And maybe the dawn of a second golden age
By Jim Dodson • Photograph by Lynn Donovan
During a brief lull in business in his handsomely kitted-out shop, standing beside a gorgeous mahogany three-over-two chest of drawers (circa 1830), Larry Laster tells an engaging story about how, in effect, he got into the fine art and antique business at the tender age of 16.
“On weekends my buddies and I used to drive up and down Stratford Road [in Winston-Salem] in my ’55 DeSoto because the girls were always at Chuck Wagon or the Triangle. We collected empty pop bottles and put them in racks of 24 — at two cents apiece for the deposit. Each rack was worth 48 cents. Gas was just 19 cents, so we could cruise a lot.”
One weekend they cruised past a set of old chairs that had been put out for collection. “We stopped and I asked the women there if we could take them. She said yes and we loaded them into the huge trunk of my car. I knew a lady who lived on Country Club Road who was in the antiques business. I took the chairs to her, hoping she might buy them for $5 apiece. She paid us $50. That’s when I suddenly fell in love with buying and selling antiques.”
By the time he’d married his wife, Susan, Laster was adept at supplying interior decorators of the Triad with rare and unusual antiques and fine art for their clients, a business so promising he soon opened his own showroom gallery at High Point’s Southern Furniture Market and directed a staff of 25 sales people nationwide.
“That was an incredible time for antiques and fine artwork,” he explains. “And for the next 30 years we developed great relationships with interior designers across the nation who were looking for high quality art and antiques, rare books and maps and collectibles.”
He cites a dramatic industry sea change, so to speak, with the events of 9/11.
“Almost overnight, fine art and antiques buying ceased. It was like we were paralyzed. I think people feared America wouldn’t be the same,” he says. The markets dried up. “The interior design trade all but melted away. After about three or four years of that, we closed the showroom and concentrated on opening our first retail shop.” Fittingly, it sits at 664 South Stratford Road, the street where Larry Laster’s antique dreams began.
These days, because of his early connections to the business and a deep customer base that still extends nationwide and into some foreign countries, the bell on the front door of Laster’s Fine Art & Antiques — which Larry, 66, and son Ryan now manage as partners — is in constant use, ditto the office phones.
“Because of our history in the region, our customers are very loyal because they know our reputation for finding beautiful handmade furniture and art. We appeal to people who are typically well-educated and have an interest in fine things.” As he says this, he removes a drawer from the antique chest, flips it over and shows the exquisite dovetail joinery and hand-planed bottom, explaining the double whammy that hit the antiques market a few years after 9/11, prompting values across the board to plummet.
“Next came furniture companies aimed primarily at the younger market, places like Ikea and Rooms To Go and Pottery Barn. They’ve become successful because of their youthful style and affordability. But their furniture can’t compare to a beautiful handmade piece of furniture like this dresser — which will last for another hundred years.”
The Lasters have found, in fact, a modest revival of public interest in original fine art and antiques in recent years, as a pair of intriguing factors have come into play.
“Once upon a time, a number people in this business sold antiques primarily for their investment value,” Laster explains. “Dealers used to say that a beautiful antique would never lose its value. But that went away in a big way a decade or so ago. Now, that same piece of furniture sells for a third of what it would have sold for 20 years ago. That’s given people in search of high quality a real opportunity.”
In other words, a true buyer’s market.
“We tell folks to buy a piece of furniture or fine art because they love it, not because they think its value may increase over time. For this reason we invite them to take it home and try it out — bring it back if it doesn’t feel right. We want them to love what they’ve found here, something that will give them many years of happiness. If someday its value goes up, well, all the better.”
Antiques aren’t over, Larry Laster insists. “They are, in fact, a terrific bargain now, aided by the fact that the stuff coming out estates and private homes, particularly here in the Piedmont, are exceptional, items of such truly high quality Ryan and I are constantly amazed, seeing things now I would loved to have had two decades ago. In fact, this may just be the tip of a second golden age of antiques.”