Citiscapes Metro Monthly, May 2005

Reprinted courtesy of CitiScapes Metro Monthly

Susan Wallace, Guest Contributor

The Odyssey of Renee Hunt, Importer of European Antiquities

Renee and Terry in Paris
The Journey Begins

At 14 years old, Renee Neider was first introduced to what would later become her passion: the French language and culture. Growing up in Topeka, Kansas she was the fifth of six children. Her large family didn’t have much money to spare so Renee, with the encouragement of her older sister, saved her money in order to pursue her dream of one day studying abroad in France. During her junior year of college, that dream was realized. The experience only fueled the fire; Renee was bent on a career that would somehow include her love of the French culture. Student teaching provided the revelation that she loved teaching. Following that cue, as a French language instructor, she was able to share her passion of all things French in the classroom – teaching high school teens.

But this was just the beginning of Renee’s journey. Along the way, she met a man in Kansas City who shared her love of travel and the arts. After a brief courtship, she and Terry Hunt married. From the beginning, they collected antiques. A stockbroker by trade, Terry was also an accomplished woodworker, which came in handy given many of their acquired treasures needed restoration work. Terry and Renee made their home in Fayetteville and began raising a family: Alexander was their first born. Then came Elliot three years later. Eight years later Harrison was born, followed by Camille two years after that. 

Renee stands by the recently acquired wanut Louis XV armoire (c. 1735)
Chance Meetings and New Adventures

As Renee approached her forties, she began questioning if she might be ready for a new adventure. While she still loved teaching and connecting with teens, there was a void and a feeling that it was time to move on. It was during this period that a prophetic event happened. She was walking around the downtown square on her way to meet Terry at his office when a man approached her. In a very thick French accent he asked for directions to a pharmacy. He was taken aback as Renee responded in fluent French. They struck up a conversation and she discovered he was an avid fan of President Clinton and was making a tour of Arkansas’s Clinton sites. He hadn’t planned on stopping in Fayetteville but had a sore throat and was seeking some medication. He was amazed when Renee explained to him the connection between the Clintons and Fayetteville. It ended up that Terry and Renee had lunch with their new friend and then showed him around their hometown. This was the beginning of a friendship that would be instrumental in Renee’s quest for a new career.

Many of Renee’s major life decisions have been made by intuition – when it just felt right. A friend of hers talked about plans to open an antique store specializing in French and European imported pieces. The more they talked, the more convinced Renee became that this was the “adventure” she had been looking for. Following her intuition, she quit teaching after 20 years to pursue this career change that would allow her to use her language skills and knowledge of the French people and their culture, as well as her love of antiques. She and her business partner made trips to France on a regular basis. She continued to stay in touch with her French friend, who she had met on the square that fateful day. He introduced her to valuable business contacts that would later also become her friends.

Following the Dream

Renee loved her new career so much that she and her husband began considering opening their own business. Renee sold out to her partner, Terry quit his job, and French Metro Antiques was born. They immediately knew they wanted to be located on Dickson Street in downtown Fayetteville. They shared a vision for a store that would feature the openness of a gallery so as to properly display their inventory, a good window for curb appeal, and an area adjacent to the showroom that would provide space for Terry to work on cleaning and restoring the inventory as well as warehousing their “treasures” as they arrived. Location prospects were bleak, but with optimism and faith the Hunts left for France and their first buying trip for French Metro Antiques.

Renee recounts that their trip was hugely successful. Thrilled to hear about the Hunts’ new enterprise, previous contacts and friends in France eagerly opened their hearts and homes to the couple. The Clinton devotee Renee had met years before let them use his country home located in a small village 30 miles south of Paris. Renee and Terry were so appreciative, and their friendship with the citizens of this hamlet continued to grow over the following years. These newfound friends and other acquaintances introduced the Hunts to some valuable resources, who in turn introduced them to friends of theirs. One relationship led to another, enabling Renee to find those special treasures and purchase them at fair prices.

After making arrangements with a shipper who specialized in packing and shipping antiques, Renee and Terry ended their first expedition and headed home to await the arrival of their first container of inventory. There was only one problem: They had yet to find a location, and the container would be arriving in about two months. But once again, Renee said, Providence paved the way. A good friend called and told them that local floral designer Christopher Todd was vacating a great building just west of Collier’s on Dickson Street. When Renee and Terry went to look, they knew immediately that it was “the right place.” It fit every requirement, including a loading dock in the back. But, interestingly, the first thing that struck them was the omen of sorts that the main showroom featured similar tile to the Paris Metro stations.

With only two months in which to transform what was originally a bottling plant into a showcase for fine French antiques, it took friends and family feverishly working long hours to pull it all together. Alexander, their son who at the time was studying in Russia, came home for six weeks to help pitch-in. Their other son, Elliot was studying in France and would have to settle for frequent email updates.

Terry’s woodworking skills were immediately put to the test. Part of their vision included separately themed rooms. Another serendipitous happening was that, years ago, Terry had procured some timber that had been used as a fence for an annual party held by a college fraternity. Terry had kept the wood stored in hopes that someday he’d have the opportunity to do something along the lines of colombage – timber framing with wattle and daub infill. This is a style often seen in Normandy where wood beamed walls are filled in with stucco. And, this was Terry’s chance since one room would be aptly named the Normandy Room. Besides the décor, a structural problem existed. In the room were heavy steel windows and a massive steel door, left over from the bottling plant. After touring the location, a friend said he had a gift for them. For years, the friend had been storing the original wood from the George’s Majestic Lounge fence that dated back to the 30s. Terry went to work transforming the wood into Normandy-like shutters and doors, disguising the steel and finishing off the transformation of the Normandy Room. Just short of miraculous, the construction and decorating were both complete by the time the container arrived. French Metro Antiques was opened for business.

Terry restores another antique armoire in the French Metro collection
Partners on the Journey

Today, after about a year in business, French Metro Antiques is going strong. Renee said she is not only able to feed her French obsession and her love of travel but she has also discovered new talents. The organizational skills honed from years of teaching have enabled her to be a more than competent businesswoman. While her love of France and the French language was the catalyst for their career change, Renee admittedly couldn’t have done this without her husband of almost 25 years. Terry’s talents, his artistry and his patience, are the keys to their successful partnership. He has a great eye and is very particular. Cleaning an antique piece, restoring locks and whatever else is needed before moving it to the showroom, can take up to six hours (or longer) per item.

Working together required some adjustment at first, but now they have slipped into a complementary routine that includes a morning meeting. But rather than a formal office atmosphere, they sit in their living room at home, sipping coffee in their pajamas discussing the impending day. Because they love their business so much Renee and Terry find there are times they have to remind each other to “turn it off” at the end of the day. French Metro is truly a combination of their talents and interests, and its success is a reflection of their marriage and friendship. 

The Value of Relationships

Renee credits their success not only to following their instincts but also the blessing of relationships. The French put a strong importance on relationships. In this business, you don’t just walk into a place and begin bargaining. A relationship has to be formed first, and trust instilled. Recently there have been two testimonials to the value of those friendships they have formed over the years. During their last trip to France, Renee and Terry bought some books and artwork from a woman they had done business with before. Upon returning to their cottage at the end of a busy day, they decided to leave these new purchases in their locked rental car. And, much to their dismay, the next morning they discovered their car had been stolen – along with the books and artwork. Renee said she and Terry were just sick. She called the woman where they had made the purchases and told her what had happened. The woman shared their grief and said she wanted to do something for them and to come by later that day. When they arrived, the woman gave them the name of person who “mmay have a painting he’d be willing to sell.” As is turned out, the painting in question was an original oil on canvas by Guillaume Seignac (1870-1924). Seignac studied under William A. Bouguereau, one of the driving forces in the Paris Salon during the last half of the 19th century. Seignac was a frequent exhibitor at the Salon and received numerous medals for his work. The Hunts jumped at the opportunity to acquire the signed and dated painting, a portrait of a young boy, which until the time of their purchase had never been available to the public. Renee and Terry lovingly wrapped it in a sweatshirt and brought it back in their luggage. The painting has since been purchased by a local art collector.

The other testimonial to the value of the Hunts’ relationships also happened during their last buying trip. Before arriving in Paris, Renee emailed her contacts that she had a client looking for a Louis XV-style armoire. This is a common practice of theirs to send out feelers for specific client requests. In Paris, they were visiting with friends when a man they knew said he thought there was a good possibility he could get an authentic Louis XV armoire from a countess who lived in the Chateau du Tertre. Renee’s first reaction was that this would be way out of her client’s budget range. But the man insisted they consider it. The next morning, their friend called and said he had been successful in procuring the piece. The spectacular armoire had been commissioned in Lyon in the year 1735 for Jean and Marie Cusset as a wedding gift. Made of exquisitely hand carved walnut, it was in its original state, having never been out of the family of direct descendants of King Louis XV. All the hand forged hinges, locks and key were original to the piece. After an overnight consideration, Terry and Renee purchased this museum quality piece. It is now on display at their store and available for purchase. Renee feels privileged to even have this exquisite piece in their store. She also considers it a reminder of the wonderful warmth and generosity of their French friends, and the value of those relationships.

The Thrill of the Quest

Renee’s odyssey has taken her down many paths. Along the journey she has discovered new talents, found the ability to combine her passions with her career, and formed lasting friendships across the sea. She has embraced the wisdom of following your instincts and believing in your dreams. Renee has raised her children to appreciate and embrace different cultures. And, she has contributed to a successful partnership with her husband – in both marital and business terms. Renee summed up the love of her career in these words: “It’s finding something rare and beautiful in France. Knowing the culture from which it came. Then bringing it to the United States and having it make its way to Dickson Street in Fayetteville, Arkansas and then on to a new home where it will be cherished by its new owners. It’s that process and the relationships I make along the way that make me look forward to each and every day in this business.”