Published: April 17, 2018
Karen Keane is partner and chief executive officer of Skinner, one of the country’s largest auction houses. In 2017, the company conducted 73 auctions, both live and online only, selling more than 36,000 items to customers in nearly 60 countries and all 50 states. Keane earned a master’s degree in art history from Boston University and started working for Bob Skinner, the company’s founder, in 1980. She initially was a cataloger of Americana. Keane has been an appraiser for 22 years on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow, is a trustee of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and serves as benefit auctioneer for many Boston-area nonprofits. She writes extensively about antiques and often takes the podium at Skinner sales, having conducted her first auction in 1983. She has been instrumental in guiding the company to its prominent position in the industry.
What prompted your interest in antiques?
My mother loved antiques, so I grew up with them. I often went antiquing in New Hampshire with her. I remember being very interested in learning about a large Japanese cloisonné charger that my grandfather had. To me, it was an object that spoke of a distant place and time. I wanted to know more. I don’t really call myself a collector, but our home is filled with antiques that we love and have acquired over the years.
Can you tell us about Skinner today?
We’ve grown substantially from the early days when our main location was in Bolton, Mass. We have a gallery in downtown Boston, a 70,000-square-foot facility in Marlborough, Mass., and offices in New York City and Coral Gables, Fla. When we began, we primarily sold Americana. Bob Skinner understood the concept of creating specialty departments, staffed by experts. We now have 14 departments, each headed by knowledgeable professionals, specializing in a range of material from Americana to fine art and jewelry, musical instruments, Oriental rugs, photographica, clocks and watches, tribal arts, historic militaria, wine and whisky, Twentieth Century design, coins and more. The specialists are integral to the success of Skinner. They are the people who source consignments, compose the catalog descriptions and market the items in their respective fields.
How are your online-only sales performing?
We’re finding that online-only sales give us numerous advantages. Some focus on the specialty departments, and some, our Discovery sales, include a range of related objects. They’re obviously a way to attract new and younger buyers because of the 24/7 accessibility of the objects online. Many of these younger clients are drawn to categories like Whisky and Jewelry, areas that lend themselves to internet shopping and promotion on social media. They also provide a means to offer material that doesn’t fit into live sales. We understand families face a complex task in liquidating estates and collections. We are the resource to handle entire estates, not just the dozen or so best items. Our social media programs and the online sales work in concert to ensure items bring market value.
How are you using social media?
We believe in taking advantage of changing technology. Not everyone knows this, but under Bob Skinner’s direction we were the first auction house to be fully computerized in the late 1970s. Our participation on Antiques Roadshow gets our names and faces in front of millions of television viewers. And these days, we’re heavily invested in social media – Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few platforms. Most of our department heads blog about interesting items in upcoming sales. We’re constantly adding material to these sites. The statistics they provide are extremely valuable in guiding our marketing efforts. What subjects attract viewers? How long did viewers spend on our site and how did they navigate around it? Where are they from? Also, to help us learn about our clients, with a group of other auctioneers we created the online bidding platform Bidsquare. We also use our own online bidding platform, SkinnerLive!
Will live auctions exist in the future?
Absolutely! Live auctions are here to stay. They bring people together. Live previews and auctions are social events where many collectors gather to share information. At Skinner we value the face time and the relationships we have built with collectors and dealers. As part of our educational activities for certain sales, we often present lectures by experts in the field. They’re well-attended and encourage participation in the live sales and encourage informal discussions between collectors and scholars they might not otherwise meet. So, don’t believe anyone who says live sales are dying!
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