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For antique lovers, Essex marks the spot. photo essay by Eric Roth | text by Scott Kearnan

Wine isn’t the only pleasure that gets better with age. Antique art, furnishings, and decorative objects only become more valuable with passing years. And gentle, timeworn signs of age are viewed not as flaws, but as unique and indelible imprints of history to be proudly prized.  So, treasure hunters, whether you’re an avid collector or just questing for curios, follow your compass-or your GPS-to Essex. The North Shore town is regarded as one of America’s antique capitals, with over 30 shops lining a single stretch of mile on Route 133: no small number for a quiet hamlet of only about 3,500 people.

 

Continental soldier signpost at Americana Antiques

 

THE EVERYMAN MUSEUM

Topsfield-based photographer Eric Roth specializes in interior and architectural work. But his passion for history means he’s equally fascinated by what fills those four walls. “I’m fascinated by old books, works of art, or household goods that give insight as to how people used to live,” says Roth, who was inspired to capture the curios found in Essex antique shops like the White Elephant, shown here. Like many Essex antique shops, it’s a melange of funky finds, including plenty of nautical-inspired items, like the fisherman doll pictured here, that nod to Essex’s own history as a vital New England seaport. (The shellfish industry is still a major part of the local economy.)

TACTILE TEACHINGS

According to Roth, antique stores offer a unique window to the past. “In a way, it’s more fun than going to a museum,” he says. “You can pick up things, touch them. It’s not necessarily the finest example china, but it’s the china that would have been on your grandmother’s table. It’s the everyman’s museum.”

 

MATERIAL WORLD

Be sure to make Andrew Spindler Antiques one of your first stops. Andrew Spindler-Roesle opened his gorgeously appointed shop nearly 15 years ago and prides himself on offering a high-low mix unified by impeccable taste. That approach manifests in his extensive selection of white ironstone pieces, like the 19th-century English bowl seen at right. Spindler-Roesle is drawn to the material because of its aesthetic malleability. “I love the variety of forms it can take,” he explains. “It can look modern, it can look country-it just depends on the context. It alludes to a special formality, but the material is simple and has warmth to it. I love that open-endedness, and I’ve always had a core of it in my shop.”

UNEXPECTED LOVES

Spindler-Roesle boasts an impressive background; he studied at Brown and Yale, trained at Sotheby’s Institute in London, and worked for an esteemed New York dealer before opening his own business. But he hopes that his humor, wit, and varied interests-as well as his education and experience-shine through in his shop’s collection. “It’s very eclectic. People come in and never know what they’re going to see,” he explains. “I’ve never limited myself to a country of origin or time period. The collection is a conversation among different periods and materials.” If walls could talk, we’d love to hear what this intriguing assemblage has to say. Top: Atop a piece of 17th-century Indian marble are hand-blown Venetian yellow vases and an English cobalt glass master salt cellar, circa 1940, with a “make do” brass base. (Antiques with extravagant repairs have their own special value to collectors.) Above: This array includes a collection of photographs from turn-of-the-century Cape Ann photographer Herman Winslow Spooner, and an Italian bronze sculpture of Athena that now adorns the Boston Athenaeum. Right: If you thought spin class was uncomfortable, imagine riding this cast iron stationary exercise bicycle, made by New York’s Everlast in the early 20th century.

FIT TO FRAME

Some antique shops feel like overcrowded emporiums, and others like stuffy showrooms of the look-don’t-touch variety. Spindler-Roesle says his goal is to create an environment that is spacious and approachable, with a discriminating, well-edited collection. And maintaining it is a constant creative process: “I don’t sell things by the square foot. I find things that are unusual and beautiful and I arrange them in combination.” Given that he has the sensibility of a master curator, it should be no surprise that Spindler-Roesle is also involved with local museums and historic committees. He is an overseer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a member of the collections committee at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, and on the council and collections committee at Historic New England. Now, feast your eyes on the exhibition-worthy display at right. The three figure studies are by American maritime artist William Edward Norton. Below it is a French overdoor painting, circa 1880-1890, alongside a rare collection of English celestial globes, circa 1825. Spindler-Roesle plans to have them mounted as unique table lamps, giving the intricate star constellations a new reason to shine bright.

 

THE ROYAL TREATMENT

Demand for high-end antiques never wavers, says Tom Lang of Alexander Westerhoff Antiques. Even in a recession, upscale clients seek out decor pieces that double as investments. And this Roman bust is certainly fit for a king; that shimmering breastplate is made of Imperial Porphyry. Purple has long been associated with royalty, and the rare, prized crystal-laden rock was quarried in Egypt and would be used to floor the delivery rooms where emperors were born. Also seen here is an early-19th-century French sculpture of the love god Amor in gilded bronze, and a French mirror, circa 1730, that was once painted but now boasts its original gold.

RICH AND FAMOUS

Industry trends come and go, but Alexander Westerhoff Antiques has retained focus on only the finest finds from the 17th through 20th centuries, says Tom Lang, who is co-owner with Westerhoff, his husband. Even the shop itself is a treasure, a 4,500-square-foot church that dates back to at least 1809, and was restored to its circa-1911 appearance when the pair moved in. The pieces here have plenty of famous associations. These architectural drawings are by Allen Giles, and the rare set of painted Georgian chairs is attributed to famed 18th-century cabinetmaker John Linnell. In modern times, though, Westerhoff serves a different celebrity set. The shop provides pieces for many Hollywood movies that film on the North Shore, and has sold to stars like Sandra Bullock, Goldie Hawn, and Bronson Pinchot, who also filmed here for his DIY Network show, “The Bronson Pinchot Project.”

 

FLY-BY FINDS

You don’t need to be outfitting an art gallery to enjoy an antiquing trip to Essex. There’s a relaxed, homespun vibe to many shops, like Howard’s Flying Dragon Antiques, located at 136 Main Street in Essex. The store was named for the first piece sold by its original owner, says Cathy Howard Galli; she now runs the business with her parents, who bought it in 1973, and her brother Channing, who is pictured here. But the name also alludes to the sense of whimsy that one can expect to encounter, says Howard Galli. The shop sprawls over three floors of an 18th-century ship captain’s home, a large barn, and, in good weather, an outdoor area. Every inch is filled with knick-knacks and figurines, antique lamps, ornate doorknobs, and curious hardware that could belong to the Mad Hatter-if he had one day turned to metalworking. There is also a selection of affordable reproductions, like the wooden toys seen here, which hark back to simpler times but also work for simpler budgets. “We’re not a fancy place. We’re a fun, general store-like shop that focuses on decorative antiques,” explains Howard Galli, adding that the shop’s charming bric-a-brac also helps outfit area restaurants. Indeed, Essex holds troves of treasures for every taste; from high-end finds to simple pleasures, from wide-reaching bazaars to specialized boutiques like Americana Antiques, its continental soldier signpost (seen top of post), which has a unique collection of carved carousel art. Take a spin through town, and come home with something special.