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NUTS & BOLT / PATRICK MOTT

Art Museum's Shop: Consigns of the Times

February 01, 1992|PATRICK MOTT

Never having been much of an antique scrounger, I began questioning my motives as I rumbled underneath the streets of London on my way to Portobello Road. Friends had forced me to promise them that, as part of my vacation in Britain, I would spend at least part of a Saturday buried hip deep in junk at the famous open-air antique market. I got out of the Underground in the northwest end with no idea where the street was.

I needn't have worried. Portobello Road sucks you in like a black hole. Just ease into the general neighborhood foot traffic and you'll be swept toward what is not, I found happily, an antique market so much as miscellany heaven.

You can get anything on Portobello Road. A massive oaken Victorian sideboard? They're every 10 feet. A Turkish scimitar? With or without braiding on the handle? A decorative porcelain thimble? The dealers have enough of them to contain the lake in Hyde Park.

I decided I wanted a letter opener. There were hundreds, and the sellers said that hundreds more would be showing up soon, in case I didn't like what was currently available. I was so stunned that the critical faculty that usually makes lightning decisions for me shorted out and I had to duck into a nearby pub to repair it.

The experience was dizzying. It was as if every bit of esoterica in England had been drawn to one spot and been strewn at my feet. It was merchandise overkill. It was purely wonderful, but it gave you the bends.

I came away convinced that, while choice may be a birthright, unlimited choice can turn even the most carnivorous shopper into the centipede who forgot which leg comes next: He just stands rooted to the spot, rattling with frustration.

Here at home there is, thank God, a shop that removes the panicky overload of Portobello Road --that is, in fact, much more closely related to another much more sensible London landmark, The Old Curiosity Shop.

It's the Newport Harbor Art Museum's Consignment Shop. Located comfortingly behind an International House of Pancakes at 333 E. 17th St. in Costa Mesa, the place is Portobello Road in HO scale. Not specifically an antique shop, it's a kind of repository for home furnishings, china and glassware, knickknacks, jewelry, decorative items and other fascinating things that are all but uncategorizable.

Like the 350-year-old Tibetan bell, with mallet, for $290. Or the antique Japanese wedding gown for $350. Or the 90-year-old tortoise-shell comb (not the kind you keep in your pocket; the huge kind that women wear in their hair in productions of "Carmen") for $85, marked down from $210.

Little exotic dreams. The kind of place that could inspire Ray Bradbury into a short story.

Where does it all come from? Mostly it's brought in by folks who have a dwindling need for Tibetan bells, an increasing need for quick cash and a desire to help out the Newport Harbor Art Museum, said Esther Quick, the shop's volunteer manager. Most items are consigned to the shop (some are donated outright), and the original owners get 60% of the eventual sale price. The remaining 40% goes to the museum.

You won't find an entire bedroom suite there (the entire place is about the size of a two-bedroom apartment), but if you're looking for the rare or unusual item to fill out a room or attract a bit of attention, the consignment shop is for you. Also, the top price for any item--or group of items--will be around $2,000. Quick said that one consignor brought in a group of enamel-on-tile paintings valued at $8,000 but, because he needed money in a hurry, accepted a sale price of $2,000.

Customers are eclectic, said Quick, but many of them fall into the category of newlyweds and browsers.

"We get young people who have recently been married," she said, "who want to acquire pieces of furniture that can be heirlooms for them. Other people will come and look around and leave and the next thing you know they'll come back to buy."

A sampling of the curiosities that were in the shop on a recent visit: a set of 90-year-old Theodore Haviland china service for 20 at $1,050; a sterling cigarette case at $85; a cameo ringed with tiny pearls at $275; an 1880 French screen topped with beveled glass at $1,800; a 120-year-old sideboard at $1,400; a pair of Turkish braziers (one brass, one copper) at $200 apiece, and a Chinese ornamental bowl made from pewter and decorated with brass at $125.

It's a mini Portobello Road to explore, five days a week, without the loss of shoe leather or the temptation of nearby pubs. The hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Monday is reserved for receiving merchandise and Sunday is reserved for sleeping late and not working.

Incidentally, I never did buy a letter opener on Portobello Road. None of them appealed to me. But if you see one in the museum consignment shop with the likeness of Harpo Marx carved into the handle, I want to know about it.

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