Like so many antiques dealers, Jocelyn Serfaty and Howard Ellins got into the business because they loved collecting—and at some point, the only way to justify buying more was to open a store. “When people come here, I feel like they’re walking into our home,” says Jocelyn of Abhaya, a go-to destination for Asian antiques for 12 years. Some of the merchandise, in fact, they won’t actually part with. “We have a few items we won’t sell,” says Howard. “When we started out, a guy from Hawaii wanted to buy those two apothecary cabinets—I think they were $80,000 each. But we couldn’t bear to!” Abhaya is at 145 Hudson (between Hubert and Beach), and you’ll want to know that it’s pronounced ah-bye-uh.
How did you get started in this business?
Howard: We both had previous careers. I was a lawyer, and Jocelyn a psychotherapist. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, we started traveling to Asia and collecting stuff. We did what collectors do—we filled our house, then we rented storage. We bought anything too beautiful to pass up! Fifteen years ago, I began thinking about retiring from my law firm. I ran the idea by Jocelyn: Should we open an antique shop and see if our taste is shared by anyone else? Jocelyn opened the store in 2003, and I started working here after retiring at the end of 2005. We learned quickly that you really should know people before you get into this business. But we got very lucky: In the first six months, the New York Times wrote about us twice. It helped designers find us. And for four or five years, people would come from all over with little folded copy of those articles.
Why did you open Abhaya here?
Howard: After 9/11, we wanted to show a commitment to an area that was wobbling. We’re New Yorkers! [They live in the West Village.] And it was a good real estate value, which was important because we were buying the space.
Jocelyn: We only looked in Tribeca. There was a community here.
Howard: We had artist friends here.
What does “Abhaya” mean?
Howard: It’s Sanskrit for “freedom from fear.”
Jocelyn: And it’s one of the positions of the Buddha. [She holds one hand up in front of her.] When Buddha was attacked by an elephant, he held up a hand; it meant stop, but a peaceful stop.
What are you known for?
Howard: Asian antiques with clean, simple lines. Nothing fussy. Furniture and objects that look great in contemporary spaces.
Jocelyn: We like things that show their age. We don’t restore them—we like to maintain the integrity.
Does it come from certain countries?
Howard: The furniture is all Ming-style antiques from China. The objects are from all over southeast Asia—Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and China.
What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
Howard: Finding stuff. The thrill of discovery.
Jocelyn: We’re doing it anyway!
Howard: You’re looking through forty pieces of something, and the goal is to find the two of three best ones at the bottom of the pile.
Jocelyn: You get a rush. Your heart starts racing. Also, we like being in retail.
Howard: The store self-selects for interesting people. We meet people from all over the world. Famous architects some in, famous painters, movie business people (thanks to our being in Tribeca). People we would never have met otherwise.
Jocelyn: People come in and tell us their stories: “When we were in China or India….”
They’re thrilled because no one else wants to listen to those stories….
Jocelyn: But we do! And they’ll send us photos of where in their homes they placed the things they bought.
The most expensive item you’ve ever sold?
Howard: A large cabinet. Or maybe a Buddha. Whatever it was, it was in the $30,000-to-$40,000 range.
The most expensive item you have now?
Howard: This partners’ desk for $33,500. It’s around 250 years old, made in China and from Shanghai. It’s English-style, so it probably came from a British business.
Least expensive item?
Jocelyn: Little trays for $70 or $80. Or baby stools for $80.
Your very favorite item (right now, anyway)?
Howard: I’d say that deer.
Jocelyn: I was thinking the same thing! Oh, dear. Oh, deer!
Howard: It’s from Burma.
Jocelyn: I’ll say that Laotian standing Buddha. It’s a hard-to-find position.
Where do you source stuff?
Howard: We go to China twice a year, in the spring and the fall, and southeast Asia once a year. It’s mostly word of mouth. We go out into the countryside, ask at hotels and anyone we like. When we find a potential source, we usually only buy a couple of things at first, to make sure we can trust each other. Eventually they’ll save things for us, and maybe we can coax them to sell more to us.
Jocelyn: We have sources who have things we’ve had our eye on for years.
How has your business changed?
Jocelyn: It’s more legwork now.
Howard: There’s not a lot of furniture left in China. We used to fill a 40-foot container with furniture. Now it’s a 20-foot container with ceramics and objects.
What percentage of your business is local?
Howard: It’s 70% to the trade and 30% retail. Of the 30% that’s retail, less than half of that is local. We do get a lot of business from guests at the Greenwich Hotel, because our stuff is all over it—in the lobby, the suites. When they were decorating it, they brought over a truck.
Jocelyn: And they’re always coming by to freshen up the suites.
What does the future hold for Abhaya?
Howard: In recent years designers have told us that they wants things like this, but not necessarily Asian. So we’re branching out to new places.
Jocelyn: Anywhere we go—Guatemala, New Orleans—we’re always looking. But it has to have the same clean aesthetic.
Howard: The front corner of the store is now mostly American, stuff we’ve collected for years. The American south is like China years ago. They don’t know what you’re looking for.
Photographs by Claudine Williams, who specializes in head shots for actors, business professionals, or anyone looking to be photographed.