Published: December 7, 2021
LITCHFIELD, CONN. – Peter H. Tillou passed away peacefully at his home in Litchfield on November 22, surrounded by his family. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., October 28, 1935, son of Manley Tillou and Virginia Eller, the internationally renowned arts and antiques dealer had over the course of a long career that spanned more than 65 years established galleries in Buffalo, Litchfield, Sun Valley, Idaho, London, England and New York City.
He started his business in college, earning a degree from Ohio Wesleyan in 1957. “It’s quite impressive the list of galleries he had beginning in the early 1960s, first in Buffalo and around that time, 1962 or 1963, was the first year he started doing the Winter Antiques Show,” recalled son Jeffrey Tillou, who himself specializes in American furniture and fine arts, primarily from the Eighteenth Century through the mid-Nineteenth Century at his Litchfield gallery. “The story goes, Constance ‘Connie’ Williams was a dealer here in Litchfield who also did the Winter Show, got him to come up here and look at Litchfield – and he immediately bought a house. And, as they say, the rest is history.”
And that history spans the breadth of material culture. Known among his colleagues and clients as an expert and authority in a vast number of fields, Peter loved to share his knowledge and was extremely passionate about the pieces he both sold and collected. In his illustrious career, he was known for building important collections in various fields for both museums and clients. One of which was the collection of more than 100 works by some of the greatest artists of the Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish art assembled by the late US Senator John Heinz. According to Jeffrey Tillou, in the late 1980s, Peter developed the relationship with the senator from western Pennsylvania. “He started building what I think is known in the world as one of the greatest collections of Seventeenth Century Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings. And when John died, Teresa [Heinz Kerry, his wife] continued to build that collection. It was a ten-year project, really an incredible feat to do at that time.”
In a 2013 article for Antiques and The Arts Weekly penned by editor-at-large Laura Beach on the occasion of Peter being awarded the Antiques Dealers Association of America (ADA) Award of Merit, Peter’s brother, Dana Tillou, a lifelong Buffalo, N.Y., dealer known primarily for pre-1940 American and British art, recalled the year that his older brother, then 20, arrived home from college in a 1932 Packard with a 6-foot-tall folk art carving of Abe Lincoln that he soon sold to curator Mary Black for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center at Colonial Williamsburg. “It was the beginning, or close to it, of the never ordinary, often flamboyant career of Peter H. Tillou,” wrote Beach.
For a 2019 profile of the “magpie” dealer, Beach visited the private bank in Torrington, Conn., a 12-minute drive from his house. “The building’s disciplined Neoclassical exterior in no way suggests Tillou’s symphonic arrangement inside. Look closely, however, and the interior is a biographical reader on the dealer himself,” Beach wrote.
Peter acquired and restored the offices of the circa 1917 bank branch around 2000. “The bank’s first owners may have traded in certificates of deposit,” observed Beach, “but Tillou invests in the belief that objects make history tangible and beauty is essential to human well-being.”
“It took years and a couple of master craftsmen to restore the bank,” said Peter. “By the time we finished in 2002, I had decided that what I bought to be my private sanctum would instead be my workplace.” His by-appointment showroom had five vaults, spacious enough to hang 6- or 10-foot-high paintings. He filled it with inventory from his closed New York and London galleries, as well as Americana, Native American and Western art from his Sun Valley, Idaho, residence.
The display revealed the polymath that was Peter. A full suit of armor and an antique shotgun suspended from a carved mantel spoke to his prominence in the field of antique arms, which he exhibited at his first antiques show in 1949. It shared space with a documented Duncan Phyfe dining table and possibly from Charleston, S.C., a Federal desk and bookcase with glazed double doors.
Early American glass in seductive shades of cobalt, emerald, teal and amber glowed on a windowsill. Glass was a love Tillou shared in common with Garth Oberlander, a fellow graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University who invited the college-age wunderkind to work with him at his newly formed auction house, Garth’s. It was in Ohio that Tillou began assembling an important collection of early Midwestern glass. Some of that collection was dispersed in an October 2020 auction.
“Many years ago, a friend asked me if I had seen the wonderful antiques shop that Peter Tillou had opened in Litchfield,” recalled R. Scudder Smith, publisher of Antiques and The Arts Weekly. “Having said no, I made it a point within a day or two to visit this fantastic home loaded with all kinds of beautiful antiques for sale.
“Upon meeting Peter, who graciously invited me in, we became instant friends. I became a frequent visitor, and especially so when he opened a shop in a two-story building on a busy street in Litchfield.
“At one point in time I was asked by the Newtown Historical Society to create a fundraiser, which I volunteered to do. My immediate thoughts were to have an antiques exhibition, so my first phone call was to Peter, and it was met with such enthusiasm that I then contacted several other prominent dealers and collectors to lend items, and we had a most successful event. On the evening of the preview party at the Matthew Curtis House on Main Street in Newtown, I was standing at the doorway greeting patrons as they arrived when up drives Peter in his magnificent yellow Rolls Royce and yelled out ‘Where shall I park?’ I said drive it right up on the lawn, which he did, and the car became a focal point along with the antiques inside.
“Peter, with his massive knowledge of all antiques, became a huge moving force within the antiques world, constantly being sought-after by dealers, collectors and auction houses to share this knowledge.
“Everyone enjoyed being in Peter’s presence with his infectious laughter and always joyful spirit. He shared fabulous stories of his experiences, and he had so many to tell. This icon will be missed forever.”
This was just one example of the many close relationships Peter forged in his business and carried over into his personal life. He enjoyed his trips around the world with the Natural History Museum, fly-fishing, the outdoors and was an accomplished amateur golfer.
Peter’s biggest love was for his family and grandchildren. He will be remembered by all of those he touched with his kindness, generosity and love. He had a way of brightening a room and making people smile when he entered. Peter will be dearly missed, yet the stories and memories of him will live on.
Peter is survived by younger brother, Dana Tillou, and two sons, Trace and Jeffrey, along with grandchildren Alexander and Harrison Tillou.
A memorial service is being planned for the spring.
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