BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Since her debutante days, Sophia du Brul has been a vibrant and intelligent force in Chicago, and a mentor and friend to many, from the high-school students she taught in the Chicago Public Schools to those in her own bright circle.
Her family arrived in Chicago in the middle of the 19th century, and her parents, Moira and Richard du Brul, who died last year, gave Sophia a love of art at an early age. Someone who has known her parents for many years describes Moira as a rare blend of high-spiritedness and style with savvy and sensibility, and Richard as scholarly, urbane, and tremendously loyal to his friends.
As a young woman, Sophie worked at the Richard Feigen Gallery in Chicago, which her mother co-managed, and then received her BA in Art History from Lake Forest College. Her accomplished daughter, Violet Cue, a student at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, has taken some of the photographs on the website for her business, Sophia’s Room.
Through the Wilmette-based location, the witty and discerning redhead is defining the delight of exploring estate sales to find true treasures while sharing her expertise:
Tell us about Sophia’s Room.
So, everyone has stuff, right? And at some point, you will have to get rid of most of your stuff, and that is my job: I do personal property appraisals and run estate sales.
You grew up surrounded by art and antiques. How did your parents influence you?
I had always been directly or tangentially involved in the art and antique world. My mother, Moira, was an art dealer; my father, Richard, dreadfully missed, was involved in art history, so I was always going to galleries, museums, and historic houses. My parents really did spark my love of art and antiques from an early age.
My father used like to play a game in museums: you had to choose an object that you wanted to steal, but it had to be small enough to fit in your pocket. I always had to choose a piece and then explain why I had chosen it. My father always said that some of the most interesting and beautiful objects in a museum’s collection were the smallest, but they were frequently lost amongst the large and grand pieces.
He wanted us to see the details and what had been overlooked. I am so grateful that “Dickie” was able to go to Italy with his grandchildren before he died and share his passion and knowledge with them.
What was the career path that led you to your new business?
I wanted to be a teacher, and that is what I did. I taught 12th grade art and English in Chicago Public Schools until five years ago when I found out that I had contracted TB. It was time to leave CPS and take care of my condition, and I decided, like Eliza in My Fair Lady, that I wanted to be a girl in a shop, so I took a part-time job in an antique store, and I resumed my habit of regularly attending estate sales.
When I was younger, I went to and frequently worked at estate sales so I could pickup lovely bits for my house. Now, I was looking for pieces that I could resell at the shop. I also started doing small appraisals for people who would drop by the shop.
While doing a small appraisal for a gentleman, he mentioned that there was lots more and asked me to come see the house. There was a ton more. He needed an estate sale, desperately, but no one would take it on. So, I gamely stepped up and ran my first sale three years ago. It was a very successful sale, and I was hired for two more sales on the block. Suddenly, I had a real business!
What do estate sales tell you about people?
Estate sales are oddly personal. I am always coming into someone’s life in a time of crisis because something terrible has happened, like a death, and now there is all this stuff that has to be dealt with. In these situations, I usually have an overwhelmed client that is not sure what he or she has, but it all has to go.
Part of this job is to listen to the client’s stories because this person lost someone dear (or maybe not so dear), but there is a mourning process, so I sort items and listen to the stories. This is where I find the hidden gems, literally, like an 18th century Chinese export teacup squirreled away in a kitchen cabinet with a bunch of regular teacups.
Tell us about the appraisal part of your business. I know you are a member of the International Society of Appraisers.
Appraisals—aside from estate appraisals—are usually different because the client has a few objects and has some idea of their value but again, they need to be sold. My most fun appraisals have dealt with items related to entertainment, which I had not a lot of previous experience with. My parents were all into art and antiques and could care less about entertainment memorabilia. I recently did a collection of objects that had belonged to Perc Westmore who was a famous Hollywood make-up artist (Bette Davis always insisted that Perc be her make-up man). He collected items from the films he worked on and always had the actor’s autograph in his make-up box.
Currently, I am working on a collection of personal correspondence by Hugh Hefner to one of his high school friends. The letters are such fun to read. Of course, Hefner was charming and funny, but I am learning that he was also surprisingly warm from his letters.
What are Chicagoans buying and selling?
Anything will sell at the right price, and I know that my clients get very upset when they hear that the wardrobe that they paid $10,000 for in 1985 is now only selling for $2,000. The thing that people not in this business don’t realize is that an antique is not necessarily valuable; it is just old. Antiques and vintage are subject to the same trends and fashions as interior design. Sleek, modern minimalism is in; then vintage mid-century modern is in, too, until it isn’t.
That being said, mid-century modern is still in but starting to tail off. Hollywood Regency (think Dorothy Draper; same period but more fun and gold) is starting to become chic and is prices are rising. If you like antique brown wooden furniture and botanicals and engravings, this is a great time to collect because they are out of fashion. In the end, that hackneyed old saw, ‘You should buy what you love,’ always applies.
My house is woefully out of fashion, full of everything “out,” but I find my home to be beautiful, and it makes me happy to see my things every time I walk in the door.
Sophia’s Room features a glorious website filled with photos of treasures that have appeared at her estate sales, as well as news of her next sale at an historic Kenwood mansion February 23-25. Learn more at sophiadubrul.com.