenance – the traceable history, the chronology of ownership of a piece – is critical. Without it, pieces have little value. The only way to confirm whether Alfons had come upon a Schwitters collage was to sent it to recognized expert in Germany.
The story need not go on much longer. Alfons’s $10 acquisition at the snack bar in Atlanta was eventually featured in a full page ad by Christie’s and brought $73,000. at auction in Europe. So much for whispering…
At home in the gallery
With that as context, a visit to Sutter Antiques, now with spaces on both sides of Warren Street in Hudson, can overwhelm the senses. With Alfons as the buyer and Frank as the business and marketing partner, the galleries are filled with wonderful pieces, well displayed – many of which have whispered to Alfons.
“When mid-century furniture became all the rage,” recalls Frank, “we opened a second shop on Warren street – 20th Century Gallery, We acquired furniture and art that met the appetites of our customers and were able to offer it at truly competitive prices.”
When the mid-century market made prices skyrocket, their business sense led them to consolidate back into one store – one name – and continue to offer fine antiques and elegant pieces from Japan and China.
The next chapter
“The antiques business has a life of its own,” professes Frank. And moving adroitly with that life stream, Sutter Antiques continues to expand with the market. They have been a presence in the Hudson Valley since 1990. And have just recently opened a location across Warren street that will feature the elegant Japanese scrolls and screens that Alfons has carefully collected (their grand opening was on September 23rd). A gallery opening in mid-October will bring to three the spaces carefully filled with unique, the collectible, the profound and the elegant.
With a business philosophy that hinges on the acquisition of pieces that appeal to them, the risk of wanting to keep too many pieces is very real. “Some of my favorite things were acquired for very little money,” muses Alfons. “I’ve gotten offers, in fact some buyers come back again and again, raising their offers every time, but we won’t let them go until we’re ready.”
Living in Hillsdale, NY, Alfons and Frank have realized the careful balance of gentrified living. And full engagement with their art. “I love the hunt,” confirms Alfons. “The hunt is beautiful! I can wander in an antiques market for hours and pick out the two or three things that will make sense for us to offer.”
And, once acquired, there is the art of presentation. It would be too easy to simply pile piece on piece, making looking at the collection frustrating. “we’re relying on a more curated look,” advises Frank. “Especially in the spaces dedicated to Japanese scrolls and screens. You have to be able to see them to truly appreciate them”
The thrill of the hunt, the elegance of display. Alfons Sutter and Frank Rosa have mastered them both.