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Meet Chantal O’Sullivan, the Irish antique dealer who took New York by storm

O’Sullivan Antiques is a powerhouse of Irish Georgian and Regency antiques on both sides of the Atlantic – and the company is built on its founder’s love for people as much as her love of antiques.

Ireland is renowned as a nation of storytellers – and Chantal O’Sullivan, a Dublin-based antique dealer and founder of O’Sullivan Antiques, certainly knows how to weave an engaging narrative. She founded O’Sullivan Antiques in 1989 and today is recognised around the world for her encyclopaedic knowledge and passion for Irish Georgian- and Regency-period pieces. Undoubtedly, her easy way with words and genuine interest in people has also played no small role in her success.

Take, for example, a fortuitous meeting with celebrated Irish fashion designer Sybil Connolly on the plane from Dublin to New York when O’Sullivan was in the process of opening her showroom in New York in 1995. O’Sullivan helped Connolly with her bags and the pair got chatting. “She was very connected with society ladies in New York and threw me a ‘ladies lunch’ with about 15 very socially connected women,” she recalls. “As a result, I was invited to more cocktail parties than you could imagine, and when I had my opening party I had a shop full of celebrities. It made Page Six in the New York Post.”

Tales like these might make it seem as if O’Sullivan’s success in New York was somehow fated to be. Fortune, however, finds those who work for it – and O’Sullivan’s career is defined by ceaseless work and a real passion rather than any kind of luck. She attributes her passion for antiques and design to a childhood spent trawling auctions with her mother, who filled the family’s Georgian home with antiques. “We always had six or seven dining tables in the garage at any one time, and she used to change the colours of the house every year,” recalls O’Sullivan. “She was a real character.”

Antique dealing has always been about building relationships with people – and I love that.

Chantal O’Sullivan

When O’Sullivan finished school in 1978, she travelled from Dublin to Australia in search of adventure. After two years, she returned home to visit and her mother arranged for her to help an antique dealer she knew on Dublin’s renowned Francis Street in the hopes she would stay. Her plan worked. “I was bitten by the bug and ended up working for him for nine years,” says O’Sullivan. 

O’Sullivan had long known that she would eventually set up her own business. In 1989, when a space up the road became available, she decided it was time and her eponymous dealership was born. Today, she owns three buildings – and 9,000 square feet of space – on Francis Street, and the showroom building has become something of a landmark in Dublin thanks to the enormous fibreglass piano suspended from the first-floor window.

From the very beginning, O’Sullivan Antiques specialised in fine Georgian and Regency period furniture crafted from mahogany, rosewood, satinwood and walnut, particularly furniture from the period made in Ireland.

“Ireland always had the best Georgian furniture,” O’Sullivan explains. “The boats coming from Cuba would dock in Kingston and Irish cabinet makers would get the best pick of the Cuban mahogany. Their ability to craft and design freehand also made the pieces much more interesting than those by other makers. They worked with so much sensitivity and there’s a lot of character in the pieces.”

At the age of just 29, O’Sullivan founded her eponymous antiques shop in a 2,000-square-foot space in the Liberties, one of the oldest areas in Dublin. Since then, she has taken over the two neighbouring buildings, tripling the space.

By the mid-1990s, Irish Georgian furniture became increasingly sought after in the United States, and O’Sullivan decided to open a second showroom in New York. With a 4,000-square-foot space on 10th Street and a diary overflowing with cocktail parties and industry events, she quickly became the go-to dealer for all things Irish, working with the country’s top interior designers and decorators.

Ireland always had the best Georgian furniture. The boats coming from Cuba would dock in Kingston and Irish cabinet makers would get the best pick of the Cuban mahogany.

Chantal O’Sullivan

Last October, O’Sullivan made the decision to move from her showroom to the Design Center on Lexington Avenue, a vibrant hub that is home to architects, interior designers, fabric retailers, and an eclectic mix of antique, vintage, and contemporary dealers. “It’s a great community and it serves New York very well,” she says. “It makes sense to be there as 80 percent of our clients are interior designers and decorators – you rarely meet private clients in America.”

Throughout the past 35 years, O’Sullivan has fostered a reputation for not only being incredibly knowledgeable but also for being straightforward and good to deal with – and it’s no surprise that her business thrives on repeat clients. Today, she does business across generations and almost 40% of the pieces that come into the showroom are pieces she sold herself in the 1980s to the parents of her current clients.

“The investment quality is amazing for these pieces,” she explains. “The timber is extinct and the level of craftsmanship is gone. I had a pair of tables I got back recently that I sold in 1983 for €4,500. I bought them back for €25,000.”

It’s this kind of quality that has seen O’Sullivan able to weather some of the more challenging periods over the past few decades, with many of her clients looking to antiques as a safe place to invest in a volatile market. And, O’Sullivan’s eye is one to be trusted. She tells the story of a Georgian table she came across at an antique fair several years ago. It was catalogued as 19th century but she knew it dated back to the 18th century – something she tried to convince the dealer of for three consecutive days. Eventually, he told her to buy it if she thought it was so valuable and sold it for £5,000. O’Sullivan put it to auction, where it fetched £90,000. 

“You just have to keep your head down and be honest in this business,” she says. “If you do things the right way, it’s a lovely life. You get to meet all sorts of people, travel, and learn all the time. I buy pieces I like, mind them for a while, and then find them a good home. Antiques dealing has always been about building relationships with people – and I love that.”

Read more: Design | Furniture | Interiors | Dealers | Interior Designers | Antiques