Long before it was hip to install a Buddha in your home or toss suzani textiles on your sofa, Jacques Carcanagues filled his New York gallery with exotica.
For 40 years, Jacques Carcanagues Gallery hosted a convocation of curiosities from India, North Africa, the Far East and Central and South America.
That adventure ends on Feb. 28 with the closing of the storefront. (The place was supposed to be shuttered on Dec. 31, but late-arriving shipments and an overflowing stockroom delayed the denouement.)
Carcanagues, a 75-year-old Frenchman with undisciplined eyebrows and mustache, recently sat down with a reporter to discuss his decades in SoHo and plans for the future.
Q. You weren’t originally in the antiques business.
No, no. When I was 23, I worked for an aircraft company, and for that job I had to go to Brazil. After I came back, I sent a letter to the commercial attaché for France in Brazil, asking if he knew about any jobs there. That is how I ended up in the diplomatic corps, developing the French export business, helping them sell to Brazil things like big machinery, airplanes and helicopters.
Q. You also worked in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Tunisia. How did you wind up in New York?
A friend invited me to visit New York, so I took a leave from the diplomatic corps and came here in 1971.
It was fabulous. I met a French guy here who was an expert in African art and wanted me to be his assistant. I didn’t know anything about African art but I knew a lot about pre-Columbian from living in Central America for so long.
I tried to sell Stanley Marcus a pre-Columbian piece, and he looked at me — he was a very nice man — and said, “Jacques, all those pieces are second quality.” He was not interested, but I felt that he was sorry not to buy anything from me. When we were saying goodbye, I took something out of my pocket, and an amulet fell out. It was a hand of Fatima. He wanted 30 pieces for one of his stores. It was my first big sale. So I got on a plane to Tunisia and Morocco to buy these pieces and that’s how I started my business.
Q. Did you open a shop?
I was renting a loft on West Broadway, where Origins is now. I lived on the fifth floor. Annie Flanders, you’ve probably heard of her, lived on the third floor with her husband. (She edited the original Details magazine.)
And on the fourth floor was a guy who dealt drugs. I divided my loft in two; one part was the wholesale operation and the back was where I was living.
Little by little I added rugs and furniture and objects and I had more countries on the list. In the beginning I started with North Africa and then I went to India. I went to Afghanistan, Thailand, Nepal, and Indonesia. I was one of the first ones to go to Indonesia. And then I stopped because everyone was going there. Then I went to Japan, Korea, China. We were importing at least one or two containers a month.
We designed some brass bangles in the ‘70s that we made in India and that became very popular; we were importing thousands of them. We turned into a company of 22 people just to deal with the bracelets. So with the money from the bracelets, I bought that building on West Broadway and this building.
Q. You’ve seen SoHo change a lot.
We’re the oldest business, with Dean & DeLuca. In the 1970s Giorgio DeLuca was making cheesecakes and selling them individually from the place where Olive’s is now. SoHo has changed a lot. For some people it is good; for people like me it is a disaster. It is just like walking in a mall of an airport.
Q. And your business model must have changed as well, as people became more comfortable with buying and selling online.
Oh yes. We are on 1stdibs, and for some of the sales we never meet the people. My first sale, a woman from north of Seattle, bought two chaises that were $10,000 each. I was surprised because when I buy a piece of furniture, I touch it, I look at it, I check for damage. But now we sell from photographs all the time. Incomprehensible.
Q. What will you do with all this stuff?
I’d like to keep selling some objects online, and some I will give to charity. My employees will run it; I will be behind the scenes. I just want to relax and go on with the same life, keep traveling, go to my house in Marrakech, visit my good friends in India.
Q. Why did you ultimately decide to close?
I did this for 40 years; that’s enough. I just want to sit on my roof in Morocco and see the sunset.