Antiques: Curiouser and Curiouser

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Interior decorator and antiques dealer Keith Skeel considers the decorative objects that he owns his “friends.” But, sounding like a New Englander instead of the Lon­doner he is, Skeel says that he has acquired all the friends he needs. In fact, with a collection of more than 4,000 items, he thinks he has too many. Skeel reached this conclusion last June, while rearranging a room in one of the five homes that he keeps around the world. “I started to undo the drawers in a cupboard, and it was full of beautiful things,” he says. “I thought, ‘It’s crazy not to enjoy and use what I buy. What point is there in keeping it in a drawer?’ That was the first seed.”

That seed blossomed into a two-part sale that will disperse Skeel’s collection. Freeman’s, a 202-year-old auction house in Philadelphia, will conduct the first sale May 12 and 13 in New York, across the street from Skeel’s Gramercy Park townhouse, which will supply the objects. The Edinburgh, Scotland, house of Lyon & Turnbull will oversee the second sale, scheduled for June 1 through 3 at Loudham Hall, Skeel’s 15th-century country home in Suffolk, England. The combined totals for the sales could exceed $4.5 million.

Terra-cotta dogs, Viennese animal bronzes, furniture of unusual sizes, and Irish glassware are among the items that Skeel has gathered for himself over the last quarter-century. All of these pieces, he says, are runts. “A runt is something that is not quite right,” he says. “It’s peculiar for some reason or another, and it has charm.”

Skeel’s favorite items are not necessarily the ones with the highest presale estimates. The most valuable lots from his collection of silver luster teapots may not command more than $380, but he likes them because of what they reveal about human nature. Social climbers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries would use silver luster to convince their guests that they were wealthy enough to afford a real silver tea service. “Silver luster wares had no silver in them other than the color,” he says. “They’re really quite clumsy, but fun, because they’re pretending to be something else.”

Blackamoors, a variety of decorative objects that depict dark-skinned people, compose another subsection of Skeel’s collection. One of his favorite pieces is a needlework sampler that a British child stitched circa 1832. It shows a man in chains below the phrase, “Pity the Negro Slave.” It could sell for as much as $2,800. “Usually, they say ‘Bless This House’ or something about religion, but this is a political statement,” Skeel says of the sampler. “It’s a particularly rare piece. I think it’s quite wonderful.”

Skeel, who owns about 200 blackamoor pieces, disagrees with the contention that these items are racially insensitive. (The term itself, when used in reference to a person, can be offensive.) “I look at them purely as works of art,” he says. “I like them because the artists wouldn’t portray the subject unless they respected them and found a form of beauty in them. Because it’s a political no-go area, the whole area has been overlooked. I have many beautiful pieces in my collection. I’ll be sorry to see them go.”

That impending sense of regret applies to all the objects that Skeel will release. “I really don’t want to sell any of it, but I thought it was better to sell it all,” he says. “When you’re having an amputation, it’s braver to get it over with quickly.” 

Freeman’s, 215.563.9275, www.freemansauction.com
Lyon & Turnbull, +44.131.557.8844, www.lyonandturnbull.com

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