Over the years so many customers have asked me for recommendations as to what I suggest they do on a short vacation (10 days) to Spain, that I finally decided to write them down.
After living in the country for 40+ years and knowing it as well as I do, if I were visiting Spain for the first time and only had 10 days to spend vacationing, I would start in the capital city of Madrid. Though it lacks Barcelona's contemporary flair, Madrid is a very handsome Baroque Castilian city and well worth visiting:
(1) After arriving at Barajas Airport, I'd spend 2 to 3 days visiting the Prado Museum (if you see nothing else at the Prado, the Goya rooms might just be the most powerful art exhibits anywhere in the world), the Retiro Park, the areas of old Madrid around the Plaza Mayor, the Palacio de Oriente and the Rastro flea market. Some good restaurants in the area are "Casa Botin", "Casa Lucio", "Zalacain", but there are hundreds more.
Additionally, the quarter of Madrid known as the "Barrio de Salamanca", especially between Serrano and Velazquez Streets, is a delightful area to walk and chock-full of small interesting shops and good restaurants.
(2) After visiting Madrid, I would rent a car for the day, get an early start and drive an hour northwest to Segovia. This is a wonderful, small provincial city with a spectacular world-famous Roman aqueduct, a beautiful castle that Walt Disney co-opted as his own, a gorgeous cathedral and one of the most famous restaurants in Spain, "Meson de Candido".
After visiting Segovia, I'd drive approx 40 kms northeast to the stunning walled village of Pedraza de la Sierra. Pedraza is a lovely medieval hill town, and justly famous for the quality of the roast lamb served in several of the village's inns and restaurants.
Please note that in the winter months Madrid and Segovia can be very cold, so make sure that you check the weather forecast and dress accordingly.
(3) After finishing my visit to Pedraza, I'd drive directly back to the Madrid Airport and catch a shuttle to Barcelona. There are many flights a day, its only an hour from take-off to landing, and you should be able to pick up cheap tickets with Clic Airlines (Iberia's low cost service) for next to nothing if you book ahead. Their website is www.vueling.com
(4) I lived in Barcelona for close to 30 years. It is a fabulous city with much to see and do. I would spend 2 to 3 days in the city and plan to visit all the following sites:
- Gaudi Arte Nouveau buildings: Along Paseo de Gracia (La Pedrera, Casa Batllo, etc.)
- Guell Park: Fantastic surrealistic park designed by Gaudi and located in the upper part of Barcelona. Spectacular views of the city with wonderful photo ops.
- Sagrada Familia: Gaudi's unfinished cathedral and Barcelona's most famous building.
- Picasso Museum: Great collection of Picasso's earliest works. Located in a handsome Gothic building on Calle Montcada.
- Miro Foundation: Largest collection anywhere of Joan Miro's paintings (located two blocks from the Olympic stadium on Montjuich)
- Olympic stadium: Located on Montjuich (the mountain overlooking the port)
- Paseo de Gracia / Las Ramblas / Rambla Catalunya: some of the prettiest walking streets in Barcelona
- Mercado de San Jose on Las Ramblas: Barcelona's largest produce, fish and meat market and a great visual experience.
- Museo Nacional de Arte de Catalunya: Located on Montjuich, the “National Museum of Catalonian Art” houses what is arguably the world's finest collections of Romanesque and Gothic art.
- Parque de la Ciudadela (Cuidadela Park): Gorgeous turn of the century park with beautiful promenades and manicured gardens.
- Gothic Quarter and the Cathedral: The Gothic Quarter is the oldest part of the city with foundations dating back to the Phoenicians and Romans. Filled with gorgeous medieval buildings. Some of the best high-end antiques dealers in Barcelona are located in the Gothic Quarter, primarily along Carrer Banyos Nous and Carrer de la Palla.
On most Sunday mornings there is impromptu Catalonian folk dancing in front of the Cathedral, located at one of the entrances to the Gothic Quarter.
You won't need a car while you're in the city, as Barcelona has a very good metro and bus system and there are cabs everywhere.
(5) Following my stay in Barcelona, I'd rent a car and drive 90 minutes northeast along the A-7 expressway towards France to the province of Gerona and the stretch of the Catalonian coast called the "Costa Brava". I would plan to spend 2 1/2 to 3 days in this area.
The Costa Brava is a magical place of rolling hills, medieval stone villages and hill towns, a spectacular coastline (Google "Costa Brava", "Aiguablava" and "Cadaques" to get a sense of what I'm talking about), and is the only part of Spain that looks exactly like Tuscany and Provence.
If rooms are available, I'd make my base of operations at the "Hotel Restaurant La Placa" located in the village of Madremanya (Carrer Sant Esteve 17, Madremanya, 17462, Gerona, Spain / Tel: 011-34-972-490-487 / www.laplacamadremanya.com). The owners, Jaume Vidal and his wife Assumpta Serna, are personal friends of mine, Jaume was one of the best chefs in all of Catalonia, and they have lovingly restored a medieval building in which they've created beautifully furnished, comfortable rooms (they're really 1 to 2 bedroom apartments) that will usually cost you less than a single hotel room in Barcelona.
If La Placa is fully booked at the time of year that you plan to travel, there are other lovely boutique hotels in the villages of Monells, Torrent, Peratallada, Castell d'Emporda and other towns in the area. However, at the very least you should make reservations to have dinner at La Placa one night during your stay.
Finally, no trip to the Costa Brava would be complete without visiting the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueras, as well as the pristine white-washed Mediterranean fishing village of Cadaques.
(6) When you're done visiting the Costa Brava, simply drive straight back to the Barcelona Airport and grab another shuttle back to Madrid in time to catch your flight back home.
As regards Spanish cuisine, for years it has been among the "hottest" (most stylish) in Europe with top-rated chefs everywhere. Without question the Spaniards prepare seafood better than any other country in Europe, the fruits and vegetables are first-class, and the roast meats, especially in Castile (Madrid and Segovia) are excellent. Having said that, Madrid also has some of the best seafood in the world because every night fresh catches are trucked from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts directly to the Madrid Central Fish Market.
It goes without saying that seafood in Catalonia is exquisite (my favorite fish dishes are "merluza" (hake), "rape" (monkfish), "dorada" (bream), "mero" (grouper) and, best of all, "besugo" especially when its baked and served with a light vinegar-garlic sauce as they do in the Basque Country.
In Catalonia you must also try "pa amb tomaquet amb pernil" (fresh sliced and toasted peasant bread rubbed with ripe tomato, sprinkled with olive oil and served with thinly sliced serrano ham). The only pasta native to Spain are canalones which are wonderfully done in Barcelona and many restaurants on the Costa Brava. Whenever I'm home in Spain, my favorite Sunday lunch is comprised of canalones followed by herb roasted chicken with a fresh salad.
Finally, please note that unlike Mexican food, the vast majority of Spanish dishes are not spicy. The Spaniards believe in using the freshest, highest-quality ingredients prepared in such a way as to bring out the natural flavors of the food.Bear in mind that Spanish red wines might just have the best price-quality relationship in the world, especially those from the Rioja and Ribera de Duero wine regions (in truth, the Spaniards are producing great wines in many different regions around the country). Some of my all-time favorite reds are "Tinto Pesquera" and "Condado de Haza" (Ribera de Duero), and "Remelluri" and "Marques de Murrieta" (Rioja). However, there are many others worth ordering.
In closing, be aware that Spaniards usually eat dinner very late at night (its not uncommon to find restaurants that won't open before 9:00 PM), so I highly recommend that you check out their hours before you go.
The law tells us that an authentic antique must be at least one hundred years of age. However, age is not the only determinant factor as to whether a piece should be considered a true ”antique”: artistic value and merit, uniqueness, historic importance, condition, etc., are all factors that must be taken into account.
Structural integrity, or the degree to which a piece has been restored, may also be used to determine its value and authenticity. As to the impact of restoration on the value of an antique, carefully restoring a piece can actually lend value to it. That, in fact, is the true meaning of “restoration”: the return of a piece to its original or near original state.
Antiques dealers who do it the old-fashioned way usually source pieces in their “raw” state prior to restoration. In most cases that means prior to cleaning, consolidating finishes, re-gluing loose joints, sealing and waxing. As much as one would like to think that a specific piece is totally “pure”, it is rare indeed that an item crafted in the 16th, 17th, 18th or even 19th century has not undergone at least some degree of restoration.
As a matter of course, most reputable dealers will freely volunteer information to their clients regarding any parts of an antique that have been replaced or restored. A prospective buyer should always ask a dealer if he knows, what, if anything, has been replaced or restored.
Short of carbon dating, one must carefully consider the construction, hardware, materials, style and provenance, as well as one’s own experience and existing documentation on similarly-styled items in order to determine the circa date of a piece with any degree of accuracy.
How can I distinguish an authentic antique from a reproduction?
Although there are many ways to determine whether one is looking at a true antique or a cleverly crafted reproduction, here are a few of the most common methods:
Does the condition of the piece look “too perfect”? In other words, does it show signs of the usual wear and tear that any piece of furniture would suffer over the course of its life? Additionally, are the areas of wear in the places where one would normally have expected scratches, blows or cuts to occur (tabletops, edges, feet, and around keyholes)?
Does the “distressing” (character markings and signs of wear) on the piece in question seem too mechanical, repetitive or heavy-handed? If so, the piece is almost certainly a reproduction. There is nothing more difficult than taking a new piece of wood and aging it convincingly to look like a true antique that has worn or been distressed naturally.
Do the carved details seem too crisp or sharp? Run your fingertips over the raised ridges of carving: after years of use and wear they should be slightly worn and rounded rather than sharp.
Is the finish too “homogenous”? Does it look like it has been uniformly applied (both in color and in “patina”)? Any authentic antique will show asymmetric variations in color, patina and wear.
Does the finish have “depth” or is it “flat”? On most authentic antiques that have been sealed and waxed, the light is never reflected off the surface but rather appears to come up from beneath the finish.
Are the materials used in the construction of the piece authentic? Composite materials like “chip core” or “medium density fiber” are 20th century inventions. A word of caution: although the use of veneers came into vogue in the late XVIII and early XIX centuries, back then veneers were much thicker than those used in today’s modern furniture manufacturing. The use of plywood backs or shelving is a clear sign of recent manufacture or inferior quality restoration.
Is the construction of the piece in consonance with its purported age? For example, on most period cabinetry pieces the backs were almost always laid up vertically rather than horizontally. Frequently they were made of thicker and rougher planks than the rest of the case, and were almost never finished to the same degree as the sides, front or top. Another example might be the use of single versus multiple plank tops: XVII, XVIII and early to mid XIX century tables were almost always crafted with wide single plank tops.
Are the proportions of the piece delicate and harmonious? Centuries ago the proportions used by fine craftsmen were perfect and flowed beautifully. Over the past 30 years I have only met a handful of European and Latin American craftsmen who were capable of drawing up and reproducing a piece of furniture as well as it might have been done by their forefathers.
Do the hinges, nails, lock plates, hasps and locks appear to be authentic and hand-wrought or sand-cast, versus stamped or mold cast? Have the original spring locks been replaced?
Having lived in Barcelona for over 28 years, so many customers have asked me about restaurants and things to see and do in the "Ciudad Condal" that I finally just decided to sit down and put together a list of some of my favorite eateries and things to do in the city.
Following are several restaurants in Barcelona that have been personal favorites of mine over the years. Reservations are advisable for the better restaurants (you don't need them at "tapas" bars):
Siete Puertas: Absolutely the best paella in Spain (maybe in the world), and one of the few restaurants in Barcelona serving non-stop from 1 PM to 1 AM. Curiously, I don't believe they take reservations so I suggest that you go at off hours for the Spaniards (like 7 PM). Order the “paella parellada” (mixed fish, shellfish, meat and veggies) as it comes de-shelled and ready to eat. You will thank me for this...
Flo Brasserie: An authentic French brasserie in a wonderful Arte Nouveau building. The food is more Catalonian than French in flavor and style, and the atmosphere is simply great (actually, its better than the one in Paris). I always get the cold vichysoisse soup there and the Chateaubriand. It’s heavenly.
Asador de Aranda: By far the best roast lamb you will ever have in this life. The restaurant is set in a fantastic Arte Nouveau building located on Avenida Tibidabo in the upper part of the city (my old neighborhood).
Beltxenea: Very elegant Basque nouvelle cuisine restaurant set in a gorgeous turn of the century flat located in an apartment building on Calle Mallorca (2-3 blocks from Paseo de Gracia)
Tapa-Tapa: Large noisy fun place to go for tapas approx halfway up Paseo de Gracia.
Euskal Taberna : Same as Tapa-Tapa, but not so big and with a Basque twist.
Seafood: The Olympic yachting basin ("Port Olimpic") is located 10 minutes by cab from Paseo de Gracia. Situated around the perimeter of the yachting basin are a number of incredibly good seafood restaurants that will blow your mind. One of the best is "La Dorada". By the way, Spain has the best seafood in Europe BY FAR.
MUST SEE'S & DO'S WHILE IN BARCELONA
(1) Gaudi Arte Nouveau buildings: Along Paseo de Gracia (La Pedrera, Casa Batllo, etc.)
(2) Guell Park: Fantastic surrealistic park designed by Gaudi and located in the upper part of Barcelona. Spectacular views of the city. Wonderful photo ops.
(3) Sagrada Familia: Gaudi's unfinished cathedral and Barcelona's most famous building.
(4) Picasso Museum: Great collection of Picasso's earliest works. Located in a handsome Gothic building on Calle Montcada.
(5) Miro Foundation: Largest collection anywhere of Joan Miro's paintings (located two blocks from the Olympic stadium on Montjuich)
(6) Olympic stadium: Located on Montjuich (mountain overlooking the port)
(7) Paseo de Gracia / Las Ramblas / Rambla Catalunya: some of the prettiest walking streets in Barcelona
(8) Mercado de San Jose on Las Ramblas: Barcelona's largest produce, fish and meat market and a superb visual experience.
(9) Museo Nacional de Arte de Catalunya: Located on Montjuich, the “National Museum of Catalonian Art” houses what is arguably the world's finest collections of Romanesque and Gothic art.
(10) Parque de la Ciudadela (Cuidadela Park): Gorgeous turn of the century park with beautiful promenades and manicured gardens. Located just a few blocks away from the Siete Puertas Restaurant.
(11) Gothic Quarter and the Cathedral: The Gothic Quarter is the oldest part of the city with foundations dating back to the Phoenicians and Romans. Filled with gorgeous medieval buildings, it is home to some of the most interesting shops, cafes and the best high-end antiques dealers in Barcelona (most of whom are located along Carrer Banyos Nous and Carrer de la Palla).
On most Sunday mornings there is impromptu Catalonian folk dancing in front of the Cathedral, located at one of the entrances to the Gothic Quarter.
GREAT SHOPPING IN BARCELONA :
- All along Paseo de Gracia
- All along Rambla Catalunya
- Along Avenida Diagonal between Via Augusta and Paseo de Gracia
- In the Gothic Quarter all along pedestrian thoroughfares like Carrer Petritxol, Porta Ferrisa and Porta del Angel
There is almost no violent crime to speak of in Spain, but much like the rest of large European cities there is a good deal of petty thievery like purse snatching, pick-pocketing, etc. To be on the safe side, I suggest that you leave your passport, purse and jewelry in the hotel safe. You might want to carry a photocopy of your passport in case you need ID for anything.
Most tourists in Florence spend the majority of their time on the monumental side of the Arno River visiting the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Uffizzi Gallery, the Accademia, etc. However, for those who really know the city well, in many ways the opposite side of the Arno (known as the “Oltrarno” area of the city) is the true Florence.
Since sampling the local cuisine is half the fun of European travel, following is a list of my three favorite restaurants on the Oltrarno side of the river, as well as what I believe is the best “gelateria” in all of Florence:
"Alla Vecchia Bettola" (two short blocks from Porta Romana) Viale Vasco Pratolini 50124 Florence Tel: 055 224158
- This is one of my absolute favorite spots - simple Tuscan cooking, exquisitely prepared to bring out all the rich flavors of the ingredients. My favorite meal consists of "crostini" as an antipasto (a liver-based, incredibly tasty, sloppy-joe-like topping served on thin slices of toasted peasant bread), "penne alla bettola" (penne pasta served in a tangy, slightly spicy, creamy tomato-based sauce) and "bistecca alla fiorentina con insalata" (sliced and grilled "Florentine beef chop" served with salad). This meal is to die for!
"Da Ruggero" (approx 5 blocks up Via Senese from Porta Romana) Via Senese, 89-R 50124 FlorenceTel: 055 220542
- Long before it became a popular trattoria for locals, "Ruggero" was a butcher shop (check out the spiral patterns of stone that are laid into the floors). As befits its history, the grilled meats here are absolutely superb. My favorite cut is the "lombatina di vitello" (grilled white veal chop). The "lombatina" with a fresh salad and grilled Tuscan veggies is my idea of a perfect meal.
"Trattoria Omero" (7 or 8 minute cab ride from Porta Romana) Via Pian dei Giullari 47, Località Arcetri 50125 FlorenceTel: 055 220 053
- Situated in the hills above the Oltrarno side of Florence, "Omero" is one of the best trattorias in the area. Located in what used to be a separate village from Florence, it is specialized in traditional Tuscan gastronomy and is one of those simple country restaurants with superb cooking that began as a bakery / deli back in the 19th century. My favorite pasta dishes here are the "penne strascicate" (whole wheat pasta in a creamy tomato sauce), and the “pappardelle al lepre” (large flat noodles in hare sauce). The traditional “bistecca alla fiorentina” (Florentine chop) is terrific, and the “pollo schiacciato” (butterflyed chicken cooked with oil and herbs between two white hot bricks) is a house specialty. The veggies, salads and desserts (particularly "crema bavarese") are all excellent.
- For real gelato "conoscenti", Bar Ricchi is the place to go. "Vivoli" (located near Piazza Santa Croce) might be the most internationally known gelateria in the city, but the locals maintain that their gelato is much too sweet. In my opinion "Bar Ricchi" has the best gelato in Florence, bar none. I used to grab a gelato there after lunch, another in the late afternoon and again after supper (of course, that's when I looked much like the Pillsbury Doughboy).
Much in the vein of the great Carlos Castaneda's, "Further Conversations with Don Juan", I'm thinking seriously of writing a book titled, "Taxi Rides with Jesus", chronicling the somewhat surrealistic conversations that I've enjoyed over the past 5 years with Jesus Quintana, a full-blooded Quechua Indian who acts as my driver when I'm down in Peru. Perhaps not coincidentally, Jesus is a native of a department in the Andes that is close to Carlos Castaneda's birthplace of Cajamarca, Peru.
During a recent trip to Lima, Jesus and I had the following exchange one night around 9:00 PM while we drove from the factory in Pachacamac back to my hotel in his 15 year old Subaru cab - a smoke-belching, dented, pock-marked monster with sprung Naugahyde seats that is literally bound together with baling wire and shiny silver duct tape:
Jesus: "Sr. Marc, may I ask you a very complicated and delicate question"?
Me: "Of course, Jesus. What is it?"
J: "In what part of Africa is Czechoslovakia located"?
Me: "Actually the country is now known as the Czech Republic, and its located in Eastern Europe, not in Africa".
J: "I don't mean to offend you, Sr. Marc, but that is not possible".
Me: "And why is that, Jesus"?
J: "Because my grandfather is a famous and well respected shaman among our people, and he himself told me that Czechoslovakia is located in Africa".
Me: "Forgive me Jesus, it is certainly not my intention to insult your grandfather or his wealth of knowledge, but I assure you that the country that used to be known as Czechoslovakia is located just north of Austria in Eastern Europe. In fact, I was in the capital city of Prague over a dozen times between 1985 and 1987. Has your grandfather traveled much outside Peru"?
J: "No, I don't believe he has ever left the Andean plateau, Sr. Marc. My grandfather says that he thinks much more clearly with less oxygen and therefore he prefers to live above 12,000 feet".
Me: "Your grandfather could make himself a fortune by giving seminars in logic to a lot of political hacks I know who live at sea level".
J: "Sr. Marc, pardon me, I don't wish to change the subject but I'm still not convinced by what you've said. Is it possible that they could have moved Czechoslovakia to Africa without your knowledge"?
Me: "I don't think so, Jesus. Why do you ask"?
J: "Well, clearly, any country that can change its name whenever it feels like it could secretly move itself to another continent".
Me: "Good point, Jesus. I hadn't thought of that"...
Due to the proximity of Mexico to the United States, the common history that we have shared with our neighbor to the south, and the great influx of immigrants from Mexico into the U.S., the phrase “Spanish antiques” immediately signifies “Mexican” or “Spanish colonial” to the vast majority of the American buying public.
When used correctly in reference to antique furniture, paintings or objets d’art, the term “Spanish colonial” refers specifically to those items crafted in the colonies established by the Spaniards in Mexico, Central America, South America, parts of the Caribbean, the Philippines and what today is the Southwest of the United States, following the arrival of the “conquistadores” to the New World in the early 16th century.
For obvious reasons of logistics and supply, Spanish colonial furniture was almost exclusively crafted in woods indigenous to Latin America: sabino, mesquite, mahogany, cedar, alder and ponderosa pine were the woods most readily available to artisans in the colonies.
In general it is fair to say that antique furniture from the north of Spain was usually crafted in dark hardwoods such as walnut, oak, chestnut, elm, cherry and beech, while pieces from the center and south of the country tended to be made in softer woods such as pine or poplar. Fine Spanish Renaissance furniture was most often produced in walnut, the most prized of hardwoods available to artisans at the time.
Spanish colonial furniture is the direct result of the marriage of arts and crafts styles from Old World Europe and the more primitive traditions of the native Indian cultures that flourished in the New World at the time of the Spaniards’ arrival. For that reason many colonial pieces were characterized by chunky, Baroque-style carving and lines. Additionally, when one considers that one of the Spaniards’ chief objectives in the New World was the conversion of souls to the Catholic Church, it is not surprising to note that much of the furniture produced in the colonies was ecclesiastic in style and feel.
It is curious to observe how some areas of the American Southwest and Latin America still cling to the belief that certain characteristics of furniture design and decoration originated here. For example, country furniture from northern New Mexico often features thumbnail carving (sometimes referred to as “bullet” or “chip” carving) and is generally thought to be indigenous to the northern part of the state. In fact, this type of carving is extremely typical of the Rioja wine region in north-central Spain, and is often seen on “Riojano” blanket chests, credenzas and tables crafted between the 16th and 19th centuries. It is also very common to find bright, multi-colored naif motifs on painted beds and cabinetry pieces from the same regions that are reminiscent of many primitive painted pieces produced in northern New Mexico between the 17th and 19th centuries.
The most notable characteristic of antique furniture and doors from northern Spain is the widespread use of mixed woods (pine and walnut, poplar and oak, elm and walnut, pine and oak or chestnut, etc.), and by the juxtaposition of those different woods to create patterns or design motifs. This is highly typical of furniture crafted in La Rioja and areas of Old Castile between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Because there are so few direct importers in the U.S. of true period antiques from Old World Spain, the style of furniture that most Americans associate with “Spanish”, is what is commonly known today as the “Second Renaissance” (“Segundo Renacimiento”): at the end of the 19th century, when the Spanish empire was in the process of losing its last remaining colonies in the Philippines and Cuba, many thousands of craftsmen were obliged to return home to Spain. Their arrival immediately sparked a major resurgence of dark, heavily carved classic Renaissance-style furnishings that were almost exclusively produced in hardwoods such as chestnut, oak or walnut.
Despite most American consumers’ belief that all antique Spanish furniture is dark and heavily carved, it is important to note that in reality early Spanish pieces were usually less ornate and more austere than those produced during the same time in France, Portugal or Italy.
“Prima patina” is the term used by many Italian antiques dealers, primarily those located in the northcentral regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio, to describe the finish on a period piece of furniture that is untouched (i.e., prior to any posterior restoration, superficial cleaning or waxing)...
As most of our clients already know, at “Mediterrania” we have always purchased all of the southern European antiques offered at our Scottsdale, AZ and Santa Fe, NM showrooms completely unrestored. In so doing, we obtain the most competitive prices possible and are able to ascertain what, if anything, has been done to the pieces over the course of their lives.
In addition, by sourcing completely "raw" pieces we are able to carry out any restoration needed at our workshop in Catalonia, Spain in strict accordance with our goal of taking the pieces back to their original, or near original, state. In essence, that is the true definition of "restoration".
Finally, by buying unrestored pieces we limit the competition from fellow American dealers because not everyone is specifically trained to "look through the dirt", and not every antiques operation has the wherewithal to restore.
As a dealer, I like to watch the "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS, primarily because I enjoy pitting what knowledge I have gained over the years with the experts that appear on the show. However, there is one thing that really sticks in my craw about the "Roadshow": almost without fail the experts on the show will admonish people not to touch, clean or restore a piece if they wish to maintain its value. And generally speaking, that's sound advice. However, close to 20 years in the antiques business has taught me that "restoration" is a relative term.
For example, over the years I've found dozens of stunning 17th and 18th century decorative painted pieces in the northern Spanish regions of Old Castile, La Rioja, Aragon and Catalonia that were covered in the 19th or 20th century with oil base house paint. You see, in the latter half of the 18th century good decorative painting came to be regarded as "frivolous" and a "sin against God". Therefore in order to avoid problems with Mother Church, many owners of fine painted furniture simply opted to paint over the original decoration. Presto, change-o, problem solved!
According to the very narrow view taken by experts on the "Roadshow", in restoring a painted piece by stripping away later 19th century house paint to reveal the original period painting, we have "detracted" from its value. For obvious reasons, I strongly disagree with that stance, and believe that we are adding to the value of these wonderful painted antiques.
Below you will find a few "before" and "after" shots that clearly demonstrate what I mean by "restoration"...
Fortunately, most Americans usually only encounter mindless bureaucracy when it comes time to renew their driver's license at the local DMV. By contrast, dealing with it on a daily basis in other parts of the world is often like finding yourself trapped in a Kafka novel...
For example, in Peru (the land that gave us "guano", the potato, and guinea pig as a culinary delicacy), regulations regarding the export of reproduction furnishings are mind-bogglingly Byzantine and seemingly designed to inconvenience (not to mention enrage) everyone concerned as much as is humanly possible.
Since I couldn't bring myself to believe that anyone at the “Instituto Nacional de Cultura” (now there's a superlative oxymoron if I ever heard one) could possibly be so obtuse as to require inspection, tagging and two pictures of every single reproduction furnishing and accessory that are exported from the country, I was foolish enough to call them a few days ago. What follows is a mercifully abridged translation of our conversation:
Me: Good morning.
Them: If you say so, sir...
Me: I have a few questions regarding some of your export requirements.
Them: Hmph! Don't they all...!
Me: Surely there must be some misunderstanding on the part of the artisan that I'm working with here in Lima. The poor guy is under the impression that he has to provide you with 2 pictures of every single Spanish colonial reproduction that he's preparing for shipment to my company in the United States.
Them: Smart fella. He knows the law...
Me: But I don't understand. You're actually saying that if one is shipping 150 exactly identical units of exactly the same model reproduction side chair, 300 photos must be provided to you for those pieces alone? Surely that can't be right.
Them: Why not, sir?
Me: Well, clearly, what would be the point?
Them: Sir, by your accent its obvious that you are a native of northern Spain. In case you're visiting Peru for the first time, allow me to point out that we here at the “National Institute of Culture” are the line in the sand and the last defense of the motherland when it comes to the protection of our artistic and cultural heritage. It is our sworn duty to protect the archaeological and antique treasures of pre-Colombian and Spanish colonial Peru from being illegally whisked out of the country, and we take that mission very seriously indeed!!!
Me: Well, not to argue with you my good man, but quite aside from the fact that I haven't yet seen anything "whisked" anywhere in my previous two trips to your fair country, that's exactly my point. Clearly these are not antiques. They're reproductions, so why would the motherland need to be protected against their export?
Them: Sir, how on earth would we possibly know that they're not antiques unless we required visual proof for all 150 side chairs? You seriously don't expect us to take your word for it, now do you?
Me: Well, for starters, antiques by their very nature are one-of-a-kind pieces, so when you see long multiple series of immaculate and identically-finished and identically-sized pieces of what are clearly recently manufactured items, shouldn't that make you just the tiniest bit suspicious that they are, in fact, reproductions and not antiques?
Them: Is that a trick question, sir?
Them: Sir, only the most highly qualified technicians at the “National Institute of Culture” are certified to inspect and authenticate the true nature of the goods exported from our shores.
Me: Okay, so just to brighten my day, Sunshine, besides two photos of every single $%&%$%& item in the $%&%$%& shipment and 4 sets of $%&%$%& commercial invoices and packing lists (with loading diagrams) in triplicate, what the $%&%else do you require???
Them: Why, naturally, you have to pick up the inspector at our offices in downtown Lima, drive him 30 miles out to your factory, buy him a full lunch, stand around waiting for him to rubber stamp every piece before you can begin to pack the goods, and then return him to our department by no later than 5:00 PM.
Bordered on the north by the towering snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains; to the west by the open plains and golden wheat fields of Old Castile; to the east by the gently rolling hills of Catalonia; and to the south by the wildly surrealistic cliffs and forests of New Castile and the high country of Levante, the region of Aragón in north-central Spain boasts the most varied topography on the Iberian Peninsula.
Comprised of the three provinces of Zaragoza, Huesca and Teruel, Aragón has traditionally been a quiet underpopulated agricultural region in which most country folk still depend upon farming, livestock and forestry for their livelihoods. Interestingly, despite the area’s relative poverty, it gave birth to both the first king of what would one day become a more or less unified Spain, Ferdinand of Aragón, and perhaps Spain’s greatest painter, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes.
The medieval town of Sos del Rey Católico in the province of Huesca was the birthplace of King Ferdinand of Aragón, husband to Queen Isabelle of Castile and León. Located near the foothills of the Pyrenees, Sos is truly one of the most picturesque villages in northern Spain. Every cobblestone street and alleyway that surrounds the Sada Palace (Ferdinand’s ancestral home) speaks of history. One can easily envision the candle-lit late night councils of war that the young king must have celebrated here with his queen and the noblemen of Aragón while planning his next battle in the seemingly eternal struggle against the Moorish invaders who dominated much of the Iberian Peninsula for 774 years.
Born in the tiny rural village of Fuendetodos (province of Zaragoza) on March 30, 1746, Goya is considered one of the most renowned of Spain’s master painters and the Father of Modern Art. Over the 82 years of his life Goya rose from impoverished obscurity to become court painter during the reign of the Spanish monarch, Charles III, a position that he maintained throughout the life of Charles IV and on into the monarchy of Ferdinand VII.
As the new millennium dawned at the end of the 18th century, Goya fell prey to a severe illness that left him deaf and eventually alienated him completely from the ostentation of the Spanish Court. It was during this dark and depressing period that Goya produced his famous “Black Paintings”. As any visitor to Madrid’s Prado Museum will attest, this series of shocking monumental oils depicts in terrible detail the horrors perpetrated by Napoleon’s troops as they took Spain’s capital city.
I recently returned from a spectacular buying trip through Aragón (as well as Navarra, the Rioja wine region, northern Old Castile, the Spanish Basque Country and Catalonia). During my travels I was able to find and acquire over 150 stunning pieces of 17th to 19th C. furniture, pottery, architectural elements, accessories and oil paintings that will arrive at our Scottsdale and Santa Fe showrooms within the next few weeks.
Period country furniture from Aragón was most often crafted in pine, the most abundant wood found in the region. Antique furnishings and doors produced at higher altitudes in the Pyrenees region of the province of Huesca were most often fashioned in red pine, a beautifully tight-grained and dense wood. Those pieces that hailed from the lower elevations of the more arid provinces of Zaragoza and Teruel tended to be made in honey pine.
The deceptively simple oblique carving on most fine Aragonese pieces, the superb wrought iron work and the lustrous patinas of the woods make antiques from this region among the most sought-after of treasures by top Spanish dealers.
If you take a look at the images of reference #4866-DL Pyrenees dowry chest, and the #4941-DL Two-door Pyrenees credenza with painted interior, both dated circa 1690-1710, you’ll see exactly what I mean.