Sag Harbor Whaling History Inspires Contemporary Art At Black Swan Antiques

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Randy Kolhoff, owner of Black Swan Antiques in Sag Harbor, sat comfortably on a cream-and-navy-striped couch—hand-framed by the Amish—in his store on Main Street during a recent windy afternoon.“The quality is fantastic,” he said, laying his hand on the twill cushion. “It’s not easy to find something that’s stylish, and made in America.”

Many of the pieces in the store are American-made, and have been bought from American dealers, said Mr. Kolhoff, who attributes his love for locality and antiques to his time as a retail furniture designer.

“I was seeing old American furniture that was made far better than anything being made overseas,” he said. “While I was consulting and designing, I gained an appreciation for the old. I like the sustainability aspect of old furniture.”

Black Swan Antiques moved to Sag Harbor last spring after spending four years in Bridgehampton, and a prior four in Southampton. Lined with oil paintings, gold-framed mirrors, 19th-century wooden cabinetry, and just about everything in between, the cavernous space functions more as a gallery than a retail store— not only for the art of his clients, but his own, too.

Drawing from the old—both literally and aesthetically—has helped set the tone for Mr. Kolhoff’s intricate, wooden whale sculptures, sold exclusively through Black Swan Antiques.

Placed to the left of and just above a full-length mirror, framed with various animal antlers, is one of his most detailed works. Made from one solid block of wood, the horizontal sculpture depicts a large, black whale with a bright-red squid placed just over its eye, wrapping its tentacles into the whale’s mouth.

The piece is one of 82 originals, all made by Mr. Kolhoff from procured barn wood, which he hand-carves and hand-finishes. The sculpture’s subtle eye and grooved teeth on warn-down wood looks more traditionally “antique” than some of the immaculately kept pieces around the store.

“I was antiquing and I saw a folk-art piece and I loved it,” he said of the inspiration for his sculpture. “I’d never tried to sculpt but … our winter months are pretty slow and that’s what I like to work on.”

Mr. Kolhoff sold his first whale sculpture in 2006, completely unintentionally, after he made one for himself and hung it in the back of his Southampton shop.

“This guy came in and he really wanted it,” Mr. Kolhoff recalled, adding he was apprehensive, at first, to sell a piece of artwork he had created for himself. “In the end, I wound up selling it to him. Then, I did another one and within a week, somebody wound up buying it.”

The area’s history has been a driving force behind the sculptures, Mr. Kolhoff added, saying he spends time reading “just about anything [he] can get his hands on” and looking at old maps of the East End.

“Something about this being such a well-established place from the 1600s on and the whole whaling concept really inspired me,” according to Mr. Kolhoff, a Utah native. “People would come here to shop and see things that no one else had ever seen before because they were being brought back from Asia. I like to think I’m continuing that concept, going around and getting great stuff that no one has seen before.”

In a way, Mr. Kolhoff’s whale sculptures are an escape from his business life, even though they add value to the store—both aesthetically and monetarily. The whales sell for $575 to $4,800 each, depending on their size and time invested.

“My wife was like, ‘You know you make, like, $10 an hour making those whales,’” he laughed, “but I don’t care. It’s my outlet. I don’t do it to get rich, but because I enjoy it. It’s definitely personal.”

For more information, visit blackswansouthampton.com.

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