Betty Gertz’ office, hidden behind a wall of faux books
In Betty Gertz’s office, a set of 19th-century chairs, mid-century glass chandelier, English William and Mary chest used for filing, 18th-century botanicals, antique Aubusson rug, and pots and lacquer chests from Burma and Bangkok. Dried vines from the courtyard grow into the room.
INSIDE A HIDDEN ROOM OF ANTIQUARIAN BETTY GERTZ’ LEGENDARY STORE, EAST & ORIENT, ON THE EVE OF ITS DISMANTLING FOR AUCTION.
I’m lost in the moment: Where is Horst P. Horst when you need him? In 1969, the photographer famously captured Pauline de Rothschild inside her Paris apartment for Vogue, looking out from a secret jib door in a room wrapped in Chinoiserie paper. This could be Betty Gertz.
Twenty-one years ago when Gertz moved her shop East & Orient from its longtime location on Henderson Avenue to the Dallas Design District, Slocum Street was a desolate landscape of empty warehouses peppered with antiques stores. As longtime showroom director John Bray remembers, an 18-wheeler full of rarified furnishings and objects pulled up to the forlorn 18,000-square-foot building and began unloading — 11 more truckloads of treasures followed throughout the night. Because the building had no facade, workers hastily hammered together a plywood wall.
Over time, Gertz turned the bleak space into a magical emporium reminiscent of the ornate antiques shops in Asia and Europe she frequented while traveling with her husband, oilman Bud Gertz. A massive exterior wall, now obscured in fig ivy, leads from the street to an interior courtyard lush with vines and potted ornamental orange trees. It’s hard to imagine this beautiful space had once been the loading dock.
Daylight is fading quickly on this late afternoon in November, and a light rain has puddled in the courtyard and sagged the orange trees’ withering branches. For a minute, I think about the former tangled, abandoned foliage at Grey Gardens before Jacqueline Onassis intervened, and wonder what will become of this wonderful place once it’s sold.
To the right, there’s a small window looking into Gertz’s private office, glowing with lamplight. The carved front door is locked, and the heavy iron knocker slams against the wood like an ancient anvil as I raise and drop it. I’m led inside by Liane H. LaBarba (a Gertz family friend and temporary employee), and past the monumental Chinese cloisonné cisterns and Blanc de Chine figures and lavishly appointed rooms full of antique English, French, Italian, Russian and Asian antiques — all more reminiscent of a chateau in France or a villa in Italy than a store in Dallas.
LaBarba has been hired by Gertz to help prepare the showroom’s inventory for auction on December 10, and a small army of Heritage Auctions employees has been tagging and cataloging more than a thousand pieces for the past two months since Gertz stunningly announced the closure of the business she founded in 1979.
I’ve been asked to wait for Gertz in the library, a rich claret-hued room redolent of musty old leather. The walls are ensconced in leather “books by the meter,” which Bray explains were custom made in England in the 1980s for the former Henderson Avenue location, and later installed in this room. As we talk, a wedge of light gleams from behind a book-covered panel in the wall, and within the widening illumination, a wisp of a woman emerges.
It’s Gertz, dressed in a tailored black pantsuit and gold necklace, coming out of her office, which is hidden behind one wall of faux books. She stands in the doorway looking out, and cheerfully says hello.
“My friend in Hong Kong had an office with a hidden door, and I was enchanted by that, so I wanted one, too,” Gertz tells me as we go inside. “The only difference is my friend could escape without anyone knowing, into his office, but everyone knows where mine is.”
Gertz’s private domain is filled with favorite pieces, including a rare pair of mounted antique narwhal tusks, a tiny antique carved ivory elephant, a 19th-century Korean tiger scroll, and a William and Mary chest with hidden drawers and compartments, which she uses for her personal filing.
Her desk chair is 19th-century, painted Louis XV style, purchased decades ago from a John Astin Perkins-designed estate. A large dining table with a gleaming French polish serves as a desk, and is covered in paperwork, glasses of melting ice water that she forgets are there, piles of invitations, multiple calculators with oversized buttons, and desktop accessories such as a magnifying glass and a fantastic pewter staple pull that looks like a snake’s mouth with fangs. Dried vines from the courtyard have worked their way into the window and are growing along the walls and hanging from the chandelier.
Over the decades, an illustrious lineup of people have come through the store — some of them even venturing into Gertz’ hidden inner sanctum — including Princess Michael of Kent, whom she remembers bought a pair of Asprey ivory salt and pepper shakers. Bill Blass was a dedicated client, and some of his legendary collection of wood staircase models came from East & Orient.
“The last thing he bought was when Princess Diana was coming to lunch at his house,” says Gertz. “He bought elegant crystal goblets for the table. There were probably six pieces at each setting, and he put a gold BB on them.” Dominick Dunne, Viscount David Linley, Mario Buatta, Mark Hampton, Bunny Williams, Charlotte Moss — they have all been loyal customers and friends. She credits Stanley Marcus, a friend of her husband’s, with mentoring her in the early days and referring his friends to the store. She may not have needed much help — the Gertzes ran with their own set of international glitterati, from Moshe Dayan to Aristotle Onassis.
The store’s draw was Gertz’s eye for unusual and rare finds, which she picked up around the world on her travels, and arranged into home-like vignettes. Her longtime association with Belgian architect/designer Axel Vervoordt was a boon, and between the two of them they cornered the market on Ming Dynasty shipwreck porcelain from the Hatcher Cargo in the 1980s.
Not too long ago, a cache of forgotten Hatcher pieces was discovered in a hidden drawer; those pieces will go up for auction at Christie’s in January 2017. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of the big punch bowls,” Gertz laments with a laugh, as these can fetch astronomically high prices.
Some of the most noteworthy furniture on the floor, now, which one can bid on this month, include a large, late 19th century English Chippendale style vitrine, attributed to Lenygon and Morant; an 18th-century painting by German artist Franz Werner Von Tamm; an early 18th-century black and gilt Chinoiserie secretary; and a 19th-century miniature box carved to look like a sideboard, from the collection of Mark Hampton.
Before I take my leave, Gertz guides me on a tour of the store, and she seems just as delighted by what she’s seeing as I am. “I didn’t realize that was still here,” she’d exclaim. Or, “That’s a great piece,” she would say, running her hand over a gleaming surface, or lifting a latch to peer inside. Eighteen thousand square feet is too much to handle at her age, she says, and there’s not a trace of regret at letting it go.
“I’m glad to get rid of it,” she says. “[Viscount] David Linley had dinner at my house the other day, and he said, ‘Betty, things are changing for us in this business, and we’ve got to adapt.’ He’s gutting his Pimlico Road store and starting over.”
Gertz is starting over, too. She’s considering a much smaller space in the Design District, with the hope of buying it and reopening East & Orient there. She’s not sure what she will sell in the new store, but like Axel Vervoordt, she’s begun investing in modern art, which she thinks will look great mixed with antiques.
“It’s time to look at the world with a different eye,” she says. “But first, I want to take a deep breath. I think I’d like to go to Beijing for Christmas and take my grandson with me, since he speaks Chinese. I’m not sure what will follow that deep breath, but whatever it is, will be interesting.”