‘The hardest decision I’ve ever made’
BY CLARENCE F ANTO Eagle correspondent
LENOX — When Charles Flint, the dean of regional antiques dealers and appraisal specialists, discovered his passion for art while in high school, little did he know that he would create an antiques business that would endure for half a century.
Now, at 73 and in good health, he is closing his long-established downtown gallery as of today because, as he put it, “the time is right.”
Charles Flint Fine Art and Antiques Gallery, at 52 Housatonic St., which he built 18 years ago, is on the market through Roberts & Associates Realty for $690,000.
Flint conceded that retiring “is the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. It’s a sad decision. It took me a year to get to this point. It just feels right.”
He also is credited with helping develop the historic downtown district during the transition from older homes to business enterprises along Church Street and neighboring byways, beginning in the 1980s.
During a wide-ranging conversation this past week, the East Lee native “from a very poor family” recalled feeling “star-struck when somebody as famous as Norman Rockwell was living in the town next to me.” The famed artist relocated from Arlington, Vt., to Stockbridge in 1953, where he spent the final 25 years of his life.
Flint, who became an authenticator of original works by Norman Rockwell, has amassed one of the largest private collections of photographs depicting the artist’s life in the Berkshires.
What Flint called “sort of an addiction” to local history, art and antiquities began when he went treasure hunting for old bottles in Lee and nearby towns with his dad, Charles, a crane operator for the Petricca family and for S.J. Groves during construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike in the mid-1950s.
After graduating from Lee High School in 1965, Flint briefly attended, but then dropped out of, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: “I realized I couldn’t become famous,” he said.
The younger Charles — “Not a junior, but a different middle name” — also started in construction as a crane operator and as an electronics specialist, working for several years in Plainville and Bristol, Conn., before returning to the Berkshires to work on urban renewal projects that transformed North Adams from 1968 to 1971.
His next venture was working for an ad agency based in Natick, promoting wine and liquor stores in Western Massachusetts.
After parting ways with the company— “Either I got fired or I quit, we never knew” — Flint focused on his fledgling antiques business.
Charles Flint, standing with his wife, Joy, is retiring and closing Charles Flint Fine Art and Antiques Gallery at 52 Housatonic St. in Lenox. Charles conceded that retiring “is the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. It’s a sad decision. It took me a year to get to this point. It just feels right.”
BEN GARVER — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
As a self-described purist, he defines collectible, vintage, genuine antique objects as handmade before the start of the U.S. Industrial Revolution in the 1840s, including furniture, although bottles qualified until 1903 when automatic bottle machinery was invented, “which put tons of glass blowers out of work,” he noted.
The self-taught collector with guidance from experts began buying and selling antiques and art objects with a goal “to buy several items, keep the one I want and sell the other two to pay for the one I kept.”
Flint’s passions included Shaker art — he was director of the Mount Lebanon, N.Y., Shaker Village museum in the 1980s — and folk art, but as he emphasized, “great art is great art; fine art, Impressionists, modern, anywhere in the world. I didn’t specialize in just this country.”
In 1976, Flint opened his first gallery, in the basement of the Crazy Horse Gift Shop, later the Village Gift Shop, in the Village Plaza that houses the post office. But, he recalled, “it was the worst location in the Berkshires; out of sight, out of mind.”
Over time, business picked up, fueled by a big-spending purchaser just several weeks before he intended to close.
“All of a sudden, it was like magic and people discovered me,” Flint said. After two years, he bought and rehabbed a nearby building off Church Street — it now houses MacKimmie Co. and Sohn Fine Art Gallery — relocating his shop and launching his equally significant career as a downtown real estate developer.
“I was in different locations because I kept buying buildings,” he said. “I moved my shop nine times.”
After buying and selling the Kemble Inn on Walker Street, he built his current location in 2001 as the ultimate landing for his ever-expanding gallery.
“I started the ball rolling; a lot of these houses were private homes,” Flint pointed out, adding that residential sellers honored his request for first dibs on a property.
Through his construction company, Charles Flint Commercial Development, initially with 14 employees, he acquired and developed five locations on Church Street, two more on Housatonic Street, as well as the Kemble Inn, formerly Bassett Hall, a prep school dorm. In 1990, he closed the construction company and refocused on his art and antiques business.
As a leader seeking to strengthen the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, he worked with developer Bob Romeo and four others to create the Apple Squeeze. Begun in 1980, the annual downtown street festival originally was held on Columbus Day weekend, but later was moved to late September.
The idea was “to give the town back to the people in a very festive way” after the summer tourism crunch, Flint said. He came up with the Apple Squeeze moniker since the event was scheduled for the fall harvest season. It launched well and continues to draw large, enthusiastic crowds. “Charlie has done great work for the town of Lenox over the years,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. “He was one of the first people instrumental in the revitalization of Church Street, when he bought up some of the dilapidated real estate and made improvements. I thought Charlie was a renaissance person, one of the founding fathers, so the town should give him a lot of credit.”
Pignatelli offered best wishes for his retirement and voiced thanks “for his investment in the community starting many years ago.”
Over the years, Flint has been a volunteer appraiser and authenticator for the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Berkshire Museum, Arrowhead, Hancock Shaker Village, The Mount and The Clark Institute of Art Conservatory, among others, as well as a major auctioneer and big league fundraiser for nonprofits.
In 2017, capping his career by giving back to the town, Flint coordinated the 250th anniversary events celebrating the founding of Lenox, including the parade, which required two years of planning nearly every day to help locate vintage autos, select seven grand marshals and form subcommittees to pull the festivities together.
Acknowledging concern over maintaining the interest of younger generations in antiquities — “Somebody has to carry the torch” — Flint described millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — as “kind of an enigma, but they do like arts and if they can look up from their cellphone, they’ll come around on their own. You can furnish your house today with antiques for less than going to a furniture store. Or you can go to an auction, wait until nearly the end, and you’ll get really good buys.”
Flint and his second wife, Joy, live in Lenox, have six adult stepchildren who appreciate antiques, but have not pursued the business, the couple noted.
As for the gallery’s collection of 300 to 400 objects, some pieces will go to high-end auctions, others to an estate sale or to private sales. Flint plans to continue lecturing, especially at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College, and “dabbling, going on house calls, my absolute favorite thing to do.”
Realizing that anything can happen, Flint’s tough decision to retire and close the gallery stemmed from “not wanting to leave this to Joy; it’s not her thing, and it would be a real problem, so, I decided to do this while I’m still young, healthy and still alive.”
He also was determined to avoid any retirement party “because I can’t handle the sadness of it. It would be too emotional, so, I think I’d just like to quietly go away.”
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
“I thought Charlie was a renaissance person, one of the founding fathers, so the town should give him a lot of credit.”
WILLIAM “SMITTY” PIGNATELLI,
state representive from Lenox, on Charles Flint
Antique handmade glass adorns a window at the Charles Flint Fine Art and Antiques Gallery in Lenox. Over the years, Flint has been a volunteer appraiser and authenticator for the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Berkshire Museum, Arrowhead, Hancock Shaker Village, The Mount and The Clark Institute of Art Conservatory, among others.
BEN GARVER THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE