It may look like a gallery, and is certainly set up like one, but each rare, one-of-a-kind antique or valuable painting or centuries-old rug housed in the newly opened Antique & Art Gallery in Bur Dubai Souk is available for purchase.
The space opened earlier this week, and is a long-awaited addition to Dubai's fledgling antiques scene. "I really believe we are the first, and the only, authentic antiques store in Dubai. We're the only ones that have nothing but antiques, definitely," says store owner Elisabeth Bartaa.
She felt that she was well-suited to address this gap in the market. "People in Dubai appreciate beautiful things, and are happy to learn, so even if someone isn't already a collector, it is easy to become one," she says.
A restoration artist who studied in Florence and worked for years restoring paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, Bartaa has worked in the antiques business for 20 years, and is a celebrated dealer in Lebanon.
"Antiques and old art are a passion for me," she explains.
The Antique & Art Gallery has a separate section dedicated only to restoration, where Bartaa works on the care, protection and preservation of old works of value. She painstakingly examines, researches, cleans and repairs them, acting as both a restorer and conservator.
"I have an appreciation for all forms of art, but there's something special about antiques, and I always dreamt of curating my own collection in a gallery form, and helping others to fall in love with the beauty of a piece full of history," she explains.
Opening in Dubai was an obvious choice, she says, since there is very little competition. Bartaa’s store focuses on Asian and European antiques rarely found in the region.
"I have Chinese vases, Japanese porcelain, French vases known as Le Gras, antique Bohemia crystal from the Czech Republic, ancient rugs from Iran and Turkmenistan – so many things that you cannot find in Dubai, or if you do, they are imitations or claim to be antiques and absolutely are not," Bartaa says.
She travels to Paris, Italy and London to hunt for pieces. It took her three years to source enough items to justify opening a store. "I travel a lot," she explains. "I bring back treasures I find from London and Italy. In Paris, I go antique hunting in the flea market held on the weekends."
Every single item available in her store has a proven provenance, which she works tirelessly on substantiating. The value of any antique lies in verifying its history, whether through a certificate of authenticity or an original receipt, and she absolutely refuses to stock items that cannot be certified as originals.
"Part of the beauty of an antique, and part of the excitement of acquiring one for a buyer, is learning the story behind the piece that they are adding to their home. So, for example, I have a lot of art by Orientalist artists. What this means is that when Napoleon Bonaparte was conquering Europe and Egypt, the artists that came with him, used to paint tableaus of what they saw in the Middle East.
"The works by these European artists are rare pieces of antique art, and it's interesting to hear the story behind them. I have this art and I love sharing these stories with my buyers. I know where every item came from, and where it was made, and that it is 100 per cent an antique."
The store is filled with treasures, with everything from crystal chandeliers and silver figurines to porcelain Chinese vases stamped with the Emperor's seal, rare oil paintings and museum-worthy rugs. Bartaa prides herself on the uniqueness of each and every item. "I've hunted down every piece in here personally. It's one in a million, there's nothing else like it out there. I've been preparing for this for years," she explains.
Opening the store in an older part of the city, Bur Dubai, just down the road from the Dubai Museum, felt like a no-brainer for her. "This is such a beautiful area of the city, and the right setting for all my ancient treasures," Bartaa says. The question is whether there is a market for her antiques in a modern metropolis like Dubai? Do antique collectors even exist here?
"It's not important at all for there to be collectors, I feel," she explains. "What's important is that these are unique items; you can't find two of what I offer. It's almost like I am selling culture or good taste. There is so much beauty in these pieces, and if you have one in your home, you will never lose interest in it, because no one else has anything like it, just you."
The value of an antique, which is an investment in itself, will not likely lose its worth.
“My job is to explain to the buyer why they’re getting a catch. I’m happy for anyone to return an item if they take it home and feel like it’s not the right fit, because I truly love every piece I’ve found. It’s a source of joy for me – the delicacy in each piece, the history of it, the work that has gone into every detail.”
Her job also entails explaining the cost of her antiques, which can range in price from US$100 (Dh370) to $5000 (Dh18,400).
"These pieces are old, but they will never age," she notes. "It's beautiful to mix antiques with modern design; the contrast is stunning, layered and sophisticated, so these are pieces of art that can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of their age. All they need to do, really, is fall in love with a piece."