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An antiques dealer's quest for `harmony'

Axel Vervoordt of Antwerp is as much a philosopher as he is an antiques dealer and decorator. Which is the more important is difficult to say, because for him they go hand in hand. On the one hand, his stock in trade is fine furniture, silver, porcelain, and pictures. But on the other hand, it is just as much ideas. How the objects help his customers find their accord with harmony and order is of prime importance to Mr. Vervoordt. Great artists, he says, are especially sensitive to the eternal harmony of nature, whose qualities are necessarily invested in their works. ``It is our task to recognize these qualities and to place these works of art in an environment where their spiritual radiation can come into its own.'' Thus objects of widely differing origin can be successfully mixed, and whether they contrast or blend, will help the human being to uplift his life. It also makes for interesting interior decoration. The grouping of an abstract painting hung over a rugged 16th-century refectory table on which is grouped a few Chinese pottery vases gives the disparate objects a new significance in their unfamiliar company.

That's all very well, one might say, for those who are able to afford fine works of art. But Vervoordt is one of those rather rare collectors for whom aesthetics are at least as important as superficial monetary value. This is by no means a subtle way of avoiding the expensive. Indeed, he has pieces of furniture, silver, and sculpture of major importance for those who can afford them, but they take their place among carefully chosen objects of more humble origin, and none suffer from the unusual juxtaposition. As many sensitive collectors have long since discovered for themselves, beauty can be found in the humblest of pieces. Vervoordt's stock may vary considerably in price, but the quality is constant. Where else can you go and choose between a breadboard and a 3,000-year-old Egyptian bronze sculpture?

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The contrasts are often daring and come of great self-confidence. Like all connoisseurs, Vervoordt has developed his taste entirely on his own initiative, but his sound business acumen, he says, he owes in part to his father, who made available the initial financial backing, but on the strictest business terms. The discipline of those early years has clearly paid off. Now, Vervoordt is in a position to back his judgment at any level of the market, and occasionally even take a risk. When in 1984 a cargo of Chinese porcelain was raised from the bottom of the South China Sea by Michael Hatcher, the market was not ready for the quantities of Ming porcelain which suddenly appeared. Nor was it ready for the special effect on the glaze which centuries under the seas had produced. Vervoordt was captivated by the romance of the cargo and bought almost the entire consignment at the first auction. Only then did dealers and collectors realize the importance of the cargo, and prices soon rocketed, turning Vervoordt's venture into what he describes as the best deal he has ever made.

His business recently moved to the Castle of Gravenwezel, about six miles northeast of Antwerp, after many years in the city. The new premises can hardly be described as a shop, but it is to this turreted and moated castle that his customers have to go.

Groups of visitors gather in the converted stables and wait to be conducted across the cobbled courtyard and over one of the two bridges spanning the wide moat to the 18th-century front of the 14th-century castle. Inside, there are surprises in store, not least of which is to find that this is not a shop at all but the home of the Vervoordt family. Only the bedrooms are out of bounds, and the visitor may well find the family, often extended to include assistants and secretaries, lunching in the kitchen, or Vervoordt himself at work in the library. The rooms are large, with high ceilings, and filled with treasures, almost all of which are for sale. It is a slightly theatrical experience, greatly enhanced by baroque music piped into every room.

Display, though, is of more than superficial importance to a man who is also an interior designer. Vervoordt's philosophy governs this side of the business as well. He also believes that we work, relax, and even sleep better in surroundings which are functional, tasteful, and stimulating, with the right furniture, porcelain, and silver to use. In considering these matters so very well, it all might become rather self-conscious were not that he also believes that the first function of decoration is to make itself invisible. He expects his clients to feel at home in the rooms he has decorated for them, in a way they have never felt before.

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