Published: October 17, 2000
A Tribute to Zeke
COLCHESTER, CONN. – Zeke Liverant, who died at age 83 on October 8, embodied the best contradictions of the antiques business. He was earthy and sublime; a pragmatist pledged to ideal standards of quality; a connoisseur with no patience for snobbery; often charming, sometimes breathtakingly blunt. He was a man for whom the past and present were equally vital; for whom historical artifacts were objects of beauty and vessels of memory; a man whose passion for antiques was surpassed only by his love of people.
Israel E. Liverant, known to all as Zeke, was laid to rest on October 10. The day was razor-sharp and bright, much like the man himself. A halo of fall leaves framed Main Street’s timeless tableau, a landscape of which Zeke had long been an important part.
The memorial service at Congregation Ahavath Achim, where Zeke had been an officer, brought Colchester traffic to a halt. Zeke was born in the small town in 1916, leaving only to serve in the Army during World War II. His ecumenical interests and friendships were reflected by the gathering, which included corporate titans and truckers, antiques dealers and local leaders.
“I’m here to say goodbye to my good friend Zeke. If anyone has had a friendship like this one in his lifetime, he is very lucky. Zeke was devoted to me, and I to him,” said Albert Sack, who delivered a touching tribute to his colleague of more than 50 years.
“When Zeke took over the business from his father he decided he would not just be another country dealer. He transformed Nathan Liverant & Son with his dignity and honor. I saw Zeke grow into a major force in the antiques field. He became the leading antiques dealer in New England, and put Connecticut furniture on the map,” said Sack.
What would become Nathan Liverant & Son was founded in 1920 by Zeke’s father, a Russian immigrant who bought and sold new and second-hand furniture, as well as antiques. When Zeke joined the business out of high school in the 1930s, he sought to refine its offerings and expand its clientele. Zeke’s son, Arthur, told the Hartford Courant that at the age of 16 his father identified and sold a rare piece of Seventeenth Century American silver for $100, a coup that cemented his interest in antiques for life.
With the publication of his book Fine Points of Furniture in 1950, Albert Sack became well known in his own right, an expert to whom editors often turned for advice. In 1953, at Albert Sack’s suggestion, Life magazine reporter Robert Wallace spent a week on the road with Zeke, looking for antiques. The resulting article, “Zeke the Seeker,” brilliantly portrayed the Connecticut dealer as a tireless, canny scout, combing the hills and making it his business to know everyone who resided in them. Wallace wanted to call his story “Zeke the Picker,” but Sylvia, Zeke’s first wife and Arthur’s mother, found the title distasteful.
It has been decades since anyone has thought of the Liverants as pickers. By the 1960s, when a flush economy helped stimulate interest in American antiques, Zeke had become a widely recognized source for New England furniture and decorative arts. Through his efforts to gather and preserve Connecticut art and architecture, he drew particular attention to the idiosyncratic schools of design that flourished in the former colony in the Eighteenth Century.
His collaborations with the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society and the Connecticut Historical Society, both in Hartford, were especially noteworthy. Susan Schoelwer, director of museum collections at CHS, was a child when the society’s then curator, William Warren, and his close friend Zeke Liverant were augmenting its collections. A stack of source cards today documents their activities.
“Bill and Zeke were very close, and they were both passionately interested in Connecticut history and objects,” noted Schoelwer. “I can trace very clearly the pieces that Zeke gave to CHS or were purchased from his shop, but there are many others, particularly manuscripts, that came here through his influence.”
“It was a very lively time in the history of Connecticut collecting and interest in Connecticut decorative arts,” she continued. “Every October Bill Warren did a paintings show here, presenting pioneering material that had been in family collections until then. Bill and Zeke were in the forefront. In some ways, we are still catching up.”
CHS objects with Liverant provenance include pewter; a silk embroidered overmantel worked by Faith Trumbull, John Trumbull’s sister; Eighteenth Century calligraphic drawings from the Norwich School; and such historical novelties as a Civil War surgical kit, a Middletown looking glass, and a group of pastels and scientific devices related to Dr Elisha Perkins of Plainfield. By far the best known piece is an elaborate silk embroidery of circa 1780-83, “The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality” by Prudence Punderson Rossiter. Illustrated in The Flowering of American Folk Art,among others, it is the most requested image in the museum’s photo archive.
The Punderson trove, acquired in 1962, contained 12 silk embroideries of the apostles; crewelwork bed hangings attributed to Rossiter’s mother; a fire screen; and a Chippendale mirror, tripod table, and pewter inkwell, all of which came from Rossiter’s childhood home in Preston. There is a wedding dress; a collection of silver spoons made in New London county; even 30 manuscript account books belonging to Rossiter’s father, Ebenezer Punderson, and a daybook in which the young girl sketched botanical motifs found in her embroideries.
The Connecticut Historical Society’s association with the Liverant family continues. “Last year, we bought a really magnificent box covered with polychromed leather, a Dutch product of the mid-Eighteenth Century. The box is lined with a Norwich newspaper of 1805,” Schoelwer said. A chair covered in the same leather, acquired by the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, and a fragment of wall covering from the Leffingwell Inn were featured in “Colorful Survivors: Embossed Leather From Eighteenth Century Norwich” at Lyman Allen Art Museum earlier this year. A second leather-covered chair subsequently turned up in a Rhode Island collection.
“His appreciation of early American material was really quite extraordinary,” said Patricia Kane, curator of the Garvan Collection at Yale University Art Gallery. “Over the years he found some great treasures which deepened our understanding, particularly of Connecticut. His knowledge was just vast, it went way back. It was part of that old-time pursuit of getting things directly out of the houses where they had resided.”
Winterthur will remember Zeke Liverant for a Townsend tea table; Colonial Williamsburg, for a chained, rampant lion trade sign; a New York Chippendale card table of Liverant provenance resides at Chipstone Foundation; and a Newport slipper foot highboy can be found at the Denver Art Museum. “If one were to reassemble the 20 greatest things Zeke handled it would be breathtaking. If you assembled 50 things it would be phenomenal. Zeke’s vision for country arts and antiques was unrivaled among dealers of his generation,” said William Hosley, director of the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society in Hartford.
“I think I met Zeke for the first time on an opening night at the Winter Antiques Show, around 1965. I was at that time a curator of American paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” recalled Stuart Feld. The Manhattan dealer spotted a full-length portrait of a New Jersey boy in Liverant’s booth, identifying it as the work of William Williams and asking the dealer to hold it for the museum. Zeke turned up the mate to the painting, by John Durand, a few years later. Now both portraits are at the Met. “I saw a lot of Zeke in the ensuing years,” Feld said. “He was a very unusual person with a phenomenal eye and the ability to come up with remarkable things.”
It was particularly on the show circuit that Zeke exercised his legendary charm and limitless capacity for talk. He also formed some of his most enduring friendships. “We met at the Winter Antiques Show, then called the East Side House Settlement Show, in the 1960s, and all I can say is that he was one of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever known,” recalled Elinor Gordon, a Pennsylvania dealer in Chinese export porcelains. “When things were down and out, he made people laugh. He was ageless, a walking encyclopedia, but in a very quiet way.”
“My only regret is that we didn’t know him longer,” said Ed Hild of Olde Hope Antiques. The Pennsylvania dealers developed an affection for Zeke at the Philadelphia Antiques Show, where their booths were within earshot. “He was an incredibly warm person with a great wit.”
“I must say he had a flair for storytelling. A crowd always surrounded him, eager to learn about his wonderful antiques or hear his latest jokes. I know all of us will feel a void in the center booth in Hartford,” said show manager Linda Turner.
In recent years, Nathan Liverant and Son also participated in the International Fine Art and Antiques Dealers Show, the Delaware Antiques Show, and Antiquarius in Greenwich. Zeke was a founding member of the Antiques Dealers League of America (ADA), exhibiting at the group’s shows in Springfield, White Plains, and Deerfield.
“You knew when he liked you and you knew when he didn’t like you,” ADA president John Keith Russell recently recalled with a laugh. “ADA had a lot of problems in its first year. I didn’t like the way things were shaping up, so I quit. The next time I ran into Zeke, he said, ‘You know, you’re a schmuck.’ What he meant was, ‘What business do you have quitting this organization? If you don’t like it, change it. Get over yourself and get on with it.’ Zeke had a way of reaching people, of insinuating himself in their lives. It was a gift we all shared for a long time.”
Since 1948, Nathan Liverant & Son has occupied a Greek Revival meeting house not far from village green. Built in 1831, the church, Zeke said, had “fallen victim to the disappearance of Baptists in Colchester.” With its wide, lofty interior and its staggering concentration of casepiece furniture arrayed like soldiers, the shop is a precious survivor of another era, a time when powerful antiques dealers built large inventories and let customers seek them out.
Zeke’s personal magnetism and penchant for storytelling drew important buyers to his shop on nearly a daily basis. One word would lead to several thousand, and would often be accompanied by an invitation to lunch. “I know a fine French restaurant in town,” Zeke would say, whisking his guests off to his favorite diner for a burger or a bowl of soup. Other times, lunch would be brought in, and the nearest Chippendale tea table and set of Windsor chairs would be pressed into service. The party often grew as drop-in guests were urged to join the ensemble.
Wilson Faude, executive director of the Old State House in Hartford, recalls wandering into Nathan Liverant and Son Antiques 32 years ago. “Zeke had a collection of toy soldiers. The price was maybe $100 or $200, which I didn’t have, but he said I could pay over time. I started to leave and he asked me, ‘Aren’t you going to take your soldiers?’ He was generous that way. He loved people the way he loved furniture, paintings, and stories.”
“He was generous financially and helped many young dealers get started,” said South Egremont, Mass., dealer Grace Snyder. “Many years ago he asked us to bid for him on a set of chairs at an auction in central New York. We bought the chairs for considerably less than the bid he gave us, and expected only a commission. Zeke insisted that we take the vast difference.”
In recent years, Zeke Liverant was blessed by having extraordinarily devoted partners, his wife, Joanna, and his son and daughter-in-law, Arthur and Gigi. A delicate blonde who married Zeke after the death of Arthur’s mother in 1982, Joanna smoothed the way with her warm, gracious manner and gentle humor. She held her own with her sometimes crusty husband. When his language became too colorful or his stories a bit too lively, Joanna’s pleasant voice could be heard from across the shop, “Now, Zeke, do you really think…” “She was a remarkable wife for him,” Elinor Gordon aptly noted.
“Arthur and Zeke’s relationship was something very special,” said Kevin Tulimieri, whose interest in local history led to a position with Nathan Liverant and Son and a close friendship with Zeke. “Zeke had great respect for Arthur. Arthur adored his father, and rightly so.”
Arthur joined his father soon after completing college. “I grew up riding in the truck and packing furniture. The first thing I was taught was to always fold the blankets so that no one tripped on them. I idolized my father. He had a certain charisma, a twinkle in his eye that made women want to kiss the top of his head,” Arthur said.
“He was a great teacher. He had an innate eye, but it was augmented by study. For as long as I can remember he liked to take a stack of The Magazine Antiquesand go through it page by page. He had a thirst for wonderful things, a desire to refine his taste. He was especially fascinated by offbeat Connecticut cabinetmakers.
“We shared 30 years together in business. We had differences of opinion, but, basically, they never lasted more than a day. We saw eye to eye on most things. He instilled in me the need to be forthright and honest when we were buying and when we were selling. There were people who sold by deceit, and they didn’t last. He liked to teach, and that is the basis of our business,” Zeke’s son noted.
As Zeke’s health faltered in the last decade, Arthur was more often the Liverant one saw at key auctions and other high-level gatherings of the antiques trade. Zeke gracefully passed the reins to his son in all things, even noting, “I used to take him to ball games. Now he takes me.” Their mutual love of University of Connecticut basketball was an important bond. “We’ve had season tickets since 1963,” Arthur recalled. “One day there was a very important game. We debated whether to close the shop on Saturday and finally said, ‘Hell, it’s our business.’ We put a sign on the door, ‘Sorry. Gone to see a collection of baskets.’ When UConn won the national championship, it was one of the greatest days of his life.”
The industry Zeke Liverant helped create is changing. “It’s the middle of the end of the era,” noted Wilson Faude. “Robert Vose, Zeke Liverant, Harold Sack. They were the pioneers who turned over tables and said, ‘I don’t think it’s Philadelphia.’ They taught values and created a business culture. It was an era that, at its heart, was about relationships. It didn’t mean that everyone got along with them; they weren’t running popularity contests. But when they cared about you, they really cared.”
“In a business so loaded with pretense and worry about how people perceive you, Zeke saw through the nonsense and acted on it,” concurred Grace Snyder. “He really was a beacon. Zeke brought incredible personal values into business. That’s what made him so influential, and that’s what makes the Liverant family so inspirational.”
Far from being gloomy, Tuesday’s tribute to Zeke Liverant was a joyous, often humorous, occasion reminding mourners of the primacy of family and community. Zeke’s seven grandchildren, including Arthur and Gigi’s daughters Hannah and Samara, delivered a special tribute in the form of a Top Ten list of gifts their grandfather gave them. A salty vocabulary, an appreciation for voluptuous curves, and a knack for telling great and sometimes lengthy stories were on the list. Number one, however, was family. “Create a strong foundation and build on it,” said Zeke’s grandchildren, and so the Liverants have.
And a Word from Publisher R. Scudder Smith…
Zeke Liverant. Now there is a name that brings to mind many pleasant memories filled with chats about bits and pieces of history, the provenances of antiques, countless jokes, including a few which were really not worth telling. We can’t think of Zeke without smiling.
We were among those just getting our feet wet in a territory that was already well trodden by Zeke. It was the late 60s and early 70s, a time when the antiques business was moving along briskly and it seems as if there were enough great things out there to fill everyone’s wish list. People like the Sacks, Mary Allis, Lillian Cogan, Paul Weld, Florence Maine, Charles Montgomery, Tom and Constance Williams, John Walton, Bihler and Coger, and Rocky Gardiner were fueling the collections of Williamsburg, Winterthur, and Shelborne, and at the same time filling the homes of Nina and Bert Little, Austin Fine, and Bernard Barenholtz. These names, and a great many more inscribed deeply on both sides of the coin of dealers and collectors, reflect a tradition of dedication to preserving our past through collections of American antiques.
In this respect, few stood as tall as Zeke Liverant. A couple of minutes in his presence and he would whisk you away into his past, recalling the time when he discovered a highboy in the back room of a house where one would expect golden oak furnishings. Or possibly he would retell his discovery of a piece of Connecticut needlework hanging in the back hallway of a crumbling farmhouse. When he ceased talking about his ventures in the antiques business, he would fall back on “have you heard the one about?” Even if you replied “yes,” he would go right on, telling it again with more elaborate embellishments. And in the end, it was funny all over again mainly because of the enjoyment Zeke relished when he was the center of attention and in the company of some of his countless friends. His humor was contagious, and the circle of visitors that generally surrounded him at shows was more important to him than if those same people gathered about his pristine Connecticut slant-front desk or tall case clock.
Our first encounter with Zeke was at an antiques show. He was engineering the booth setup while at the same time finding time to talk with every dealer or committee person who happened along. We found him, after the show had opened, holding court from a Connecticut great chair at the front corner of the booth. After an introduction, which really did not seem necessary to engage him in conversation, he went on to tell us about some of the people whom he had known in the field of journalism. He commented on the number of errors some reporters make, and questioned why some always have bad things to write about others. “Be more positive, it will never hurt,” he advised.
Over the years we learned that Zeke practiced what he preached. His devotion spread from him as rays from the sun. His love for his trade brought antiques to a new level and he grew to be the dominant force in the business for years in Connecticut. His friends knew his generosity, his wit, and his support which he would give at a moment’s notice. But nothing came close to the devotion and love Zeke had for his family. They were his life. He was enriched by them, and his care and solid outlook on life filtered into every one of them. They were all on a pedestal – grandchildren, children and spouses, and wife – and Zeke was there as their support. His devotion was legendary; in fact, Zeke Liverant is a legend.
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