In 2000, when Peter Colasante decided to move in, the once-elegant storefront on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and P Street, formerly an Italian men’s shop, was boarded up. The art gallery he was relocating from Connecticut Avenue was named for architect and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant (Colasante didn’t consider the 1960s office complex—L’Enfant Plaza—a fitting tribute to the designer of the District of Columbia).
Colasante, 67, is still pleased with his choice of location, calling Georgetown — outside of New York, which he says is “a different universe” — “the best place in the best city in the country to be.” The gallery’s window displays, meant to be “visual out-of-the-box experiences,” draw in the avenue’s enviable foot traffic. “I find out who they are later,” he says.
By now, the gallery has an international network of clients, a “nuclear family.” Dealers look to L’Enfant Gallery for Chinese art and Asian ceramics, and the Civil War is a focus (Colasante lent items to a major Lincoln exhibition recently), but the overall mix is eclectic in genre, origin and price.
Stepping inside, visitors face a red wall of paintings hung salon-style, assorted chandeliers above. That sense of rich surprise extends throughout the gallery’s four levels.
In November, after a volunteer archivist went through what was in storage, Colasante opened the gallery’s basement to the public. It is now set up to resemble a Victorian viewing parlor, complete with a carved chief’s throne from Borneo.
Having decamped for Vienna, Virginia, Colasante no longer gets up at 3 in the morning to move paintings around. But he and his business partner (and former spouse) Maureen Taylor rearrange the display and host special exhibitions every few months. From total holdings of roughly 4,000 objects, he says they sell 200 to 300 per year.
Colasante’s eyes twinkle behind stylish frames when he recalls starting out with a much smaller inventory. In December of 1973, he opened Calvert Gallery in an English basement on Connecticut Avenue, putting four things purchased at apartment sales in the window. The gallery grew as it moved from one location to another in the vicinity of Connecticut and Calvert, becoming L’Enfant Gallery in 1990.
Raised in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, Colasante attended Catholic University, where he failed to shine, as he tells it, either as an actor or a philosopher. He learned about art working in Oxon Hill, Maryland, as an eccentric collector’s cataloguer, then curator. His boss’s advice: Never specialize.
Colasante can remember three recessions, but calls the last five years “the worst it’s ever been.” The threshold for bread-and-butter purchases, formerly $10,000, has dropped to $3,000, he says. The good news is that he owns his building, having finally been able to purchase it from a trust in 2012. He also does appraisal work and counsels owners of art and antiques (he advises those wishing to hang on to treasured possessions to avoid the three Ds: death, divorce and downsizing).
In the end, Colasante explains, the business is about matchmaking. You can have the finest example of something in the world, but “unless the right person comes to buy it, it doesn’t matter.”