Cultured Pearl, legendary Portland art and antique shop, is closing; owners retiring to France

Steve Maker and Harvey Freer, the intrepid owners of Portland’s fabled Cultured Pearl art and antique gallery, are calling it quits after four decades.

But, true to form, the adventurous artists, a decade past the typical retirement age of 65, aren’t staying put. Instead, they’re surprising patrons with their plans.

Sight unseen, they bought an abandoned 13th-century stone building in a remote village in southwestern France and are outfitting it with their favorite possessions and selling all the rest.

The men are undaunted by the home improvement project they’re taking on in tiny Tournon-d’Agenais. They joke that Maker can “parlez français” and Freer knows enough to ask for a hammer and nails.

They hope to close their jam-packed Pearl District shop before the end of December and move into their work-in-progress adjacent to the Hotel de Ville on the town square before summer tourists show up for weekly Marché gourmand wine and truffle events.

The mayor of Tournon-d’Agenais has also asked them to help with the village’s annual jazz and blues festival, which takes place right outside their new front door.

But first, Maker and Freer need to empty their gallery of about 1,000 pieces of Pacific Northwest art, American classical work, and central and eastern European antiques.

A “closing sale” poster is receiving attention from longtime customers and passersby at their glass storefront, 1110 N.W. Flanders St.

In courtly fashion, Maker and Freer state they’re having a giant sale on “all manner of good stuff.”

People in need of a decorative conversation piece — from an art frame or fixture to furniture or carpet — will pay less than it cost the gallery owners to buy it and bring it to Portland.

Some examples:

  • A 19th-century Hungarian drop-front desk purchased for about $7,000 is for sale at $1,500.
  • An early 20th-century daybed bought in France for about $2,400 and re-upholstered in a contemporary mint green at an additional cost of $1,700 is for sale at $800.
  • The 19th-century oil painting titled “On the Lyn” by British artist Albert Lane, acquired in England for about $4,000, is priced at $1,500. The 35-by-44-inch painting on canvas is in its original frame.

“An old customer came in and said the only reason we are moving is because we have filled everyone’s houses with furniture and paintings and we needed to start over with a new batch,” said Maker, sitting with partner Freer near the front door of their gallery as the phone constantly rings.

Longtime customers and friends Bill Failing and Michele Bowler-Failing are not distracted by Maker and Freer’s humbling humor.

“Steve and Harvey quietly brought a European aesthetic to Portland,” Bowler-Failing said. “They are Renaissance men: Steve, with his discerning painterly eye, Harvey with deep expertise in period furniture and fine art. Together, they fostered a culture not just in the Pearl, but in their home and with everyone they encountered.”

Over years of collecting and selling antiques from throughout the world, Maker and Freer also preserved and repurposed architectural features salvaged from historic Oregon buildings facing the wrecking ball.

In March, Maker and Freer bought their new home online and sold their longtime Portland Heights house that they enriched with a 19th-century chandelier from the Austrian Consulate in Portland and sinks saved from the 1871 Jacob Kamm House, which was removed to construct Lincoln High School.

“Part of the sale process is figuring out what historical items went to what razed house and putting things back together,” Maker said.

The founders of the Cultured Pearl are leaving behind a storied legacy. In the early 1980s, Maker and Freer opened their gallery as the Pearl District was shifting from derelict warehouses to designer showrooms.

They said they were the first tenants of Pearl District developer Al Solheim, who needed to prove to lenders that artists would occupy the area. The Cultured Pearl was relocated five times within a few blocks. The last move was 11 years ago.

“Every time Al restored a building, we’d move to the next unrestored building,” said Maker, a painter who was the artistic director and founder of the Sumus Theatre Ensemble.

Before arriving in Portland in the 1960s, Freer was the curator of Washington’s Maryhill Museum of Art. He taught in Portland’s Parkrose School District before focusing his talent on repairing damaged art, using Old World techniques he learned in Europe.

Freer restored some of the painted furniture and art acquired by the late Portland historic preservationist Eric Ladd, who helped save the Pittock Mansion, a 1914 French Renaissance Revival-style chateau in the West Hills, and more than 25 other landmark buildings.

When Ladd died in 2000, he asked Maker and Freer to sell furnishings he stored in five houses and donate the proceeds, which amounted to $390,000, to support the 46-acre Pittock Mansion property, which had became a city park.

In their private work for local art collectors, Maker and Freer once restored early 20th-century Western paintings damaged when the Columbia River overflowed and flooded the owner’s Hayden Island property. The collection was later sold to a museum.

They also managed the restoration of murals in the 1925 Liberty Theatre in Astoria and repaired a Gilded Age painting once owned by the wealthy Vanderbilt family and ruined by a radiator spraying hot steam on it for 50 years at the Portland Hotel.

Shotgun holes, slashes and graffiti marring paintings were also corrected as well as other restorers’ “horrible” mistakes, said Freer.

The diplomatic gallery owners have appeased clients by removing former spouses from family portraits. And they know how to keep competitive art collectors apart, having set up two entrances to their studio to protect customers’ privacy.

But the skill they will probably need the most in France is incorporating reclaimed wood, light fixtures and even doorknobs into a restoration project.

Steve Maker and Harvey Freer of Portland’s Cultured Pearl art and antique gallery bought a 13th-century stone building in remote Tournon-d’Agenais village in southwestern France.

Harvey Freer is fixing up his 13th-century stone building in remote Tournon-d’Agenais village in southwestern France.The Cultured Pearl

The three-level stone structure they bought has been empty for at least 50 years. They plan to preserve the exterior, erected in 1251, and install a period-looking kitchen in their upstairs living area, set up a studio and gallery on the ground level and revamp the plumbing and electrical systems.

When they were finally able to see their property in July, after not being able to travel to France because of COVID-19 restrictions, they prioritized the needed work.

“The electrician said, ‘If you touch this red box you will live; if you touch this green box, you will die immediately,’” Maker recalled.

Both men laughed.

Maker said most of their customers are concerned that the coronavirus pandemic or some other calamity has forced them to close their gallery.

“When I tell them we bought a house in France, they tell us they no longer feel sorry for us,” said Maker.

“We are so lucky,” Freer added.

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

[email protected] | @janeteastman

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