By Tom Christopher
The headquarters of Nathan Liverant and Son is a former Baptist meetinghouse on the main street of Colchester, Connecticut. The main room is filled with gems of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American decorative arts: clocks, chairs, piecrust tables, blanket chests, silver, and oil paintings. Yet when Arthur Liverant, the current proprietor, wants to evoke the firm’s history, he points to a framed document on the restroom wall. It’s an auction notice dated October 16, 1930, published by one “N. Liverant,” Arthur’s grandfather and the dealership’s founder. “This will be a Clean Sale” the notice promises. “There will be No By-Bidders or Boosters.”
Nathan Liverant and Son has come a long way since the firm opened in 1920 but Arthur still honors his grandfather’s business practices—straight dealing and connoisseurship without pomposity.
The history of the firm is classic Americana in its own right. Nathan, the founder, left Russia by himself at age eleven and arrived in Ellis Island in 1901. He discovered Colchester while helping to deliver a load of Harris tweed to a local coat factory and he liked the historic ambiance of the town. During the Great Depression he began purchasing the contents of foreclosed houses in wealthy New York suburbs and bringing them back to Colchester to retail to local farmers and townsfolk. Israel (Zeke), his son and Arthur’s father, had an eye for antiques. As a boy he salvaged hand-forged nails from the ruins of old houses, and during his teens he helped to change the focus of the business when he identified an early eighteenth-century silver salt shaker in a job lot of junk sterling and plate. From there, as Arthur recalls, it was a matter of “working your way up, trying to deal with better things all the time, refining your eye about good quality, good design, and good condition. And it was also a matter of learning about the history of these objects.”
At home, Arthur recalls, “‘antiques’ was spoken in the morning at breakfast. It was dinner music. It was the discussion around our house all the time.” Though he completed an undergraduate degree in economics, he never seriously considered anything other than joining the family firm, which he did in 1971.
The Liverant business model has always been “the tortoise rather than the hare,” Arthur explains. The idea is to deal openly with customers, to educate, and to count on this approach for repeat business and referrals. He describes its benefits by recalling an episode six years ago when a contact (Liverant is notably discreet about names and places) tipped him off about an eighteenth-century house in eastern Connecticut that had been on the market for a couple of years. Arthur and his associate Kevin Tulimieri drove over and found that the building still contained some of its original furnishings, including a portrait of a young woman that Liverant recognized as the work of John Brewster (1766–1854), a deaf-mute from the nearby town of Hampton and a renowned folk artist. Telling the owner of his discovery, Liverant made an offer for the painting. The owner was inclined to sell it at auction, but swayed by Liverant’s frankness, he agreed to let him explore the attic. There, leaning against the chimney, Liverant found a piece of framed silk on silk needlework in miraculously pristine condition. It had been stitched by Rebecca Warren, the girl in the portrait. Liverant persuaded the owner to let him sell the two objects as a set and, he adds, “they are in a great collection today.”
Liverant takes pleasure in such coups, but as the sign in the restroom suggests, he keeps them in perspective. His favorite hat is a baseball cap with the insignia “Rookie.” “I still feel like a rookie,” he says. “There’s so much to learn in this, so much to study and absorb.” He’s fifty-nine, and some of his friends are already retiring. When they ask him whether he’ll leave the business, he doesn’t hesitate: “Not a chance.”>