A new boutique hotel created by a Belgian antique dealer and named The Governor’s House opened earlier this month on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard next to the passport office at the corner of Norodom Boulevard.
Founder and CEO Alain Garnier shipped in two containers full of European antiques to lend old world resonance to the 10-room boutique hotel. His family, of Brugge, Belgium, has been in the antique business for seven generations since 1874.
Garnier has been a primary supplier of antiques to lend to the décor of Ralph Lauren outlets worldwide, to create the right atmosphere at the high-end shops in places like New York, Chicago, London and Paris.
“Ralph Lauren created a style and every shop in the whole world is the same vintage, image and feeling you get. I know exactly what they want, leather luggage, and we even make some furniture for them for them,” Garnier said. He has a small factory in Belgium that restores and builds furniture.
Since Garnier’s grandfather was a geologist working in the Belgian Congo, he feels his venture into Cambodia reflects the international entrepreneurial history of his ancestor. Even though he learned so much from his auctioneering family about antiques and jewelry, he took the business in a different direction, importing and exporting, many pieces from Britain into Europe including silver diningware and mahogany furniture.
“Somehow I had to follow the destiny of my grandfather.”
Over a salmon lunch last week in The Governor’s House restaurant, Garnier said he found what he wanted in the villa which he has since transformed into a boutique hotel at No 3 Mao Tse Tung Boulevard. Following the completion of the long remodeling, decorating and furnishing program, he flew off to Belgium on Saturday, intending to return in September.
The Governor’s House is promoting rooms at a 35 per cent discount, between US$130 and $180; each room with its own name, the most expensive being the Jackie Suite at $410.
“We would like to have businessmen and corporate guests. My main market would be delegations from embassies, because this is very private and we have good security.”
The food at The Governor’s House is Asian-Western fusion. The restaurant extends outside to surround the swimming pool, with five tables inside and eight tables outside. Garnier, 50, says the antique business is all about telling stories.
“Now my father is very proud of me. If he had not been so nasty with me, I might be in the boring auctioneer business. I travelled the whole word to buy antiques. When you tell somebody you are in antique business, all the world opens, and they say come to my house and tell me more about this. They want to know about stories about antiques.”
In one case, an old blue porcelain plate from China’s Yuan dynasty was discovered in a city in the south of France and fetched 11.5 million euros (US$14.1 million).
“Sometimes I feel some sadness in the family that the owner could not tell me about some of the story about the piece: where they got it, the story is forgotten and the soul of the piece is somewhere but nobody can bring it over. You have the object but the subject disappears.”
One of Garnier’s friends is Belgium’s Prince Philippe, the Duke of Brabant, to whom Garnier sold a set of six chairs. A year later, the prince wanted to change the chairs, and Garnier said “no problem” because now they’re royal chairs.
“He put the chairs in his castle, and this becomes a royal piece, in the royal collection of the King of Belgium.”
That associative value is something Garnier is very aware of, at The Governor’s House, he has a wardrobe from French King Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles.
“It is the story that makes the antique valuable. That’s why a Picasso painting is worth $25 million, and a painting by a friend of Picasso is worth $500.
For The Governor’s House, which was the actual residence of a senator in the Cambodian government, Garnier’s idea is that of a colonial hotel.
“I set out to create an original colonial lifestyle in Phnom Penh, to be like a major set like in the Catherine Deneuve film Indochine, like in the sixties, and everybody is dreaming about Cambodia in this period,” he said. “You can dream here to be in the shoes of someone in the colonial period.”
To contact the reporter on this article: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]