A recent donation to a Peninsula second-hand store turned out to be a major historical find.
Like most resale stores, the Habitat for Humanity Restore located in Fort Ord in Seaside picks up donated items of all kinds on a constant basis. Located inside the military community, donations come in from all over Monterey County.
That’s why when a Salinas resident wanted to get rid of their large buffet they had in their home for the past 10 years, those picking up the piece didn’t really blink an eye. The owner had acquired the piece from what was described as “an old cowboy bar” in town where they had once worked but it had since been shut down.
“It was extremely heavy though. It took three to four big guys to get it in here,” recalled Gabrielle Rubio, Habitat for Humanity Restore’s assistant manager. The piece was then displayed in the store’s showroom for a short time.
That was around the time that Calvin Otis had recently been hired as manager there and was reviewing the “how-tos” of finding and identifying furniture markings and manufacturers.
“The piece was obviously an antique by its dovetailing,” said Rubio, which is a quality describing the weaving of the piece’s wood grain and how it interlocks with other pieces.
Whereas modernized machinery connects pieces uniformly, antiques were built by hand so the weaving is off, she explained.
But it was when Otis pulled out one of the credenza’s magenta-painted drawers, that he noticed the clearly stamped A.A. Rateau on the back. After a little research, the thrift store’s crew discovered Rateau to be an eminent French furniture maker and interior designer of his time.
“They looked it up and found that he was the father of art deco,” said Rubio. Architectural Digest has actually described Armand-Albert Rateau, who was born in 1882, as “one of the most exclusive interior designers of the 1920s.”
“Rateau is one of these designers that was at the top of his game but there’s not all that much available from him because he was so exclusive,” explained Adam Brown, a principal of Iliad, a New York City interior design studio. “Rateau is the quintessential furniture designer from the ’20s.”
Once the staff determined just who Rateau was they began reaching out to auction houses in Los Angeles and New York to get the piece appraised.
They also reached out to the donor of the piece notifying them of their newly discovered knowledge but its long-time owner still wanted to be rid of the piece.
After finding Iliad through the Art and Antique Dealers League of America, the world-class purveyors of Austro-Hungarian Biedermeier, French art deco and art moderne furniture expressed desire to acquire the piece. The firm’s design studio in Manhattan, along with its restoration workshop in Prague, creates contemporary and period-inspired furniture to and for a list of distinguished clientele.
The interior design house acquired the credenza from the thrift store for $5,000.
“After restoring it, they mentioned putting in another $15,000 so they obviously think it’s worth at least $20,000,” said Rubio.
“Because we are antique dealers and experts in restoration as well as interior designers in New York, we could see the diamond in the rough,” said Adams, noting that the piece had been painted over a number of times. “We know what we’re looking at when we look at a period piece of furniture.”
What astonished Adams and Andrea Zemel, Iliad’s lead interior designer and fellow principal of the gallery, was just how rare it is to find a Rateau piece.
“Rateau — his pieces they just don’t become available, there are very few of them,” said Brown. “We have no idea what it was doing in the U.S., let alone in Monterey, California.” Brown said Rateau’s only big patron in the United States in the 1920s was the historic Blumenthal family.
Now, as the Iliad staff acquires more research and background on the piece, a photographic documentary of the rare find is also being created.
“We’re reaching out to experts in France and the Rateau family,” said Brown.