Cover Story » Current Issue » Vol. 36

The art of the antique ~ a talk with Karen Keane of Skinner Auctioneers

By Bernard Whitmore

Most of us are familiar with, and perhaps a bit envious of, the spectacle of some lucky soul jumping with unbridled joy upon hearing that the dusty knickknack he or she picked up for pennies at the church bazaar is actually a fabulously valuable antique. But sometimes, after the passing of vicarious thrill, I wonder about those who allowed this windfall to slip through their fingers. How must that feel?

As I prepared to speak with Karen M. Keane, partner and CEO of Skinner Auctioneers, of Boston and Marlborough, the last thing I expected was an alternative to that exuberant “I win! You lose!” mentality. I found Keane, someone with great power in the antiques marketplace, to be success-driven, as well as a person who cares about fairness to all parties.

But first I had to catch up with her ~ business frequently takes her on the road. And that’s where she was when we finally connected.

Karen Keane: I also keep my hand in the appraisal side of the business, so today I was doing an appraisal for a family in Boston. They wanted an update on the value of their furniture, art and decorations. This afternoon, I’ll be in Western Massachusetts doing the same thing for another family.

Part of the time I’m in either the Boston or Marlborough galleries, running the company. We do about 55 auctions a year in lots of different specialty categories. Out on the road, I do lectures and benefit auctions ~ activities that get the word out about our company and what our services are.

I’m also an appraiser on the Antiques Roadshow, a PBS series where we travel to cities all over the country and do an appraisal show, where people bring their objects in and get background history and current values. This summer we went to Detroit, Jacksonville (Fla.), Baton Rouge and Anaheim (Calif.).

Vitality: What inspired you to get in to this business?

I was an art history major at Boston University, and I’d always been interested in antiques. My mother was an extremely enthusiastic collector, and I think that it was infections for me as I watched her enjoy herself in the pursuit, the hunt for something rare and unusual. It just resonated with me.

So I’ve always been interested in antiques. To find a career where I could satisfy my curiosity and be pleased by the objects ~ the connoisseurship that you bring to the judging of the value of an object ~ to be able to do that as a job was the best of both worlds.

In graduate school, I had a part-time job at Skinner. After I graduated, Mr. Skinner, the founder, offered me a full-time job, which I accepted, and I’ve been with the company ever since. Bob Skinner’s enthusiasm for the auction business was as infectious as my mom’s was for antiques.

At Skinner’s, I’ve gone from cataloging American Furniture to running our Boston facility for a few years. Then, I came back as general manager, CEO and president of the company.

Did you start with a particular focus area?

My aesthetic bent was vintage clothing and antique jewelry. I like design ~ objects that resonate from their particular time. However, my academic background was Americana. Boston is ground zero, if you will, for American history, the decorative arts and architecture. It’s a great place to study.

Would you please describe the mission of Skinner Auctioneers?

It’s to run a profitable entity, to ensure that the services we offer our clients are in an honest and straight-forward manner. Our job is to collect the finest antiques available and to ensure our consigners that we return to them the most money possible.

We identify materials to the best of our ability and market them with beautiful catalogs. We have a state-of-the-art website. We attract bidders from all over the world. Very often, the more bidders, the better price an object brings.

The thing that makes me most proud to be at Skinner’s is that we have an organization that is transparent in a milieu that can be confusing to the average retail client. We try to make the process as clear as possible. We learned all of this from Bob Skinner; these values were who he was.

How can Skinner ensure an object’s authenticity?

This is one of those topics that are really interesting to people because it goes to the industry’s “dark side.”

We have a great team of specialists on our staff, and while nobody is 100-percent infallible, we take great pride in examining material and doing background research. For example, in our upcoming jewelry sale, we have a very important broach by Alexander Calder. We made sure that it was vetted by the Calder Foundation before we would sell the piece.

We reach out to third-party scholars for their imprimatur and to ensure another opinion. For example, we have a Tanagra figurine from a family estate which is being analyzed by a lab to assure the clay is as old as it purports to be. Tanagra pottery is Greek, from the fourth century B.C., and many fakes were made in the 19th century. The fakes are over 150 years old!

As an appraiser, there are some things that you can look at and immediately know the object is right. Just by experience

Then, there’s a category of objects that you have doubts about. These are the things you need to investigate. When you are in doubt, it behooves everyone to check it out.

The third category is things that you immediately identify as fake. These you give no time of day to; you politely thank the person that brought it in.

How does Skinner’s appraisal process work?

We have a very active phone bank. In the appraisal department, there are five people working full time just handling calls from clients who have something to sell and need information. Depending upon what the object is, the appraisal department will send them off to specialty departments. Specialty areas include musical instruments, rare books and manuscripts, fine wines and Judaica.

We also meet clients in our lobby. We ask people to make appointments, but, free of charge, anyone can come in and have an object evaluated. It’s a great way to get a sense of the potential value. If you’re selling something, you don’t want to sell it outright to the first person who comes along.

I think that when you take your object to an appraiser, where you can place it on consignment with an auction estimate, you place yourself on the same team with the auction house. The better the object does, the better the auction house’s commission will be and the better you will do.

There are many levels in this process. You could look at it as the life of an object through Skinner: It starts with a call; the person has a diamond bracelet to sell. He or she comes to the Boston gallery for an appointment with the jewelry specialist. The specialist tells them it’s a Cartier, a $20,000 to $25,000 bracelet ~ yippee!

The customer wants to consign it, so the bracelet comes into the auction house. We photograph it, write a description of it, we put the piece up on our website, and it is designated into an auction. We have a preview where the public comes in to view it. We do private previews, as well ~ all to get the bracelet to the attention of as many people as possible.

Then, the day of the auction comes, and it sells for $30,000 ~ over the estimate! It’s a good-news bracelet!

Everybody’s happy. The new owner pays for it, and then we pay the person who consigned it, minus our commission rate.

What was the impact of the Great Recession on the antiques market?

In some cases, values went down; in other cases, they went up. That sounds contradictory, but it isn’t.

For example, furniture has taken a real hit. My personal opinion is that this is tied to real estate. People are not moving as often as they were before. When you’re staying in your home, you’re not changing up your furniture. When people are moving to homes with larger or smaller rooms, that’s when furniture is sold.

An international market that has increased is Chinese artifacts. The emerging upper-middle class in China (with disposable income) is buying back their heritage. These objects were illegal to own during the Cultural Revolution. Now, people can’t get enough of them, so we’re seeing an increase in this area.

Jewelry also has been very, very strong. My opinion is that it’s more of an international commodity because it contains precious gems and metals. One can consider a fine diamond ring, for example, an investment.

Natural pearls are another example. Because they’re highly valued by the Indian culture, prices for natural pearls have skyrocketed. A strand worn by someone in 1910 that a few years ago may have sold for tens of thousands of dollars is now selling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Museums are purchasing from us all the time. We’ve sold to Yale, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Louvre. Our catalogs, as well as our website, are a great resource for museums. The web makes it so easy to search.

I remember just a few years ago, we wound up selling a carte de visite (a type of small photograph popular in the 1800s) of a person from Arkansas. Because we had cataloged it correctly and had identified the sitter, it went back to a local historical society in Arkansas, which had entered keywords into our data bank, saw it and bid on it. That’s how the Internet has changed our business.

It’s very exciting. Now, it’s much easier for us to sell to the end user. Whereas before the Internet, that photograph would have slowly made its way over many sales, as the price kept going up, taking years to get to the group in Arkansas, which is where it actually belongs.

Does the reputation of Skinner’s intimidate people?

I hope not. People tell me we’re approachable and that we have not become so special that we’re not able to talk with people reasonably about their tangibles and give them the straight story.

I think we do a good job with this, which is not always the case. When someone has created a wall or you feel like you can’t approach them, that’s their loss. They’ve created that wall around them because of insecurities.

I remember years ago, Bob Skinner schooling us to say, “You never know who you’re talking to. I don’t care what the person looks like; you need to afford everyone a modicum of respect and politeness. Whatever they bring in, you don’t know what they have at home. So you need to take time with people.”

Has the PBS’s Antiques Roadshow had an impact on the marketplace?

The thing that I love about it the most is that for people who were, perhaps, not all that savvy about the antiques market, it’s given them information and education. So people are going to ask more questions before they put something in a yard sale.

It’s given people the understanding that there can be surprises and there can be value among their tangibles. So treat all this stuff with a little respect and give it its due, so you don’t give something away. That’s really the good news of it.

The downside is that people will see something valuable on the show, a valuable jug, for example. They’ll think they have one similar and bring it to us with ideas of great value. But the devil is in the details. You try to convince them that it is not the same thing ~ it doesn’t have the same imagery, the same age or condition. It’s not worth $30,000 to $50,000; it’s worth $30 to $50.

Remember, for the show, we see about 6,000 people in a day. Fifty of them make it to camera. So there’s a heck of a lot of people who bring things in that were not really worth talking about.

Things are highly valued because they’re rare, and the definition of rare is that you don’t see them all that often.

I actually love watching the Antiques Roadshow. It’s like eating popcorn; you kinda just can’t stop! I don’t like watching myself, but I like watching my fellow appraisers because I learn something. That’s really the compelling ingredient of the show. It’s got a lot of information packaged in a palpable way with the estimated value as the punch line.

I’ve heard dealers not involved in the show moan and groan, “Everybody thinks their things are worth more than they’re really worth because of the Antiques Roadshow!”

But my feeling … I just get a bad taste in my mouth when people are taken advantage of because they don’t know their things are valuable. Too often a dealer’s MO is to buy something for the least amount of money possible and sell it for the most amount of money possible. That’s really working against the interest of the owner of the object. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

That’s why I think the Antiques Roadshow is a good thing.

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