Home Dealers Calendar Articles Fine Art Database About AFA Login/Register
Home | Articles | A Collector's Collector

Photography by J. David Bohl

Tillou's twenty-five room Litchfield, Connecticut, home was built in 1867 as a Victorian mansion and later converted to a 1920s Colonial Revival house.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a collector as someone who "collects or gathers together...specimens, works of art, curiosities...[and] items of interest because of [their] excellence, rarity, etc." It would be much more efficient to simply refer the reader to Peter Tillou. With houses in Litchfield, Connecticut, Sanibel Island, Florida, and Sun Valley, Idaho, brimming with collections of American and European furniture and paintings, folk art and Dutch Old Masters, Chinese Tang and Han ceramics, ancient bronzes, arms and armor, African carvings, American glass, contemporary art, and pre-Columbian pottery, not to mention garages full of vintage classic cars, Tillou's eclectic approach to assembling objects creates environments that are a wonderfully refreshing juxtaposition of times, places, and styles.

A natural collector, Tillou is driven by the thrill of discovery and exploration coupled with an incessant curiosity and need for edification. When combined with boundless energy and a decidedly good nature, the result is an unstoppable collector whose enthusiasm is contagious.

Andrew Jackson Ten Broeck, "aged 1 year and 6 mo." by Ammi Phillips (1788–1865), is one of Tillou's favorite paintings and as such, is prominently placed in the dining room over one of two Federal sideboards, this one fitted with English saltglazed pottery. Over the Colchester, Connecticut, chest-on-frame is a still life attributed to Jan Bruegel, the younger (1601–1678). An English seventeenth-century portrait of a child hangs in the corner. The classical dining table is seated with New York Federal dining chairs and is set with a selection from an 1810 Crown & Bloor Derby dinner service.

This room perhaps best illustrates the point that great design is timeless and reaches across all cultures. The New England carved fireplace acts as a display setting for mold-blown glass flasks, a selection of delightful watercolors, a Bennington, Vermont, stoneware peacock jug, brass andirons, and Mexican figures. A portrait of a child by William Matthew Prior (1806–1873), circa 1840, hangs above a seventeenth-century chair from the north shore of Massachusetts that Tillou purchased while in college for $75. A Sioux Plains Indian vest, circa 1880, and on the left, a Senoufo African figure, circa 1930, are among the objects on an exuberantly painted chest that Tillou purchased from a family with the strict stipulation that he never sell it.
Not beholden to one specific area of collecting, Tillou's overriding themes when buying are history and aesthetics. He is drawn to objects that exhibit, he says, "exquisite design, bold patterns, abstract representations of form and space, combinations of color, and sensitivity to the subject." As he notes,"“Successful design is timeless." In fact, Tillou wishes that objects were judged on their quality and merit rather than, as is often the case, on a signature. "I would rather buy an unsigned masterpiece than a mediocre identified piece. Collectors need to trust their own judgment and respond to the beauty of an object, how it makes them feel. This is what collecting is all about."

The collecting bug caught Tillou at an early age, spurred on by the support his parents gave him for his many interests and hobbies. He credits this encouragement with providing the freedom and confidence essential to that crucial time in his development. His appreciation for things of beauty and history also became second nature as a result of many visits to museums with his mother, the respected portrait artist Virginia Tillou. He began collecting coins at the age of 8, and by age 12, had branched out into buying and selling antique swords, guns, and Native American items. Already displaying an unrelenting desire to acquire great things, it was a natural step for him to assist his uncle, a paleontologist who dabbled in the antiques trade, to exhibit at shows. With these critical early experiences, the young Tillou was well on his way to becoming the respected dealer he is today.

Treasures in Tillou's bedroom chamber include a boldly hand-painted and stenciled dressing table from Maine, circa 1830s, a Connecticut sack-back Windsor, a Pennsylvania walnut tall case clock, and two wonderful folk paintings. Pictured on the left is Lady with a Lace Cap and Red Shawl by Ammi Phillips (1788–1865), circa 1830–1835; on the right is the colorful H. K. Goodman (w. 1845–1850) image of George Colby of Vermont, signed and dated 1845. There are only a few paintings by Goodman known, and this one, Tillou notes "has great dynamics."

A key to Tillou's success was and continues to be his penchant for learning. While studying at Ohio Wesleyan University during the 1950s, he ventured to Europe and England on buying trips, quite often acquiring rare, early antiques that he re-sold at shows or to collectors as he traveled through the eastern states. He acquainted himself with as many dealers, antiquarians, and curators as he could, gleaning from them information about their specialty. He also trained his eye through his own experiences. A stop into an antiques shop in 1954, for example, resulted in his first purchase of American folk art. At the time he knew nothing about the subject, but, as he says, "I poured my energies into learning about American folk paintings, which has since become one of several central focal points in my life as a collector and dealer."

After years of selling out of the trunks of his Cadillac Eldorado convertibles, Tillou opened his first shop in Buffalo, New York, in 1961 during his tenure in the U.S. Air Force. Four years later he and his wife moved to Litchfield, Connecticut, an idyllic town he has called home ever since. Among the early dealers so influential to his learning were Martha Jackson, Robert Abels, Joe Kindig, Jr., Garth Oberlander, and John Veenschoten, whom he calls "kindred spirits." Throughout his career he has eagerly given back whenever possible, gladly sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm either in conversation or in scholarly exhibition catalogues he has prepared for museums.1

View of the living room, central hallway, and dining room. On the far wall is a circa 1835 Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1780–1849), and in the hallway is a meticulously painted 1530 Flemish portrait by Ambrosius Benson (1495–1550) of Mary Magdalene. Below it is a sculptural Chinese ceramic amphora with bronze mounts dating to the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.–a.d.220), one of a pair of Han Dynasty ceramic figures, and a New London, Connecticut, oxbow blocked-end chest with rope columns. In the foreground is the Ammi Phillips (1788–1865) painting of Frederick A. Gale, dated 1815, from Galesville, New York. Tillou says of this portrait, "This reminds me of Picasso's blue period. I call it my 'Picasso Boy.' It has a wonderful abstraction of negative and positive space that anticipates the modern movement. These folk artists were so intuitive in their sense of design." A Pennsylvania tall clock by John Beisenman exhibits intricate carved hood details, and an Irish George II chair exhibits a sculptural quality echoed in the porringer-top tea table. A collection of Tang Dynasty (a.d.618–907) glazed and unglazed pottery horses presides over the room. Earthenware statues of horses made during this period represent the finest craftsmanship of the era, with great attention to details and animation. Tillou is drawn to their strong character and form.

Tillou's penchant for the past and its objects is effusive. When he speaks about antiques and fine art his countenance lights up; he becomes animated, eyes brimming with excitement. On a journey through his house, it is as much of a challenge to keep pace with the 67-year-young Tillou as it is to catch a glimpse of all the treasures; Tillou constantly proclaiming the virtues of this or that object. "Look at this! Did you notice that?! Make sure you don't miss this little gem! Aren't they all so wonderful!" When asked why he has over a dozen eglomise mirrors huddled together in the corner of a room, he responds by eagerly quipping, "Each one has its own precious personality and I just can't stop myself buying them."

Tillou remarks of the layers of objects present in this room, "You can't do business out of an empty wagon!" Representative of one of Tillou's earliest passions are the pre-Civil War swords and pistols. Glass, folk sculptures, Native American pottery, and painted furniture fill the room. The centerpiece of this space is the elaborate European Kas; the decorative aspects and carving make it an exceptional example. Also prominently featured is one of Tillou's favorite folk paintings, an image of Calista Ingraham Sheldon, circa 1835, by Asahel Lynde Powers (1813–1843) of Vermont.

Tillou adores cameo glass "for the artistic beauty and technical skill." Among the objects illustrated are two Tiffany pieces made for the 1887 Paris Exhibition. Tillou’s glass collection also includes rare American Sandwich and blown glass.

Though it seems that every object is his favorite, some hold a special place in his heart. Among them is the 1834 folk portrait, Andrew Jackson Ten Broeck by Ammi Phillips (1788–1865). Tillou first learned of this painting in 1974. It was a companion piece to a portrait of the child's sister. Unfortunately the pair was sold to a colleague. The opportunity later arose for him to purchase the portrait of Andrew, but at a great expense, in fact, the selling price was triple the then world record for a Phillips. The painting was a masterpiece, however, so Tillou did what he could to garner the funds and purchase the painting. Nearly thirty years later it remains a centerpiece in his collection (see p. 33). As Tillou notes, "The essence of the lesson here is that one should acquire the best in any field that one’s financial ability will allow."
These three pieces are part of an exquisite collection of central pre-Columbian Panamanian cocle ceramics dating from 800 to 1000 a.d. "These are intensely spiritual pieces," explains Tillou. "They have a freedom of expression that is unsurpassed." All rare, the vessel and plate on the left feature the more unusual tri-color decoration.

This story goes to the heart of Tillou's collecting mindset. "I buy out of affection and love. Even when I was starting out, if there was a piece I had to have but was on a tight budget, I would borrow from friends, the bank, trade something in, or negotiate some sort of a deal." Tillou adds, "Many of the objects in my personal collection I have owned for years. When I purchase something I offer it first to my clients and if not sold, it often becomes part of my collection. I admit though, that there are some items that will never be for sale."

A rare moment when Peter Tillou is not darting about his collection, greeting visitors, or talking on the phone. He sits in his office amongst animated sculpture, textiles, and artwork from Africa. "I only began collecting these marvelous objects in the last five years after spending many years studying and preparing to buy. I am attracted to the abstraction of form, the earthiness and spontaneity; it ties in with the contemporary art I collect."
Nearly thirty years after writing them in an exhibition catalogue for one of his traveling shows, the following words still ring true for Tillou: "How fortunate it is indeed for any individual to find a business as well as a way of life that becomes a continuous love affair."

  1. Tillou's Nineteenth-Century Folk Painting: Our Spirited National Heritage (1973), traveled to seven museums. His exhibition Where Liberty Dwells: Nineteenth-Century Art by the American People (1976) traveled to four museums as well as several colleges

Antiques and Fine Art is the leading site for antique collectors, designers, and enthusiasts of art and antiques. Featuring outstanding inventory for sale from top antiques & art dealers, educational articles on fine and decorative arts, and a calendar listing upcoming antiques shows and fairs.