My biggest fault,” says Gray Boone, “is that I can’t decide what I want to do in life.” Maybe so, but she certainly is getting a lot of lucrative satisfaction finding out. In barely a decade the energetic, well-born Alabamian dubbed “the Antique Queen of America” has parlayed her good taste and entrepreneurial instinct into a booming miniconglomerate. She began by founding Antique Monthly, the world’s largest publication on the subject (circ. 100,000). Today she also publishes The Gray Letter, a news weekly on antique trends; writes a weekly column syndicated in nine papers; runs New York’s annual World Antique Market Conference on issues in the trade; and packages (with a British peer) the De L’lsle/Gray Journeys of England’s stately homes. Her latest coup was buying Horizon magazine, American Heritage’s floundering monthly on the arts, moving it to her Tuscaloosa base and turning it into the black in a year. Boone’s recognition includes membership—at 41—on 12 boards, from New York’s Circle Repertory Theater to South-Central Bell Telephone.
At a time when other commodities are in flux, antiques (officially anything 100 or more years old) and “collectibles” (stuff that doesn’t quite qualify as antique) keep on booming, and Boone has cashed in as chief of information. In a field often reeking of preciousness and snobbery, her approach is down-to-earth and never condescending. The discernment of the “whole population is maturing,” she finds. “People are moving away from the plastic, throwaway society and are concerned with the real values.” On the other hand, she adds: “Junk is junk, even if it is 100 years old.”
Boone’s empire began in 1967 at a kitchen table in Suffolk, Va., where her husband, Jim, published the local daily. She told him she wanted to start an antiques magazine, and he gave her $500 seed money. Within 18 months Antique Quarterly was successful enough to go monthly. “I became a publisher,” she explains, “because nobody was telling me what I really wanted to know about antiques—where the shows were, where the auctions were, where the action was.” Her staff is small and very young. The managing-editor in charge of all Boone publications is a 27-year-old ex-newspaperwoman, Kellee Reinhart. For expertise at Horizon Boone has a 16-member advisory board ranging from choreographer Agnes de Mille to Alabama football coach Bear Bryant.
Martha Gray Davis Boone grew up in Baytown, Texas, the daughter of a petroleum engineer, and came by her love of antiques from summers on her grandmother’s pre-Revolutionary plantation in Ashland, Va. “What I remember most,” she recalls, “was the perfume, the odors that came from the old building and the feeling of continuity and association with the past.” After three years at the University of Texas and one studying èconomics in Switzerland (she finally got her degree in journalism from Alabama in 1975), she married Boone. A year after she started her Antique Quarterly he bought the Tuscaloosa News from his father (the family now owns 30 papers), and they relocated there. Their 15-room Greek Revival house is, naturally, filled with beautiful antiques, which have survived her three children and two Great Danes. The Boones also own an 1820 log house at Lake Tuscaloosa that is furnished entirely with Southern primitive furniture—some of it bought for as little as $35.
Boone’s advice on antiques is simple: “Study, study, study.” The soundest buy today is in 19th-century American prints, she counsels, and the most favorable prices are at auction. “Seventy percent of what is sold at Sotheby’s worldwide goes for less than $500,” she notes.
The best way to avoid being taken “is to know what you’re doing” or to find the best experts. That’s been the secret of Boone’s own remarkable business success. “I think, as a woman, i have been much quicker to seek and get advice,” she says. “A man might not want to admit he doesn’t know and wouldn’t ask.”