NORWAY — Like pretty much everyone in Oxford Hills and beyond, James Barrett and his store Widdershins Antiques in Norway have weathered a tough year. Although he was forced to close the shop from March into May due to the pandemic, Barrett has been riding a wave of anticipation toward better times since October, when he had the good luck to stumble across a valuable painting and the judgment to buy it on the spot.

A Norway antiques dealer rescued this painting from obscurity, at a significant profit. Submitted photo

After months of negotiating with art galleries in New York and Austria, Barrett sold the painting last week and shipped it to its new owners in Vienna, where it will be treated to a much needed restoration. Ironically, the gallery making the highest bid has a similar sounding name – Widder Fine Arts.

And where did Barrett find his treasure? He prefers not to say.

“I can’t divulge all the details,” Barrett said. “That would be like a fisherman telling where his best spot is. Then it’s not his fishing spot anymore. It’s kind of a trade secret. But, like you’d see on Antique’s Road Show, I thrifted it.

“Some of the details about the frame and its construction gave me an idea of its age. The artwork itself looked well done to me. The price was right for me to roll the dice and look into it further. There wasn’t much of a chance of not being able to get my money back. So that’s what I did, just took a chance.”

The piece in question was painted by Austrian-born artist Josef Floch. After the upheaval of World War I, Floch left Austria for Paris where he joined the popular avant-garde movement. As World War II raged in France, he immigrated to the United States about 1941, permanently settling in New York.

Painting in hand, Barrett began doing research online to try and confirm that Floch was indeed the painter. It was not signed but had his initials written and his name stamped on the back of the frame. Finding two art galleries that specialized in his work Barrett reached out to both, hoping they could provide more information and to gauge their interest in it.

They both came back with offers [to buy],” Barrett said. “And both were for the same amount. It put me into a bit of a tailspin so I had to get an impartial assessment. While I was waiting for the appraisal to come back, the second gallery in New York went down a bit on their offer.

“Some of Floch’s works of art were going for significant amounts. My appraisal confirmed that both had made fair offers. I wasn’t surprised to get immediate offers, but I sure was happy. It does have many condition issues. It will need full restoration. It’s been well-loved.”

While he says he is not an expert on art restoration, Barrett has an idea of the TLC his painting will go through at the Vienna gallery.

“Sometimes they remove it from its frame,” he said. “They may put some extra canvas or linen on the back to strengthen it. Then there is a process to remove dirt and residue from the paint. Often it will brighten up a painting. Colors can get muted over time by the sun and grime that builds up, dust. They are often more vibrant underneath than what you see.

“They use a gentle cleaner, that will remove grit without affecting the paint, and then they touch it up with the techniques and paints that are appropriate to get it back to as close to its original state as possible.”

Barrett opened his store in Norway a little more than two years ago. He said he got pulled into the antique business while he was a buyer of vintage materials for assemblage art.

James Barrett of Widdershins Antiques in Norway just closed on an international art deal that began with a “thrifted” piece of art. Submitted photo

“I found assemblage art as something I wanted to try myself,” he said. “It’s repurposed, recycled sculpture. Steam punk is one name for it. Basically it’s bringing together various items used for various purposes to make a sculptural piece. I was looking for parts for my art.

“And to pay for supplies and materials I was also buying and selling vintage items online. The vintage items started to accumulate and take over. It kind of snowballed until I eventually got involved in flea markets, to resell things. Then it became apparent that I’d do better with my own shop.”

Having found success selling online but not wishing to be at the seasonal whims of the flea market business Barrett decided he needed a warm place where he could focus on retail year-round.

“I enjoy every part of it,” he said of opening his own store. “Socializing with people, finding items is great. When someone comes and sees an item that speaks to them I get excited.

“With vintage stuff, customers have a reason why they were looking for it. Or maybe it’s the perfect gift for someone. I don’t do Etsy anymore; I don’t have the time to list online. And I prefer to do in person business. But I could go back to it in the future if I need to offset slow periods.”

Like most small businesses, Barrett relies on seasonal, tourist traffic during the warmer months. He’s built a number of repeat customers, from close to home as well as from away. Having to close for three months while the economy was shut down definitely hurt but he used that time to start expanding back rooms in the shop into retail space – he has plenty of inventory so he’s better served selling it than storing it.

“I’ve gotten more into art this year, pottery and paintings,” he said. “I’m picking up on details that help me find things of higher value. But I like a group of eclectic items in the shop. Nothing is off the board for me to grab once in a while to keep my shop to a certain style.

James Barrett maintains an eclectic inventory at his Norway shop, Widdershins. Supplied photo

“If I feel like there is possible value, and my research confirms it. If the risk is worth the value of my investment I’ll purchase a piece.”

With his discerning eye getting sharper, Barrett is happy to end the year 2020 on a five-figure note.

“It’s a roll of the dice every day,” he said. “I have no idea if I will see a ton of sales or no sales at all.”


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