There’s one thing that seems to generally hold true for antiques dealers and that is that they’re great at telling stories, or at least being interesting. John Rosselli, some fifty years in the business and counting, is no exception. Known best for his much-loved Upper East Side decorative emporiums, he probably needs little introduction as the husband of Bunny Williams, owner of whippets, collector of blue-and-white porcelain and one of the first people in the business to introduce a sophisticated mix of pieces from all over the world.
He has several showrooms around the country including one in the D&D building from which he sells reproduction furniture, lighting and fabric lines from renowned names such as Robert Kime and Raoul Textiles. At the age of 86, has just renewed the lease for a further five years on his antiques store on East 61st Street. He also has no intention of kicking his shopping habit. “I buy something every day.” Don’t be fooled—the “something” is quickly turned around for a profit. It was fascinating to listen to how naturally it came to him when he spoke about buying things and then selling them on—presumably an automatic mindset for him of which he is almost unaware. But then it was fascinating just listening to him anyway.
So I have been a huge fan of your shops for, like a million years …
Well I’ve been in this business in this since 1952 and I’m 86 now—it’s all drugs really … no I just take a few vitamins. I don’t take anything else.
Whatever works. How did you get your start?
My start? I went to school in north New Jersey, which was an industrial school and they said we think you should apply to Pratt. I said, “Oh God, I don’t want to go to school again.” I was tired of school. My father said, “Well you have to do something.” He said that the only people he knew that were in the furniture business were the Levy Family. So I met the Levys … and they were wild. They were the Marx brothers of the antique world. So I got a job there.
What was your job?
They would import Italian furniture—this is right after the war—and they sold it as 18th century. It was 18th century in a way. The wood was 18th century. They went in and bought what they called “blitz wood” and they would manufacture painted Venetian furniture, all the very fancy grotto chairs and everything like that. I had to touch up the furniture after it got here because of the temperature change. It was heavily gesso-ed and it had started to dry out once it had got here. It wasn’t a big deal … just a few tree branches, a few faces and a few animals. I knew how to mix colors and I learned how to apply it so it would look old.
And how did you start your own business?
I worked there for about two years and one of the brothers asked if I wanted to go into business with him, so I went into business with him on Second Avenue and 68th Street. But he didn’t really pay attention to the business and before I knew it, he said we were going into bankruptcy. To me that was a horrible word so I went to my father and to my sisters—I’m the youngest of fourteen children—there was a tap of funds—it wasn’t easy, but my father said if I got out of debt, I could proceed. I opened a tiny shop on Second Avenue [in 1950]. I went back to Dino Levy—I was then making $100 a week—and I carried on working there. Every two months he gave me piece of furniture [as a bonus for the new store]. It was a wonderful, wonderful time.
Why was it so wonderful?
Third Avenue still had the El and Second Avenue and First Avenue were nothing except bars and antique shops. And a lot of Middle Europeans who came here and who had been in the antique business in Europe were there because they couldn’t afford the rents anywhere else. Oh there was woman who had nothing but brass and copper and there was a man who had nothing but crucifixes! It ran the gamut of every possible treasure on the Earth.
It sounds so much more fun than the Internet …
It was a magical place!
I just love the combination of antique shops and bars—that does seem like a happy symbiosis.
And gay bars! And about five o’clock the hookers would come out. And the thrift shops then in New York were so lucrative! The rich people in New York didn’t have any other place to leave their stuff. The choice then … you could walk in and buy a Chinese export plate for $20. You could buy a pair of gorgeous candlesticks for $10.
But dealing antiques is a tough business—and it must have been so then, just as it is now, no?
For me it wasn’t tough. I had that regular infusion [from Dino Levy] of a piece of furniture here and there and going to the thrift shops, gleaning the thrift shops and getting the best they had for very little money. Auction was still a dealer’s paradise before Sotheby’s and Doyle’s introduced auction to the retail market.
That’s right, it wasn’t for the retail market.
No it wasn’t! It was very intimidating! They were out to sell lots and they couldn’t fool around with some housewife who wanted to buy this or that.
Could you say your passion has really been … collecting or … well, shopping?
Shopping. I’m a shopper. I buy something every day.
Oh absolutely. Bunny and I have a house in the country where there are local auctions and antique shops. I’m always coming back with four or five items. Last week I bought a fabulous mid-19th century bergère chair in original paint for $400. You see French furniture doesn’t sell in Connecticut—they want country or early American. I’ll buy anything if it’s amusing. About a month ago, at an auction, there was a plastic compound of the Capitol. It was all in pieces. I think I paid maybe $25. One of my men put it together. It is so beautiful, all the Supreme Court and all the buildings—I’ll sell it for $300.
So the thrill of the chase has never left you.
Never. But I’ve been very fortunate too. Very, very fortunate. It’s the people I’ve met along the way. And I loved my shop. It was madness. I had a birdcage that was six- and-half feet wide and seven feet tall. It was full of birds. And at that time I had four whippets. It was a comedy act! One day Francoise [Oscar de la Renta’s late wife] called and she said, “Are you going to be in your shop around two o’clock?” At that time, the door opened and this very attractive woman walked in. Babe [Paley] was not beautiful, she was handsome. She had that great American look. It was a spring day, I remember. She had a sweater, the first sweater I had ever seen tied around her neck and she had a suit on. She became a good, valued customer. She was the kind of woman who shopped twelve months a year for Christmas. I had an ivory palm tree, which I had bought in London and she walked in and she said, “That’s Truman’s [Capote] Christmas present.”
Is there anything in your childhood that would have indicated this was going to be your path in life?
Well my mother was a great auction buyer. I was born in a small town, Newton, New Jersey, in Sussex County. My father was in the wholesale grocery business. There were great house sales. She would buy china and she was a linen freak. She had a very good eye. We had a rather large house and we would always entertain. My father knew everybody. I couldn’t wait to be in New York to be anonymous.
But I guess you didn’t really end up that way. I thought you grew up on a farm.
I did. We had a farm on the outskirts of the town. When I was growing up we still had vaudeville. They would have travelling acts and if they had animal acts, they would stay at our farm. One man had a cat act. The cat would walk along a tightrope. There was another one that climbed around on a Ferris wheel.
Did you have chores to do on the farm?
When I was a boy I had two chores inside the house. I had to make sure that the water under the ice-box didn’t overflow. And my mother had this huge stove—one side was gas and it was wood on the other. I had to make sure there was coal on that side. Every morning I had to take out the ashes. We all had to make our own beds. And I had animals to look after.
What about all these siblings of yours?
Yes, I had six brothers and seven sisters. I had an English teacher in high school who was my niece.
[We have to stop to laugh for a while] What sort of things have you found difficult along the way as you have expanded your business?
I wish I could tell you that I had some insecurities about being in business. I never did. I’ve been very fortunate—so fortunate. Getting along with people is the easiest thing in the world for me. And I’m not a snob.
Now what do you do with this apartment because you live with Bunny [Williams], don’t you?
Yes, I lived with Bunny twenty years before I married her. We have a wonderful apartment and we have a wonderful house in the country and our place in Punta Cana. I come here sometimes and I buy a sandwich around the corner—they make the best chicken salad and bacon sandwiches. I get a sandwich and make myself a cup of tea. Occasionally I have some people over for dinner. I’m a pretty good cook—I’m a short order cook. I can cook a meal for fifteen people in two hours. There’s a wonderful recipe in Bunny’s book. It’s a pot roast. You brown the beef with a few onions, add garlic, salt and pepper and you add two cans of cranberries and then you cook the beef until it falls apart. With noodles and a salad, what more do you want?
Did you ever try decorating?
I did a little bit of decorating at one time but I will never do it again because it’s my way or the high way.
And we thought you were easy going! So in that regard you must be very different from Bunny.
Oh Bunny’s a pro, with taste—and ethical! She’s so ethical. And her business office is so organized. She’s very generous.
So how are you two different?
Oh Bunny’s organized. I’m not. I have very good caretakers.
Why do you get on so well together?
Well, why do we get on? We love each other. We are very compatible. We like most of the same things. And we like dogs.
Out of all the experience you had, what was the most valuable?
I think working for those crazy Italians—they were hysteric. They would get in fights in front of customers. Customers would run out of the store. But I was just immersed. I learned how to buy and sell. I’m not saying New York was kinder place then but New York was different. People had time for each other.