Bob Dylan selected a Victorian rocker and a walnut rolltop desk from the Antiquarian Traders shop for one of his publishing company offices in L.A. Kenny Rogers picked out a sofa and two matching chairs—all covered in pigskin—for his Hollywood HQ. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried out several 300-pound library tables before settling on a $4,000 beauty sturdy enough for him to do his bench presses on. So authentic are the pieces that husband-wife writing team Gordon and Anne Auchincloss recently discovered late 18th-century shipping labels in the English partners’ desk they bought at the firm’s warehouse.
Not that Mark Slotkin, the 38-year-old brain behind the business, is all that anxious to make a sale. He actually prefers to rent out his expensive Victoriana to restaurants, movie and TV production companies, and to people who want antiques around home but don’t want the responsibility of ownership. Some 90 percent of Slot-kin’s customers are out for the tax deduction that comes from renting rather than buying office furniture. “These days we are all partners with Uncle Sam,” observes Slotkin. “Many of our clients can easily afford to buy our furniture. But they don’t because it’s good business for them to lease.”
It’s also good business for Slotkin: At the end of the standard 39-month lease he has often recouped most of his original investment. “I’m asking people to store furniture for me,” he says, “and pay me for it, too.” Thus a $15,000 inlaid rolltop desk rents for $300 monthly, and for $1,000 a month a customer can have a $50,000 bedroom set festooned with carved Italianate cherubs. After two years Slotkin has clients as far away as Denver, Dallas and Miami.
Mark is not the first Slotkin to make it in the business. His father, Stanley, founded Abbey Rents, the nation’s largest chain of rental outlets (party supplies and medical equipment). Although “Abbey” was simply plucked out of the air so the firm could get to the front of the phone book, it nonetheless became Mark’s middle name. While growing up rich in Beverly Hills, Mark concedes that he had one goal: to outdo Dad.
After graduating from UCLA in 1963 with a degree in business administration, Mark first worked with a construction firm, then went into the music business as a producer and publisher. That turned out to be a losing proposition, so in 1969 Slotkin put his own passion for old things to profit by copying a 19th-century carpetbag and toting it around town as a carryall. The promo sparked a trend. A decade later his Carpetbags of America is grossing $10 million. “It’s true I’ve always been a hustler,” he admits. “But not the con artist type. I just want to make a lot of money.”
The earnings from his carpetbagging operation enabled Slotkin to start Antiquarian Traders. Today 70 craftsmen work full time restoring to mint condition the 19th-century furniture he personally buys at estate sales and auctions. Occasionally, library tables are cut down to coffee table dimensions, chairs are made to swivel and bed frames expanded to king size.
Still a bachelor, Slotkin lives in a Bel Air mansion furnished with pieces on loan from his warehouse. “I feel I was born too late,” muses Slotkin, examining one of his rare, signed Tiffany lamps. “I would have enjoyed living in the 19th century. But then,” he sighs, “I would have taken all this for granted.”