In much the same way that the Mississippi has deposited rich silt upon New Orleans, millions of buyers and traders have bequeathed the world's best antiques to this legendary port. From $15 to $500,000, from demitasse spoons to entire castle rooms, anything and everything that can be bought is very likely for sale in the Crescent City.
For 300 years, New Orleans has collected the treasures of French explorers, Spanish pirates, English merchants, river boatsmen, and Southern planters. On a blustery winter weekend, my wife, Amy, and I set out to explore the Big Easy, ambling from the warmth of store to store, to scour the town for its best antiques bargains and to revel in its mysterious collections.
The French Quarter
There are few places on Earth where jazz musicians, strippers, priests, drunk out-of-towners, politicians, drag queens, and antiques dealers could all be neighbors, much less get along. But our first stop, the French Quarter, houses them all. Perhaps because of this city's easy diversity and welcoming nature, the pretension level is very low. Everybody is welcome to come poke around.
Our first stop was the venerable Keil's Antiques (325 Royal). Founded in 1899, the shop itself is a family heirloom. As we arrived, Keil's most tenured employee, Bennie, tottered out to unfold the store's forest green awning and gave us a friendly wave to invite us inside. Bennie has worked here for 78 years and is rumored to eat anyplace in the Quarter for free. Immediately we knew we'd found a store with as much history as the heirlooms it sells.
Stepping through the front door, I was astounded by the rows of chairs, chandeliers, walking sticks, and tables. Looking was as much fun as shopping, but I wondered how these folks made any money. Peter Moss, great-grandson of the store's founder, described his family's philosophy: "This is not a business you get into if you have any business sense. You get into it for art's sake."
Making customers is the New Orleans way. Newcomers are welcomed like old family friends, and even those on modest budgets are treated with the city's trademark hospitality and care. When I asked, somewhat sheepishly, what the store had for less than $50, a bounteous assortment of napkin rings, saltcellars, and pieces of costume jewelry were quickly brought out.
After a few hours and a dozen or so shops later, Amy and I began to understand the French Quarter's mysterious draw to millions of antiques hounds. Let's say you're looking for a versatile first antique, perhaps a chest of drawers. If you drop by Waldhorn & Adler (343 Royal) and the price of an English Georgian bowfront example is $5,500, you can go next door to Keil's or walk about 20 more paces to Royal Antiques (309 Royal) and see another dozen similar pieces in about 20 minutes. So the prices may be steep, but for the quality, almost every item is a bargain because of the proximity of competitors.
In stark contrast to the French Quarter's formal treasures, Magazine Street is a hodgepodge of very fine antiques, not-so-fine antiques, and just old stuff. The street reflects the South itself: Victorian row houses dot the avenue, some stuffed with million-dollar inventories and others sitting with torn couches and washing machines out on their front porches.
Whereas in the French Quarter an automobile is a terrible idea, to adequately cover the scores of shops along the 6 miles of Magazine Street, you'll need a car or the patience for the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, which runs parallel to Magazine. By this time on our treasure hunt, we had enlisted the aid of Macon Riddle, owner of Let's Go Antiquing. Call (504) 899-3027. For $75 an hour, Macon will take you to the little-known crevices of her city, sniffing out buys like some sort of bargain bloodhound.
With Macon at our side, we first plundered Lucullus (3932 Magazine). I found a tin baseball chocolate mold for $25. Nearby, Passages Antiques (3939 Magazine) yielded even better buys. We became enamored with co-owner Helen Wirth's extensive collection of oyster plates. Hundreds of examples of the colorful crockery dotted the walls and tables, ranging in price from $25 to $6,500. We snagged a primo example for $40. After a little haggling, Frame Galleries Ltd. (2023 Magazine) yielded two vintage leather suitcases for $125 and an exquisite five-drawer chest for $1,200.
Next we ventured into Ann Koerner Antiques & Interiors (4021 Magazine). There we spotted authentic and rare Southern-crafted antiques such as four gorgeous caned chairs for $675. Our favorite stop, though, was definitely As You Like It Silver Shop (3033 Magazine), owned by Duncan Cox. Inside we came upon nearly every silver pattern known to cutlery-using man. Baskets of silver forks and knives were on sale starting at $15 per piece.
Good buys beyond Magazine Street and the French Quarter are to be found in New Orleans' famed architectural-remnant warehouses. One of the best is Armadillo South Architectural Salvage, Inc., on Washington Avenue. Hundreds of doors, columns, and cavernous bathtubs are scattered about. Bring your creativity to Kenneth Udin's Architectural Salvage and Collectibles (3965 Tchoupitoulas Street): Old bathtub claws and balls make dragon-like bookends, iron fences can be crafted into headboards, and schoolhouse hall lamps beat Pottery Barn's knockoffs--all for less than $100.
If, like most Southerners, you seek treasures to enjoy and pass down, New Orleans' alluring antiques havens are ideal places to spend a weekend.
This article is from the January 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.