The Real McCoy
A prominent dealer of fine French antiques moves to Memphis.
photography by Andrea Zucker
Mary Helen McCoy’s distinguished reputation preceded her recent move to Memphis. I had heard through the grapevine that a prominent dealer of fine French antiques and her husband had moved to town late last year, having bought a charming and rather well-known old home off Central near Chickasaw Gardens.
It seemed everyone had met them at a series of parties in their honor, except, alas, me. Hoping to rectify the situation, I recently phoned Mary Helen and introduced myself. She in turn invited me to tour her little jewel box of a house and later graciously agreed to let us photograph it for this magazine.
Mary Helen explained how she had gone to France in early 1990 on a first-time buying trip and fell in love with French antiques, which led to her establishing a furniture gallery soon thereafter in Birmingham’s Mountain Brook village. She and her husband, Ron, later moved to Charleston, South Carolina, for five years, where they established a gallery on prestigious King Street. After the post-2008 economic downturn, however, they moved back to Birmingham, Mary Helen’s hometown, in the hope of finding a historic property where they could showcase their antique collection. When they couldn’t find exactly what they wanted, they began looking at Mississippi plantation houses, wishing to stay in the South.
That’s when Mary Helen came up with a perfect solution — Memphis. She knew the city because she had lived here at one point in the past and was further encouraged when so many of her colleagues in the rarefied international world of antiques wholeheartedly agreed that Memphis was a good choice for her business. Things really fell into place when the McCoys found their ideal house, one of distinguished provenance, complete with the requisite 12-foot ceilings. Done and done, as the saying goes!
Built in 1860, the McCoys’ new “old” home was originally a frame cottage on what was then the expansive Buntyn Estate. Over the decades, successive owners had lovingly preserved and renovated it, by, among other things, bricking over the exterior and adding a number of distinctive architectural features.
The home has three bedrooms downstairs and one upstairs, with three baths. The McCoys have been careful not to change the footprint of the house and only completely renovated the kitchen and bathrooms. However, they made a number of urgent upgrades to the ductwork, the plumbing, and electrical systems, as well as to the structure itself. The process took six months, and they were able finally to move in last November. As is always the case, though, much more remains to be done, the next projects being work on the guest house and gardens.
For me, what makes this place so charming, along with the formal façade and the interior, museum-quality antique furniture, are the rustic touches such as the vintage pecky cyprus siding in the central hall. Features like this add period character and warmth to the home.
Mary Helen’s professional credentials and affiliations are as long as your arm and far too many to list here. Suffice it to say that Mary Helen McCoy Fine Antiques is one of the nation’s premier sources for fine and unique French furniture from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth century, with a special emphasis on the eighteenth century. She also takes on a variety of high-end design jobs, including privately procuring fine antiques and art for select clients, and working alongside architects and landscape designers to furnish a variety of interior design and garden elements. Without being the least boastful, she proudly says that “we know the right people,” which translates to the fact that she and her husband have a network of prominent professionals (including art historians) who alert them when items of special interest come on the market. Mary Helen has exhibited in major national and international fine art and antiques fairs and has been featured in publications both here and abroad. She was asked to become a member of the National Antique & Art Dealers Association of America, Inc., in 2008 and is on the board of the Art and Antique Dealers League of America.
Mary Helen is, in her words, “on a mission to bring her clients the ultimate in period furniture and decorative arts.” The word she uses over and over when describing her pieces of antique French furniture is “important,” which I believe conveys the high level she operates on. Yet at the same time, while grounded in the traditional, she tells me she likes to “sometimes mix it up” and is always open to more modern design to add balance to her interiors, adding too that she would rather see a “good reproduction” than a poor quality antique.
After we photographed the house, I sat down with Mary Helen and Ron to talk on a more personal note. I learned that Ron is a retired accountant who claims his role in the business is to help his wife in any way he can, which he says amounts to “arranging for packing and transporting her antiques to wherever they are supposed to go.” He is being modest, of course, since they are clearly a devoted team.
And unlike the stereotypical image of the somewhat stuffy, top-drawer antiques dealer, Mary Helen is ever so forthcoming and friendly. She is proud of her “100 percent Greek heritage,” pointing to photos of her grandmother who spoke five languages, and her mother, Miss Alabama of 1943; she’s now the oldest living woman with that title! In a family environment rich in both European and Southern culture, Mary Helen credits these two with nurturing her love of beautiful things, which later became her life’s work.
The McCoys are counting on becoming active participants in Memphis community life and already plan to host a Decorative Arts Trust event at their home. They have been warmly received in Memphis by both old and new friends for whom they are very grateful. The added good news is that visiting their son Michael and other friends and family in Birmingham is just a leisurely three-hour drive. This all makes this the best of both worlds for Mary Helen and Ron, and I for one am joining the “Greek” chorus in saying, “Welcome to Memphis.”
To contact Mary Helen McCoy she can be reached at (901) 786-8115. And to read more about her business, check out her website www.maryhelenmccoy.com. Business hours are by appointment only.
Anne Cunningham O’Neill is the arts & lifestyle editor of Memphis magazine.