In Marlborough sits the Skinner auction house’s extensive storage facility filled with some of the country’s most cherished antiques. We took a tour among the treasures and heard their stories.
For many of us, an antique rug is a thing that covers the floor in a charming way. But to Lawrence Kearney, the director of fine oriental rugs and carpets at the Skinner auction house, they are his passion, his art collection and his life’s work. “I started buying and selling antique rugs in graduate school… I’ve never fallen so hard for anything before. I thought, ‘Gosh, this is love,’” he says.
Kearney is just one of about 30 specialists at Skinner who source, research and catalog adored old objects to be sold at auctions held multiple times a year. They work among their treasures at a 70,000-square-foot warehouse in Marlborough that feels more museum than stockpile. Meandering through the aisles between floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with pieces that either have been or are waiting to be sold is like taking a walking tour of history.
The first object we come upon is a massive, elaborately carved German Clement clock several stories high that came from England in the late 19th century. It was bought during WWI by the governor of Vermont, but because of the war, it arrived after he had left office. He installed it in his fancy townhouse in New York City, and when he passed away it ended up with the Vermont Historical Society, which had it in its collection for years before seeing if Skinner could sell it. The over-the-top timepiece is the antithesis of what one thinks of when one thinks of Vermont, although the workmanship is stunning. Allegedly there is an internal mechanism that allows the clock to play seven songs, one for every day of the week. It will be up for sale in an auction this April.
We continue the tour into Americana, where we see shelves displaying examples of tramp art, made in the 1920s, typically out of cigar boxes. Lined up on the floor close by are bronzes from a collector in California and iron pieces from a collector in Long Island. Another rack of nearby shelves feature handmade delicate Chinese porcelain from around 1810 that was put on a cargo ship headed for Western Europe and the Americas, and Liverpool pottery from England.
Many of the objects find their way to Skinner all on their own. “The company was founded in the early 1960s, and we’re the largest auction house in New England,” says Karen Keane, a partner and CEO. “People find us. Sometimes we’re handling things from whole collections, and other times it’s just household accumulations,” she explains. Skinner sold 32,000 lots last year to all 50 states and to bidders from 67 foreign countries. They also often sell to museums.
Kyle Johnson, the director of coins and currency, took about six months to collect coins from various people and estates for his upcoming auction. The moneys are housed in a room that kind of resembles a jewelry shop inside a mall with fluorescent lights illuminating glass display cases. In the center of the space are tables for jewelers and collectors to check out the goods and compete for them.
Carly Babione graduated from Clark University with a degree in art history before she joined the team at Skinner. The auction that she’s getting ready for this spring is a jewelry sale, and her goods are mostly stashed away in a nearby walk-in closet. She pulls out a box neatly filled with small baggies. Reaching into one, she retrieves a bracelet in the shape of a snake that would gracefully slither down a wrist. It was carved in the late 19th century from naturally occurring colored Italian lava.
Before we leave Babione, she shares another bounty—more than 40 Hermès scarves, all from one woman’s collection. Apparently, the woman’s tradition was to buy a new Hermès scarf each time she flew through Heathrow Airport in London. Babione’s favorite is long and narrow and looks as if it was stitched together from two distinct pieces, although the placement of the fashion house’s label reveals that the handiwork was intentional.
From there we visit Daniel Ayer, director of the 20th century design department, who is currently building a sale for June. Several months before that in the warehouse, he strolls among Nakashima chairs and tables, a Russell Woodard patio set from the ’60s or ’70s and a coffee table that was etched with scenes from Versailles and then buried in a proprietary soil combination for six months for a perfect patina.
The Clement clock, ironwork from the April Americana sale
“Working here you see such a variety of material coming through,” says Keane. “I find it fascinating being surrounded by all these specialists who teach me something new every day. It really opens my eyes to material culture and knowing what came before,” she says.
Something we learned was that those iconic gas tanks that we all stare at in traffic on 93 were painted by local artist Sister Corita Kent, and they remain the largest copyrighted work of art in the world. Several of Kent’s prints are currently housed at Skinner, waiting for an auction.
One of our last stops is at Kearney’s “cave,” as his peers fondly refer to his office. Outside is a mantel from 1800 or so that was grain painted to look like marble for someone who could only afford wood. The effect after all these years resembles tie-dye. Inside the large room are rugs, lots of them, rolled up, stacked up and laid out.
“An antique rug is magical when everything comes together—wool quality, superb color, fineness of weave, wonderful graphics and the work of an artist. If you are fortunate enough to have a rug that meets all of those criteria, you just groove on it,” Kearney says. “It’s honorable, turning people on to these beautiful objects that they could live with on their floors. There’s this wonderful term anthropologists use—culturally embedded. And the best antique rugs have that feeling. No new rugs can match the luster from 100 years of light and people walking on it.” He pauses. “I’m haunted by many of the rugs I’ve sold. I miss them.”