The Bidding War

When news broke about the chest-on-chest last fall, it got local antiques dealers buzzing. None expected to buy it, but all of them knew they would enjoy the spectacle of the sale. It would take place at Skinner, Incorporated, one of New England's preeminent auction houses and the only one that regularly conducts sales in Boston. Steve Fletcher, Skinner's executive vice president, called the 18th-century multi-drawer bureau, or chest-on-chest, the best piece of furniture he had seen in his 35 years in the antiques business. A part-time dealer while still a student at Wellesley High School, he joined Skinner full-time just a few years after graduating with the class of '65. Now chief auctioneer and head of the Americana department, Fletcher is known for his wit at the podium and his knack for getting great consignments.

Would this be Fletcher's folly? The presale estimate on the ches — the price Skinner expected the piece to bring — was in the millions. Some people called that estimate absurd. But there it was in the catalog: $1.5 million to $2 million, along with a five-page description.

“Skinner really stuck its neck out this time,” one dealer said. “What's the bidder pool for something like that? Three people? Maybe five?”

The chest's consignors chose Skinner over the two big international auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's, each of which routinely sells objects for millions of dollars. The consignors might also have gone to Skinner's rising local rival, Northeast Auctions of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 2003, Northeast reported revenues that reached $26 million, approaching Skinner's $36 million for the same period.

Northeast had gotten people talking at almost the same moment last fall with its own piece of news: Chris Jussel, the original host of PBS's hugely successful Antiques Roadshow and a former Sotheby's senior vice president, would join the firm, the second newsworthy hiring at Northeast in two years. The first had occurred when owner and principal auctioneer Ronald Bourgeault brought the venerable Albert Sack out of retirement to act as his consultant. Albert's father, Israel, was widely recognized as one of the most influential antiques dealers of the 20th century — one of the first people to get collectors to pay huge prices for American antiques, starting on Charles Street in Boston in the early 1900s.

What would be the consequences if the chest didn't bring Skinner's price — if it sold for only $1 million? Would that be so terrible? In this surprisingly competitive business, the answer was yes. If a house guessed wrong on a mega-profile item like this one, it likely would not only forfeit future consignments, it would lose face. Skinner stood to lose ground to Northeast in a rivalry that, by many accounts, was not friendly. It likely wanted, at the least, to best Northeast's sale a decade earlier of a Boston bombé chest that went for a New England record $992,500. Northeast had been gaining on Skinner every day. Who knew what else might happen?

Stuart Whitehurst was the first Skinner staff member to see the chest-on-chest, more than four years ago, while doing a routine insurance evaluation. He put snapshots of it on Fletcher's desk. Fletcher claims to have nearly fainted, then went to see the piece for himself.

Exactly 7 feet tall, it had a mahogany surface with an almost chocolate sheen. Its brasses — the handles on its 11 drawers — were said to be original. Most importantly, its form was bombé, meaning it had a rounded base that bulged from both front and sides, like an elegant pot-bellied stove. There were only five other bombé chest-on-chests known to be in existence. And no one could remember the last time one was on the market.

“Can this get any better?” Fletcher wondered at that first viewing. It did. The chest was in pristine condition.

Fletcher dared not tell a soul outside of Skinner that he had seen such a thing. Nor that he had inhaled its “lovely old-wood smell, or whatever else that smell is. I don't know, but I was drunk on it for quite some time.”

How did Skinner gain the family's trust? Fletcher explains his style this way: “A lot of [consignors] are old. You have to talk to them a while. You have to listen. Be patient.” Listening in this case paid off, not just because Fletcher ultimately got the chest, but because he also learned about its past.

People who contemplate writing big checks for something like the highboy want to know where else it has been. Skinner could provide convincing receipts and letters showing that the chest had descended from the family of Robert “King” Hooper (1709 — 1790) of Marblehead, one of the richest men in the colonies, who was forced to flee to Nova Scotia because of his support for the British. Provenance also reassures the doubtful that the piece is not a fake. Astute collectors keep in mind the old saw: Corot painted 500 pictures, of which 10,000 are in the United States.

There is another king in Skinner's past: its founder, Robert W. Skinner. In 1963, Bob Skinner, 30 years old, held his first auctions at the Harvard Town Hall, not far from his home in Bolton. Auctioneering was a sideline for him. He was employed full-time as an engineer at Raytheon. But in 1965, he quit, put up a small, two-story, cedar-shingled shop next to his house, and started holding auctions in a field across the street.

Five years later, Bob Skinner bought 16 acres of woodland in Bolton and built a 500-seat gallery with two exhibition rooms and a revolving stage. It was a class act at a time when country auctions were still the norm in New England. Auctions were more likely to feature a cigar-chomping bid-taker or stunts like those of the female auctioneer in Worcester who put a pair of beaded bags in front of her breasts and twirled them.

For Skinner, business boomed. Antiques, art, and collectibles were bringing real money. Then, in 1984, he suffered a heart attack and died. Nancy Skinner, who had worked alongside her husband, became president of the firm, but the paterfamilias is still an almost palpable presence. Fletcher frequently quotes him, sometimes unconsciously. When he says, “There's no excuse for Boston not having an auction house. I can't imagine a city of Boston's importance not having one,” Karen Keane, Skinner's chief executive, recognizes its source: “That's a line of Bob Skinner's.”

Keane joined the company in 1978, when she was in her 20s. A few years later, she became its first female auctioneer, overcoming Bob Skinner's resistance. He thought bidders had trouble listening to a female voice for very long. Now, five of Skinner's nine auctioneers are women and Keane, Nancy Skinner, and Fletcher own the company together.

Keane is praised for her auction style, which is edgier than Fletcher's. Her pace is slightly faster, exceeding 100 lots an hour; speed at moving through an auction is an important way to bring in profits. The best auctioneers learn to lock eyes with one bidder, then with the counter bidder for a moment of equal intensity — a ménage à trois before an audience.

For more than 20 years, Skinner has been operating in both Boston and Bolton. Nine years ago, a consultant suggested that a first-class auction house should have a full-blown presence in the city. So Skinner rented 63 Park Plaza and now schedules most of its 50 to 60 sales there each year.

In addition to the chest-on-chest, there were 1,400 other lots up for auction at Skinner that first weekend in November. The sale was divided into three sessions. The Saturday Americana sale, featuring the chest, was flanked by Shaker material on Friday and books and manuscripts on Sunday. On the same weekend, the annual Ellis Antiques Show, one of the most prestigious in the country, was taking place practically across the street, at the Castle at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers.

Todd Prickett, a member of his family's antiques firm, C.L. Prickett, in Yardley, Pennsylvania, was at the Ellis show. He planned to walk over to Skinner, where Wayne Pratt, who owns shops in Woodbury, Connecticut, and on Nantucket, would also be eyeing the goods. Both would bid on behalf of clients, providing their expertise, bidding skills, delivery, and silence, since bidding agents rarely disclose a client's identity.

Auctioneers keep secrets, too. They're often called in after a death, divorce, or a downturn in financial fortunes. A North Shore auctioneer notes, “Yankees don't want it known [that they need money]. Doesn't the fact that something is coming to auction imply that?” And what do those New England Yankees say when told that divulging a piece's pedigree can make it more valuable? “They say all kinds of things. They say, 'We don't care; we want to be private,' or, 'You're right, so go ahead and tell them.'”

From the time the chest was moved from the consignors' house to the second floor of Skinner's Boston gallery, everyone who could afford to buy such a thing had been making plans to go see it. Anyone could attend the Ellis show for a $15 admission fee, but auctions like Skinner's are free. Skinner also offered a free lecture panel that week on Shaker furniture and a free gallery walk to exhibit the star objects of its sales. Wine and cheese were served. Skinner isn't shy about trying to attract new blood — particularly young urbans — to the auction game.

At the Monday gallery walk, Fletcher was his easy, witty self, pointing out a small, 19th-century yachting picture signed by James Edward Buttersworth. Fletcher dubbed it “the ultimate stocking stuffer.” It would sell for $138,000.

On the morning of the Saturday sale, attendees talked about the Northeast auction being held simultaneously in Manchester, New Hampshire. It wasn't the first time the two auction houses had gone head to head. A dealer and collector from Kingston, New Hampshire, who planned to attend both auctions, said Fletcher “always gets a few good pieces. [Northeast's] Ronnie [Bourgeault] goes for quantity.”

The crowd that surged into the gallery for the sale was estimated to be Skinner's largest ever in Boston-upwards of 300 people. They took their seats, catalogs in hand, as some of the lesser items began to be sold: a miniature painted portrait of a boy in a brown-plaid dress ($3,750), a Federal-period mahogany-inlaid lolling chair ($6,500), a Queen Anne carved-walnut dressing table ($19,000), a matching pair of 19th-century painted-leather fire buckets ($47,500), an 18th-century portrait of a double-chinned woman ($50,000), and a stunning Civil War Memorial quilt with a butterscotch background ($130,000).

The quilt hung behind the auctioneer's podium. Virtually all the other objects for sale were out of sight. At old country auctions, each piece was held up by “runners” as the auctioneer called bids. This still happens at Northeast's auctions, at Landry's in Essex, at Carl Nordblom's in Cambridge, and at most sales at John McInnis's in Amesbury. At Skinner, though, pictures of the pieces are shown on large screens. It's more efficient, it's easier on the material, and it's also the way it's done in New York. Serious bidders have already examined the items at the previews anyway, or sent someone else to do it.

Seasoned auction-goers like to sit up front or stand in the rear. Those in front want their bids to be seen by the auctioneer and no one else; those in back also seek anonymity but like to see who bids against them. Why this anonymity? Deep pockets like to hide. So does knowledge. Those with a reputation for knowing their stuff can inspire counter bidders.

Subdued bidding techniques should not be mistaken for dispassion, though it's true that few winners register much emotion, at least while still in the auction gallery. For a disappointed bidder, throwing down a bidding card and walking out is as demonstrative as it gets.

Perhaps the most raucous part of many auctions is the telephone bidding. At Skinner, young staffers execute these bids and don't mind shouting to get the auctioneer's attention. Often, the best and priciest items sell to the phones because phone bidding ensures buyer anonymity. Two dueling phone bidders can easily make the live bidders resemble oil paintings.

The chest was lot number 110. It went up in its turn, with Fletcher at the podium, a little past noon. This wasn't a time for displaying raconteur skills. He announced it, almost somberly, as “the finest piece I've ever had the privilege of selling,” then opened the bidding at $1.1 million. Absentee bidders had left competing bids to that point.

The increments were $100,000. Phones were ready, but the contest was apparently between two people in the rear. Fletcher's eyes and a slight motion of his ballpoint pen acknowledged one bid, two bids, three bids, four, and the sale was over. It took 30 seconds. The hammer price was $1.5 million. With the buyer's premium, the total was $1.76 million, making the chest the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold in New England.

The audience briefly applauded, astonished by the speed of the sale and, in the end, its utter lack of drama. Then Fletcher was on to the next lot, a cherry tilt-top candlestand that someone snapped up for $750.

Days later, it was confirmed that the chest had gone to Prickett, with Pratt the also-ran. More immediate was the news that the sale was Skinner's most successful ever, grossing $3.7 million. The total take for the weekend was $5.1 million. Northeast made $5.7 million, but on 1,900 lots — 500 more than Skinner offered.

After the sale, some dealers said the chest should have brought $5 million. Such is the second-guessing in the antiques business. Fletcher says he's mystified by those who ask if he's disappointed. “How could I be?” What those who pose that question are actually asking is, Did Fletcher deliberately underestimate its value? Modest estimates bring more bidders. And a final price well above the estimates earns a bigger headline. The opposite, irrationally, looks like failure.

“People asked me, 'Where did the estimate come from?'” Fletcher says. “You can't research that kind of thing. The only thing you can do is negotiate with the family.”

The family did not agree to a so-called absolute auction, at which goods are sold to the highest bidder no matter what that bid may be. Instead, a reserve was in place — that is, a number below which the chest would not be sold. The reserve traditionally is two-thirds of the low estimate, though the number isn't publicly disclosed. If the chest had not reached that number, a private sale might have followed the auction, perhaps arranged by Skinner, perhaps not.

Keane says she and Fletcher asked the family to consider a lower estimate. “I told them, 'If you want Steve to have any stomach lining and to be able to sleep at night, you'll go with $1 million to $1.5 million.'” Fletcher says he told Keane, “This is no time when we should start nickel and diming. There's nobody else in there” — no other auction house pitching itself.

Now, almost a year later, the chest still holds the record as the highest-priced piece of furniture sold at auction outside New York. Skinner is preparing for its first big Americana sale of the new season, on November 7. Meanwhile, Albert Sack is no longer on staff at Northeast but remains a consultant. Jussel joined the firm briefly last fall but has since left. And both Skinner and Northeast continue to get good material and sell it for impressive prices. Representatives of both houses, as well as smaller firms throughout New England, are driving around day after day, trying to find the good stuff before anybody else does, hoping they will recognize it for what it is. More often than rare treasures, they emerge with stories. Here is one of Fletcher's recent favorites:

He went to a 1950s ranch house on the North Shore. It was not the most promising-looking place, but he knew there was a Simon Willard tall-case clock inside; a woman in a nursing home needed to sell it to pay her bill.

While there, Fletcher noticed a woven basket. He showed a snapshot of it to Douglas Deihl, Skinner's expert in American Indian and ethnographic art. Deihl recognized it as a rare polychrome coiled basketry bowl, made by a member of the Chumash tribe in the eighteenth century in what later became California. Skinner sold it in Boston for $90,475 — more money than the clock fetched. It had been used by the woman who consigned it as a wastepaper basket.