Published: March 15, 2022
Doyle recently announced that it had hired Chris Barber as its new director of American furniture and decorative arts, a move he makes after nearly 20 years with Boston-based auction house, Skinner. We reached out to the native New Englander to find out why he’s making the switch and what the future holds.
First of all, congratulations on the new position!
Thank you! I’m incredibly excited and buoyed by the support of the community at Doyle and really looking forward to working with everyone there. My first few days at Doyle have already been a great experience. I’ve been listening and working with established colleagues there to get a sense of how I can help.
After almost 20 years at Skinner, why the change?
Doyle wanted me to the head of the department. I’ll be based out of Boston but working closely with the team in New York, as well as helping expand the business into New England, where I’ll work closely with the existing regional advisor to New England, Kathryn Craig. To do all of that and creatively tackle challenges for Americana, and for expanding Doyle’s reach in New England was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Having said that, it was hard to leave. You tend to get emotionally tied to the people and place. I have access to objects at Doyle, but the Skinner community is one I’ll miss.
You may be a born and bred Bostonian but you have lived and worked in New York City before now – tell us about when that was and what you did?
Yes, I’m from Boston – Newton actually – and went to school at Harvard. When I graduated from college, Christie’s gave me a shot in its American paintings department, where I was the department administrator and helped catalog paintings. In those three years, I learned a ton about the auction business and learned to work with large teams of creative people. My first few days at Doyle have been that. I’ve already found the community there to be really strong. I’ve also heard from colleagues all over the country in the past few days, which is really gratifying.
Who at Doyle will you be working most closely with?
It’s a great team. They’ve been around for decades; it’s a company for life. There is a good mix of experienced appraisers who have been at it for 30 or 40 years and others who have been at it for 15 to 25 years, like me. It behooves them to have a team of people nearing the peak of their professional career. The auction world is a small one; many of us have worked for more than one auction house – I’ll be working with people I’ve known for years. I’ve remained in good touch with old colleagues from Christie’s, and people I know from Antiques Roadshow.
David Gallager has been the director of American furniture and decorative arts. He is an incredibly experienced appraiser with wide and broad knowledge – it’s nearly encyclopedic. He’s stepped back a little bit and will focus more on appraisals but will help to guide me in leading the Americana department.
There are people who catalog all of one category, such as Todd Sell for silver and Leigh Kendrick, who catalogs all manner of material. The Americana department sells such a variety of things – furniture, silver, documents – that it is necessary for everyone’s expertise to overlap in a really nice way. As always in the auction business, it will be very much a team effort all the way around.
Is there an area of American furniture that you’ve really developed a passion or interest in?
When I was studying art history in school, you barely get any exposure to American paintings, let alone American decorative arts. Skinner taught me tons about everything Americana and gave me the opportunity to further my career even though I knew little about American furniture because I was familiar with how the business worked. I was a sponge. The things that have always interested me are vernacular furniture and folk art, high country furniture. I like the work of talented cabinetmakers who didn’t have access to mahogany or the best inlays but leaned on their own creativity and skill and sought to emulate or compete with cabinetmakers in urban centers. Anything with a little naivete and unpretentious charm, whether it’s a small painted object, a trade sign, a gameboard or a little watercolor. The best folk art, in my opinion, is universal and almost modern and has stood the test of time really well.
New York City isn’t exactly wanting for options for buying and selling Americana, and you will probably face stiff competition from the big houses on York Avenue and at Rockefeller Plaza. What does Doyle offer to set themselves apart?
Those are formidable teams and have run incredible Americana auctions for years. Every auction house in the world would love to put together the Americana sales that Christie’s and Sotheby’s have. Doyle is geographically well placed. Once we further our reach into New England, we’ll be able to be nimble and get to collections quickly, not just for Americana but with the team of generalist appraisers. I’m very optimistic about our chances to compete for large collections and great objects owned by estates, private individuals and fiduciaries. We certainly have a plan in place for the long term, to take advantage of all the things Doyle has been good at and what I can add.
Your debut sale is scheduled for May 4 and will be anchored by the Christine Biddle Wainwright Collection. Tell us about some of the highlights of that sale.
There is a wonderful portrait of Nicholas Biddle by Thomas Sully, one of several family portraits consigned to the sale. Two of a number of presentation urns made by the Philadelphia silversmiths Fletcher and Gardiner at the request of Thomas Biddle before he died has historical importance. We also have a very nice circa 1775 Philadelphia Chippendale mahogany dressing table.
[Editor’s note: as this issue was going to press, it was announced that the global firm, Bonhams, had acquired Skinner, which will be known as Bonhams Skinner. Financial terms were not being disclosed.]
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