If you’re a Three Stooges fan, you may remember the episode where the boys are trying to paint a table. The butler tells them it’s an antique. “What, that old thing?” Moe says. And such is the limited knowledge of many proletariats, who would rather buy reproductions at Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn. But Christopher Fox of Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers has always been fascinated by objects from yesteryear. Militaria especially gives him goose bumps – artillery, uniforms, flags, and documents that can be traced to a war or military use. Like the simple, unassuming wooden caliper that at first appears insignificant but sold for $25,830 because it represents a specialized instrument handmade before the Revolutionary War. Or a World War II airborne uniform from the Normandy invasion that went for $861. “My history bug is itched on a daily basis by handling collections here that bring history to life. Objects have a way of speaking volumes about their place in society if you know how to read them,” says Fox, who also is an authority in American furniture and decorative arts.
Skinner is known as one of New England’s oldest auction houses, started four decades ago by a dealer who held auctions in a field across the street from his Bolton home. But what’s less known about Skinner is the coterie of experts such as Fox, who assemble in the Marlborough headquarters to help the auction house evaluate the aesthetic and historical value of objects. They range from antique car and clock specialists to experts in fine wines, Judaica, and science and technology instruments. Four bottles of Champagne Salon from 1985, anyone? It will set you back $3,567. Stradivarius violin? Sold for $1,436,000.
Fox says that one of the biggest misunderstandings about the auction business is that items sold at auction are always unaffordable. Also, bidding can take place with a computer mouse, a phone, or a paddle, as Skinner likes to say — no longer are in-person auctions the only option. Fox’s office is in the Americana department, near rows of furniture, shelves of ceramic, and bins of paintings and prints.
“It is imperative that we view the items firsthand when preparing an auction. Walking through Skinner has been described as meandering through the back rooms of a museum,” he says.
The Globe spoke with Fox about the auction business.
“Shortly after I began working here, an amazing needlework picture came to our attention. We arranged for the owner to bring the piece to the gallery here in Marlborough. It was one of a very few pictorial 17th-century American needleworks and had descended through the family right from the girl who made it in 1670. There was something special about this picture — it was vividly stitched with color still intact. It was a rare piece also in that it was well-documented, including newspaper articles, exhibition history, and family correspondence. It’s said that every object has a story. For many items, the story is largely gone, and we only know what we can see. But occasionally, the provenance can be traced, which elicits a lot of excitement from not only us but also the folks interested in acquiring it, whether it be institution buyers or private collectors. It sold for $903,000 and is currently in a very prominent yet private collection of American folk art.
“We see so much material here and some of my colleagues have been working in their fields for decades. When I started about four years ago, I was introduced to dozens and dozens of interesting categories that had only been on my periphery. Previously, I was curator at Fort Ticonderoga Museum in New York, which has an astounding collection of objects used by colonial soldiers, including an important collection of muskets. It was located in a very pretty and historic part of the country, but very rural, and my wife and I wanted my daughter to have more opportunities in an urban area.
“The biggest learning curve when I came to Skinner was looking at objects with an eye towards monetary value as well as historical interest. The value of an item is dependent on many things, including its condition, market trends, and other factors. What was popular 10 or 15 years ago is less so today. I also see that younger folks are not very active in the market. Perhaps in time, as they get older, their taste will change. There is also the undeniable fact that in our buy-it-now society, buying antiques takes time. But attendance at major antique shows is up and in some cases breaking all-time records.
“Myself, I’ve always been a collector. When I look at a historical object, my imagination runs away. What happened, who made these objects, what were they like? I’ve always wanted to know about the past.”Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.