Adapted from Antiques & The Arts Weekly
By R. Scudder Smith
"What do you think of that chair?" the proud, smiling dad said, looking down on his 3-year-old son, who quickly replied "Chippendale," to the amazement of the couple standing in the room. Zeke Liverant probably thought "That's my boy," as he walked away from another house call with both the chair and Arthur in tow. Today Arthur tells that story, adding, "It was one of the first words I learned, not knowing it had anything to do with furniture, but was the names of the cartoon characters, Chip and Dale."
Such a tale does not really surprise anyone who knows the firm of Nathan Liverant and Son, a highly respected antiques shop that has grown through three generations over 90 years. "We have enjoyed a long and exciting run, handling some great pieces of furniture and works of art, meeting wonderful people along the way, and always proud to be a part of the Colchester community," Arthur said recently.
But today what looks like, and is, a highly polished and fine-tuned antiques shop and business had a most humble start when an 11-year-old boy was put on a boat in Odessa, Russia, to travel alone to America. Nathan Liverant, born in 1890, came knowing his family would soon follow, but that never happened. In New York City he became a furrier, a trade he disliked, among a number of other jobs, and in 1912 he first saw the small New England Village of Colchester, which soon became home for his family, wife Esther and young son, Israel, better known as Zeke, one of seven children. Number six child is Phil Liverant, also an antiques dealers who lives in Colchester and does a few shows in Connecticut and neighboring states.
Working odd jobs, buying and selling scrap metal, and a brief livery business kept food on the table in the early days in Colchester, but the big break came in 1920 with the purchase of a truck and the contents of a local home. All at once that old furniture and household goods were replaced by better things and the shop became Nathan Liverant Antiques. Nathan died in 1974, ten years after he retired and turned the business over to Zeke.
Zeke was born in 1916 in Colchester and spent his youth watching his father maintain a large inventory moving in and out of the shop. He, too, went on house calls with his father, the first when he was 8 years old to a home in Hebron, leaving there with china, tables and chairs. In 1935 he graduated from Bacon Academy, where he was later a trustee, and in addition to helping his father, walked a mail route daily, getting to know many local families, which benefited him in later years as an antiques dealer. He never left his home town for any length of time except to serve in World War II as parachute rigger, but never left the country.
Zeke worked with his father for 30 years and, according to Arthur, did not always share the same goals. "My grandfather was a product of the Depression and he found it hard to go out on a limb for a piece of furniture, where my father wanted to move the business up to a new level and seek better things," he said.
Arthur tells the story of Zeke finding a fine set of Belter furniture in a home, available for purchase for $500. Realizing the quality of the pieces, he bought them and then went home to ask his father for a check, to which his father gave a definite "No." In an act of desperation, he hocked his wife Sylvia's wedding ring in Hartford, bought the Belter, sold it for $650, and got the ring back. Sylvia died in 1982, and two years later Zeke married Joanna Black.
Probably one of the most important times Nathan and Zeke pulled in the same direction was in 1948, when they bought the vacant 1831 Baptist Meetinghouse at 168 South Main Street and made it the new home for Nathan Liverant and Son. Only two silent bids were offered for the building, the other from a merchant wanting to use it for grain storage.
"The structure would not have taken the weight," Arthur said, and the church people realized that and sold it to the Liverants. "The steeple came down in a storm, but the original bell is still up there," Arthur said, "and we ring it whenever we make a sale over $20,000. Actually, due to the economy, we have reduced that to $10,000," he added with a smile.
The former church, with its four large columns out front and a pair of cast iron dogs anchored to the ground on either side of the porch steps, provides a brightly lit room with high ceiling for display. And there does not seem to be a time when the space is not cluttered with case pieces of furniture, tall clocks against the outer walls, Windsor chairs in pairs and singles, paintings and works of art covering the walls, and pottery, glass, brass, pewter, stoneware and treen objects on tabletops, window sills, desktops and all the shelf space in the many cupboards.
"I worked with my father right up until the day he died, October 8, 2000, and it was a great 29 years," Arthur said. A 1971 graduate of Hartwick College, Oneonta, with degrees in economics and art history, Arthur's plans for the future were undecided until his senior year when he made a verbal commitment to join the family business. "It was not as if I was going blind into the business," he said, "having been around it all of my younger years growing up." Duties back then included polishing brass, folding packing blankets and tagging along on house calls. "Often I would hear my mother say, 'Get him out of the house, take him on a house call,' and my father and I would be off for a ride," Arthur said.
Zeke and Arthur not only put their hearts into the antiques business, but they would pal around out of the shop, sharing great interest in Red Sox games and enjoying season tickets to UConn basketball. On one particular Saturday they weighed the excitement of a basketball game against keeping the shop open. After brief consideration, they opted for the game and locked up the shop, but not without first hanging a sign on the door: "Gone to see a collection of baskets."
They also enjoyed many of the same friends, especially Albert Sack, "who was my father's greatest friend. They loved and respected each other and always had fun," Arthur said. "Zeke was self-taught, a heavy reader, and what he did not learn on his own, he learned from Albert."
Zeke put his knowledge of antiques to work every day, turning up objects that have enriched the collections of many fine museums, institutions and private collectors. At age 16 he found a piece of Seventeenth Century American silver that he sold for $100, and in later years went on to discover a rare china table with pierced gallery, circa 1785–1796, attributed to John Townsend, now in the collection of Winterthur. "It came from the Bullock family in Rhode Island and my father chased that piece for a number of years," Arthur said. He added, "When he brought it home and put it in our living room, we were forbidden to go in there."
Ranking as high as the table on Zeke's list of "finds" was the trove of needlework by Prudence Punderson, 12 silk embroideries of the Apostles, now in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society. That work will star in an exhibition, "Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art, and Family, 1740–1840," at CHS beginning October 5.
"Antiques shows have been an important part of our business, for they are not only an avenue for selling, but an opportunity to meet new collectors and clients and stay in close touch with other dealers," Arthur said. Nathan Liverant and Son had a booth at the first Hartford show back in 1966 when it was run by Fran Phipps and Betty Forbes. "We have done both the spring and the fall shows there since the start, and in those days we also did a small show in Hampton, Conn.," he said. The firm did the Winter Antiques Show in New York City 11 times, starting in 1959, and left because, in later years, Zeke had a hard time standing and being active there for the ten-day run of the show.
"We were just doing Hartford and Hampton when I joined the firm," Arthur said, but now the schedule includes eight shows, namely two in Hartford, The New Hampshire Antiques Show, The Delaware Antiques Show, The ADA/Historic Deerfield Antiques Show, The Winter Antiques Show, Wayside Inn Antiques Show and The Philadelphia Antiques Show for the past 19 years.
While today Arthur Liverant stands as the head of the business, it is anything but a one-man operation. "We have a great team, and I work for them," Arthur said speaking of his five employees. "Kevin Tulimiere, my right hand, has been with us for ten years and is a fabulous worker, researcher and friend. We work as partners and very seldom have differences," Arthur said. Helen Boule, who has been with the Liverants for the past 25 years, comes to the shop every Tuesday, takes over the large table in the middle of the room, works the books, "and is never off even a penny."
Debbie Day, a retired elementary school teacher, has been on the job for six years and opens up the shop every morning, leaves around noon, and "does everything and is our den mother." For the past seven years Kevin's wife, Jean, has been on the job serving as shop manager and guaranteeing a smooth-running operation. Last, but far from least, is Arthur's wife Gigi of 36 years, who serves as art director and booth designer. An accomplished artist, she works at home from her studio.
Will Nathan Liverant and Son fall to other members of the family when, and if, Arthur decides to retire? "I am having too much fun to leave this business any time soon," Arthur said, "and I have no idea if either of our daughters would be interested in carrying on. The subject comes up rarely and we are not going to press it." At present, Hannah is married and an art teacher, living in Franklin, Mass., while Samara lives in Phoenix and is employed as a mental health consultant.
When one takes time to sort out the differences and similarities between the three generations of Liverants, the similarities prevail. "We even have the same mouth," Arthur points out in an old photograph of them. And aside from the jump in quality following Zeke's involvement in the business, the quest has remained. "We are always looking for things and want to maintain an active shop,"
Nathan Liverant and Son is located at 168 South Main Street, Colchester, Conn. 06415. Nathan Liverant and son exhibits at The Winter Antiques Show, The Connecticut Spring Antiques Show, The Philadelphia Antiques Show, the ADA/Historic Deerfield, and other select shows throuout the year. You can visit Nathan Liverant and Son at www.liverantantiques.com, or email or call them at 860-537-2409.