LAWRENCE PERLMUTTER didn’t choose a career in antiques … it chose him. Intrigued by the fine old furniture and furnishings that surrounded him during his childhood and by the tales of his aunt, an interior designer and antiques dealer in New York during the 1930s and ’40s who claimed Orson Wells among her many illustrious clients, Perlmutter always had that certain je ne sais quoi when it came to antiques.
He admits he was first smitten by 18th-century American furniture—the classical proportions of Queen Anne and the graceful curves of Chippendale—that was handcrafted by artisans in places like Boston, Newport, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia, not far from where he grew up. Eventually, his interest expanded to 18th-century English furniture and then across the European continent to Asia. Not only did Perlmutter learn the periods, the countries of origin and the woods, he acquired an ability to grasp the nuances and value of a piece, and he quickly became fluent in its provenance, which he easily remembered and conveyed to anyone who would listen. Throughout his high school years, Perlmutter operated an antiques shop in Bethesda, Maryland, where he first began making valuable contacts in the antiques industry and building his reputation as a dealer.
After attending college in Boston, Perlmutter stayed on in the City on a Hill to open an antiques shop on Newbury Street. “I was in law school at the time,” states Karen Perlmutter, Lawrence’s wife and business partner of more than three decades. “I practiced law for seven months, then decided to join him in the business.” The couple never looked back.
In 1989, the Perlmutters returned to the Washington, D.C., area, where they both grew up, and established Acanthus Antiques, which specializes in fine antique furniture and decorative items, as well as estate and contemporary jewelry.
“I came on board to handle the business side of things,” says Karen Perlmutter. “But my responsibilities have expanded since those early days. Lawrence has a vast knowledge and a photographic memory when it comes to the furniture, but over time, I mastered the jewelry, silver, porcelain and glass.”
“I was handling jewelry before I met Karen,” adds Lawrence Perlmutter. “She took it to a whole new level. When I would buy something, my eye would be good, but hers is superb in what she selects. She has a fine eye for beauty, so I always consult her on large purchases. If she doesn’t think an item will sell, we don’t buy it.”
About three years ago, the Perlmutters decided it was time for a change. “Our two daughters were grown up, and we were looking for a place to live with a warmer climate,” continues Lawrence Perlmutter. “After doing some exploring, Charleston became the logical destination for us because of its strong antiques market and history.”
For his wife, getting out from under a large brick-and-mortar store with big headaches and bigger payroll taxes was a dream come true. Fortunately, while he had worked tirelessly for decades to build a stellar reputation for Acanthus Antiques, she had been doing the behind-the-scenes work of building a presence for the company online.
“Within a month of the launch of eBay in 1995, we had an online antiques store,” Karen Perlmutter explains. “Lawrence was skeptical at first. He didn’t believe anyone would buy an antique without seeing, touching and feeling it first. Boy, was he wrong!”
As sales from eBay began flowing in, her husband climbed on board the internet train. Using his cellphone, he can now bid on a piece or an entire estate at dinner, send photos of his latest finds to a client just before going to bed, and meet and develop long-term relationships with clients no matter where they are in the world.
As for Karen Perlmutter, she didn’t stop with eBay. Not only does Acanthus Antiques have its own website, featuring over 1,100 items, the company has a presence on Etsy, Ruby Lane, Chairish, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter. Posting regularly on all these platforms keeps her busier than ever, but the payoff has been worth the effort.
“We have a very good reputation in the industry,” she notes. “That’s part of the reason the internet works so well for us. Today, we have over 4,000 positive online comments. People know we’re for real as opposed to fly-by-night.”
While more and more of their business is driven by online sales, the couple doesn’t believe brick-and-mortar is dead. In fact, before they moved to Charleston, they were already doing business here with displays in two local antiques centers.
“By visiting one of these antiques centers, people can get a feel for the quality and variety of antiques we deal in,” says Lawrence Perlmutter. “I’m always happy to meet up with clients at one of the locations to answer questions, or we can set up a time to meet at our local warehouse so they can get a firsthand look at the latest items we have coming in.
“We buy primarily from the Washington, D.C., area. We’re bringing in items that have never been seen in this area before. I think that’s also a factor in our success since we moved here three years ago.”
“What differentiates us from others in this industry, and the reason why we have survived when many have not, is because we are open to change,” concludes Karen Perlmutter.
“The internet makes it easy for us to have a virtual space. Our antiques universe keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s an exciting time to be in the business.”
Patra Taylor is a full-time freelance writer who lives in Mount Pleasant.