LITCHFIELD, CONN. — Style. From childhood it has remained a steadfast influence in Peter Tillou’s life — a sway that has served him well throughout almost 70 years in the antiques business. From his svelte appearance, gait and candor, business acumen, his gracious demeanor and exquisite taste, Tillou’s mannerisms are mirrored in the mark he has left upon the antiques community that he surrounds himself with so wholly.
The Antiques Dealers’ Association of America (ADA) acknowledges Peter Tillou as a mentor to an untold numbers of collectors, scholars and museums and a staunch supporter of the trade, and will present him with its 2013 Award of Merit. The award is bestowed annually in conjunction with the Philadelphia Antiques Show, this year to be presented on Saturday evening, April 13.
“Peter has been in the forefront of this business for many, many years; the enthusiasm he conveys to collectors and the sharing of his knowledge is simply remarkable. That is the motivation behind presenting Peter the ADA Award of Merit for 2013,” stated ADA director Arthur Liverant. “The whole premise of this award was to honor those who have given so much to our field and honor them when they can appreciate it. Peter is our 13th recipient and he was just thrilled when he was told. He was bowled over with enthusiasm and was very appreciative of the honor bestowed upon him by his peers.”
Tillou cut his teeth in the antiques trade at the ripe age of 8 years old, collecting coins, and, in typical fashion, he immediately yearned for more knowledge. Purchasing a book on coins shortly thereafter, the youngster rapidly “learned the whole book by memory.” Displaying a love of antiques right from the get-go, the spry dealer’s interests soon branched out. “I had a wagon and I would go around before school and collect things that people had left at the curb for the rag merchant. Remember, this was the 40s; most people were not appreciative of old things. I was. I would buy at one place and sell at another. I did very well at times,” he recalled.
At 14, Tillou started exhibiting at antiques shows with his uncle, Dr E.R. Eller, a collector of early American glass and curator of invertebrate paleontology and historical geology at Carnegie Museum. The first place he exhibited his antiques was at a show in Westfield, N.Y. “It was 1949 and that is where I started meeting collectors and dealers,” he said.
Tillou’s first sale as a fledgling dealer: “The first I remember that was really good, I bought a pistol from a family in Buffalo whose home I was taking care of during the winter months. It was an American flintlock military pistol — a really good one, and at that time it was $100, very rare, that was a lot of money for a flintlock then; the average one was $20. I sold it in Westfield that day, obviously at a profit, although I don’t recall how much.”
Antique arms and armor remain a passion for the dealer, who today includes European and American weaponry among his laundry list of specialties, “great European nobility guns, what we call ‘works of art guns.’” The dealer recently returned from the “crown jewel of collectors shows,” the Original Baltimore Antiques Arms Show, where he reported substantial sales and, more important, “excellent buying opportunities…”
“That, by the way, is what is so addictive — the hunt,” says Tillou as a sparkle appears in his eye. “I am a hunter/gatherer, it is just part of my soul — it’s the thrill of hunting for beauty or rarity — at any moment finding a treasure that I recognize, that may be sleeping, that is what thrills me, finding these wonderful objects — no matter what — European [antiques], Asian, here, and restoring it or saving it. I think that is a great contribution that dealers and museums make, and that is another thrill and why hunting is paramount in my life.”
Tillou has exhibited at other shows that also qualify as crown jewels of the antiques world, some considered to be the finest antiques shows in the world. In the 1980s, Tillou was invited to exhibit at Maastricht, where he was ultimately appointed to the board of directors by his peers. Grosvenor House was another notch in the dealer’s belt, but the icing on the cake has certainly been the Winter Antiques Show in Manhattan where Tillou has been exhibiting for a 50-year period.
“His career is unlike any other antiques dealer’s career that I know of,” stated his son, Jeffrey Tillou, an elite antiques dealer in his own right. “He has been at the top of his field in Americana for decades, and when you include all of his other areas of expertise, it can be hard to fathom.” Jeffrey rattled off his father’s passions as if reading from a menu, “arms and armor, Asian art, Americana, Old Masters paintings, Eighteenth, Nineteenth, early Twentieth Century paintings.” After a momentary pause, the younger Tillou rapidly added, “coins, stamps, gold, glass, pottery and porcelains, Asian antiques, cars, native American… the list just goes on and on.”
Jeffrey paused again, reflecting on the gravity of the situation, he said, “The man truly has passion for collecting. And, I think that he has probably shared his passion for collecting as much as he has shared his knowledge with everyone that he comes into contact with; that is an important thing to note.”
Jeffrey’s sentiments regarding the generosity of his father are echoed worldwide. “He has done a great job of teaching people that collecting is an extraordinary part of life. He epitomizes the fact that the relationships formed from collecting are an intricate part of the experience. I have seen him give tremendous joy to people that extends far and beyond the transaction of simply buying and selling antiques,” he said.
“We are delighted to be honoring Peter Tillou with the 2013 ADA Award of Merit,” said Judith Livingston Loto, president of the ADA. “Peter has been an icon in the antiques and fine arts business for more than 40 years; sharing his excitement and enthusiasm with anyone and everyone. In a world where calculated decisions are made every moment of every day, Peter has inspired many collectors to allow themselves to be driven simply by their passion for the objects. Generous with information and knowledge, his curiosity is insatiable, leading him around the globe in search of new treasures. He is truly one of the old school originals!”
“Peter is one of the few remaining dealers from a very different era in the antiques business — a glorious era when there was dramatic, increasing interest in folk art,” stated Stephen Fletcher of Skinner, who has counted Peter Tillou among his clients for almost 50 years. “I think his enthusiasm, incredible sense of style and his knowledge and sincerity about what he has dealt in all of these years has resulted in a very successful career on his part. It is that sort of charismatic approach he takes; he can’t help himself because he loves the stuff and he is so enthusiastic… it is infectious, his interest and enthusiasm, I think that is what the antiques business needs today more than ever.
“We think back to some of those dealers like Zeke Liverant, Marguerite Riordan, Mary Allis, Lillian Cogan and Roger Bacon,” he continued, “they all had something in common, they had these huge personalities and they were really in their own way, at least in our collecting world — celebrities, widely recognized — they all had that thing in common — but I always thought Peter has been at the top of his game for decades. And he has a sense of humor. And he is a great storyteller.”
Tillou, a worldly sort, takes great pride in his activities outside of the antiques business, most of which are shared with family. Photographs of Jeffrey and Peter in Labrador sporting fishing vests and their catch; similar scenes from Idaho taken years later are prominently displayed on a slant front desk in the living room. Other snapshots of Tillou’s life include a fishing trip to Alaska where he hooked a giant salmon, a recent photograph of the dealer in a lush jungle posing with an orangutan, and hunting trips to Africa where he sought out to cull the most mature trophy animals from the herd or pride.
“The older animals that had been demoted in the natural order of the hierarchy, those that had already lived a full life, yet they are the wisest animals and the most difficult to track,” says Tillou with a smile, “just like a great object.”
Tillou also tells stories of his mentors — Robert Abels, Norm Flayderman, Eric Shrubsole, Jimmy Grant and Joe Kindig Jr. “When I went to Europe I would act as an agent for Robert Abels, and we brought home some wonderful things. We all made it fun.” Those were the days when the “handshake ruled supreme” and that style of dealing forged Tillou into the businessman he remains today. “Everything is predicated on your integrity and your word in this business — no deal is bigger than that — that is the trust. Our clients trust us, we are their teachers. We teach the collectors, the scholars and the museum curators.”
The greatest piece of furniture Tillou ever bought at an early age was a highboy from Kindig. “It took me a year to pay $20,000 for the piece, an Annapolis highboy that is now in the collection of the Ford Museum. “It is one of the best there is, displaying the highly developed Annapolis workmanship, very Philadelphia looking,” he says.
Well known as a collector of American folk paintings, Tillou is especially taken with the works of Ammi Phillips and has owned 42 of them over the years. He purchased his first Phillips portrait for $50 while attending college at Ohio Wesleyan, “a marvelous little arts school, perfect for me; they let me develop, be free to develop my business, I had a great four years there,” he recalls. “I began collecting folk art in my senior year; I was 21 and saw the Phillips painting and fell in love with it — the abstraction, the stylistic charm of it. I owned it for 40 years and have since passed it on to my family.”
The name Mary Allis also evokes fond memories for Tillou; well, almost all of them fond anyway. “I knew of two fabulous Ammi Phillips in a collection and I bought the first one and was about to return to buy the second, a real masterpiece of Phillips’ work,” said Tillou with a grin. “Mary called me and said, ‘Honey, you were at such and such a house, let me go and buy this picture.’ I said, ‘No, Mary, it is mine,’ and Mary said, ‘But it will be yours — you are younger, it is important that you let me buy this.’”
Tillou relented and during setup at Southport/Westport Antiques show in 1970, Mary said, “Honey, I brought the painting.” “I said, ‘Well done, Mary,’ and she said, ‘On your knees; it will cost you — it is yours, but you will have to pay. This is a masterpiece — you have to have it for your collection and you will have to pay my price…’ Well, she wanted three times what the market price was… and said, ‘You can think about it’ — so I said I would take it and she turned and told the other dealers, ‘You can always get Peter on a masterpiece.’”
A few years later, Allis called Tillou to inquire about the painting. “You know that Phillips? I’ll give you a profit,” he recalls her saying. “So I told her, ‘You sold me that painting at an outrageous price,’ so I gave her an outrageous price. And for years we laughed about it.”
Tillou, who has maintained shops in Manhattan and London, as well as his primary business of close to 50 years in Litchfield, had his first shop in a house on the Wesleyan campus during college. “It was a big old house. I lived on the second floor and I had the bottom floor full of stuff and sold out of there. I hired a bunch of frat brothers to help me” he said.
Another of Tillou’s passions developed at that stage of his life: automobiles. Buying and selling old vintage cars, he estimates at least 50 of them, he once again employed his frat brothers to fix them up and ready them for market. “That’s why I still have these cars today, I never quit. All 1920s and 30s, the big handsome stuff, the big classics. I just love them…” Tillou still maintains a collection today, although he limits himself to just five cars. His favorite; a 1918 Mason Grand Tour, the only known Mason, actually a prototype, currently undergoing a concourse restoration and, says Tillou, “it could very well win the Grand National, I think.”
Tillou exhibited regularly at Russell Carrell’s shows during the 1960s and 1970s and debated whether Southport/Westport was the first show he exhibited at for the charismatic promoter, or if it was a summertime show in Russell’s yard. “He was great to us young dealers,” he says. “Russell put us on the map. He was very favorable to the dealers as a group.”
Tillou was invited to exhibit at the Winter Antiques Show, at that time under Carrell’s management, starting in 1962. “Those were very active times,” recalled the dealer. “It was the height of the great collecting and buying generation, when big collections were being formed. They used to line up around the street and come in and buy, buy, buy... it used to be just unbelievable. That show made our year, we all counted on East Side to start the year off. Those were exciting years.”
When asked what he featured in those early booths, Tillou stated, “All of the merch we have talked about… American and European furniture, folk art… oh wait, I am very eclectic, so I had great English pottery, early American glass, paintings — formal and folk — silver, fine European guns, folky sculpture. I’d been in business for a long time at that point and had learned a lot from many of the great dealers in Europe.”
Some of the collections that Tillou has helped form include the John and Polly Tucker American folk art collection — “a wonderful one…”; the Heinz collection of Old Master paintings, of which the dealer says is one of the best still life collections in the world, “the best and most exciting by far”; the Andy Williams Americana collection and, naturally, his own collection of American folk art, ceramics, Roman glass, Old Master paintings, Asian antiques, American glass, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century paintings.
Much of this has been chronicled in two softbound books, Where Liberty Dwells: Nineteenth Century Art by the American People, Works of Art from the Collection of Mr and Mrs Peter Tillou and Nineteenth Century Folk Painting: Our Spirited National Heritage, Works of Art from the Collection of Mr and Mrs Peter Tillou, an exhibition catalog from the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.
Tillou has also helped build major collections at museums, such as Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Ford Museum, Shelburne, Old Sturbridge Village and William Munson Proctor, although he says decisions from institutions take too long and he prefers a quick sale.
And Peter Tillou is still learning about antiques, his enthusiasm still bubbling over. “I often buy things that I think are beautiful and wonderful,” he says, “I don’t know what they are — so I buy them — sometimes for a lot of money — and then I find out and learn. I use it as an example. We’re gamblers, really. I am not afraid of spending a lot of money on something I think is absolutely beautiful and thrilling and then learn about it. And usually it is vindicated that you are matching your knowledge or eye. It’s fun.”
On a recent Sunday last month, a black Lincoln Town Car pulled through Boston’s Copley Plaza, stopping in front of Skinner, where the folk art collection of the late Andy Williams was about to be sold. Peter Tillou climbed out, ascended the stairs to the gallery and was immediately greeted by his peers, including Ohio dealer Bill Samaha. Tillou soon held court with auctioneer Stephen Fletcher, settled into the rear row of the gallery and 20 lots later had quietly claimed two of the most important lots in the auction, a folk art Dapper Dan (race track tout) tobacconist store figure and an Ammi Phillips painting of a child dressed in red with a dog.
It goes without saying that a lot of things have changed in the antiques community since Peter Tillou began dealing in antiques; thankfully, Peter Tillou has not changed with them.
Those interested in attending the 2013 ADA Award of Merit dinner honoring Peter Tillou should call 203-364-9913 for reservations.
The ADA And Peter Tillou
“Past recipients have told me remarkable things about what it meant to receive the award,” said ADA director Arthur Liverant. “When Elinor Gordon won, she told me that second to the day she got married, this was the most exciting day of her life. Albert Sack told me it was one of the greatest days of his life. Wendell Garrett said it one of the highest honors he had ever received. This year we are honored to be able to present it to Peter.”
“Peter Tillou was already a legend as a dealer when I started out in Americana some 40 years ago,” said Dean Failey, the head of Christie’s Americana department. “I consider him to be an extraordinary individual who is successful in multiple areas of the marketplace where the action is intense — Old Masters, American furniture, folk art. It is hard enough to be an expert in any one of these areas, let alone covering as many areas as he does. It will be an honor to attend what will surely be an enjoyable evening to honor Peter.”
“I think that it’s fabulous news that this year’s recipient of the ADA Award of Merit is Peter Tillou. Very few individuals have set and maintained such a high standard for embracing the visual excitement in antique objects and told so many people about it with equal graciousness and enthusiasm for so long,” said Philip Zea, president of Historical Deerfield and a past recipient of the ADA Award of Merit himself. “After decades, that adds up to real influence on how people think in a shared field like ours. If the award is about providing content and ambassadorship, Peter’s nomination is a deep home run to straight away center field!”
“Peter is a classic — a gentleman with a great eye for art. His interests are wide-ranging, his curiosity limitless and his enthusiasm boundless. I always look forward to a conversation with Peter because I never know what to expect,” said Brock Jobe, professor of American decorative arts at Winterthur Museum.
“Peter is a man of many surprises,” said R. Scudder Smith, publisher/editor of Antiques and The Arts Weekly, “For you never know what he is going to present, either in his shop or at an antiques show. I have known him for many years and watched him offer fine ancient coins, rare firearms, paintings ranging from Old Masters to portrait pairs by Ammi Phillips, all periods of furniture and folk art pieces that have formed many well-known collections. He is a man of many interests, which he has proven so well.”
“Brilliant, quicksilver; quick study; superb taste and wide ranging interests; ebullient; passionate about art; ‘Sport’ — in the generous gentleman’s meaning of the word — infectious enthusiasm, which makes him one of the best salesmen on the planet; wonderful, encouraging teacher and wonderful, warm, gracious friend. It has been an honor and an unparalleled privilege to have Peter Tillou as a teacher and friend for close to 30 years!” says Sotheby’s folk art specialist Nancy Druckman.