Published: September 15, 2015
By Laura Beach
YARMOUTH PORT, MASS. – On the third Thursday of January, after the Winter Antiques Show’s opening night party, it was not unusual to find Suzanne Courcier and Robert W. Wilkins lingering over dinner at Sel et Poivre, a lively French bistro on Lexington Avenue around the corner from New York’s Park Avenue Armory. A connoisseur of good food, enriching travel and superlative country American furniture and folk art, Courcier, incisive and direct, sought excellence and authenticity in objects, experiences and people. One half of the all but indivisible partnership Courcier and Wilkins, she died after a brief illness at Cape Cod Hospital on September 15.
In 2014, their last year as Winter Antiques Show exhibitors, Suzanne and Bob described themselves as specialists in “period American furnishings, especially Shaker, with an emphasis on original condition.” Condition – “the religion of the untouched,” as Suzanne told Howard Mansfield in a September 2010 profile in The Magazine Antiques, was, in the physical realm, a key measure of authenticity. If untouched surfaces were divine, John T. Kirk’s Impecunious Collector’s Guide to American Antiques, Mansfield noted, was the couple’s bible after they launched their business in 1974.
Suzanne was not predestined to a life of antiques. Born June 13, 1948, to Robert J. and Dorothy Holmgren Courcier, she was reared in Westport, Conn., and met Bob when she was a freshman at Bennington College in 1966. A junior at Williams College, Bob had never been to Bennington, where women were ferociously emancipated, or so he had heard. On an early date, they watched the first Super Bowl together, Bob unaware of his future partner’s contempt for football.
A visit to Bob’s parents – a Newburyport, Mass., physician and his wife who lived in a Colonial-era house on High Street and were avid antiquers – stimulated Suzanne’s interest in America’s material past. After Suzanne received dual degrees in architecture and mathematics in 1970, the couple moved to Manhattan, Bob finding employment with American Youth Hostels and Suzanne working at the American Museum of Natural History under the supervision of British-born anthropologist and Africanist Colin M. Turnbull. When Bob’s employer moved its administrative headquarters to Virginia, Bob and Suzanne began looking for a house between Hartford, Conn., and Albany, N.Y., so that Bob might continue calling on hostels in his territory. They found a place in the Columbia County, N.Y., town of Austerlitz.
Restless in the pastoral calm of her new surroundings, Suzanne began poking around nearby Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Mass., and the Shaker Museum in Mount Lebanon, N.Y. Another trip to Newburyport proved pivotal when the couple discovered a Shaker chair in the Wilkins attic. With the promise to mend its frayed cane seat, the couple was given the chair by Bob’s parents. This became the catalyst for Suzanne and Bob’s decision that it was time to start their own antiques business.
They took in $150 at their first flea market and $500 at their first indoor antiques show, an Albany event organized by the Bennington, Vt., promoter Mildred Spargo. Catching the wave of interest in American country furniture and folk art, they joined promoter Russell Carrell’s stable, doing the New Hampshire Antique Dealers Show for the first time in 1980 at the old New Hampshire Highway Hotel. The Connecticut Antiques Show, organized by Frances Phipps and Betty Forbes, and the Fall Antiques Show, produced by Sanford L. Smith, were other important venues for them.
A movement was underway in the early 1970s in the foothills of the Taconic Range and in the nearby Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Key participants, Suzanne and Bob developed close ties to other young antiques enthusiasts in the area, striking up friendships with, among others, Jerry Grant, now director of collections and research at Shaker Museum and Library, and his wife, Sharon Koomler; Richard and Betty Ann Rasso; Jackie and John Sideli; Jane and Michael Dunn; Elliott and Grace Snyder; Corey Daniels and the old-timer Robert Herron. As James Kilvington, president of the Antiques Dealers Association of America, of which Suzanne was a founding member, puts it, “Bob and Suzanne were young lions, members of the generation that really picked up the flag from Sack and Kindig. They were among probably two or three dozen dealers who all started within a few years of each other.”
“Bob and Suzanne and Karel and I grew up together in this business,” recalls Willis Henry, whose annual Shaker auctions are a tradition. “We would stay at their wonderful farmhouse in Austerlitz before all the shows and have some great fun. I mean great fun. We’d listen to Bob Marley and Taj Mahal, dancing and laughing until we fell over at 2 am. Then we’d get up at 4:30 am and speed down the back roads to get in line at the flea market. Sometimes we’d play ping-pong in the barn. I thought I was good, but Suzanne always won. She was so competitive and scary smart.”
Adds Will’s wife Karel, “Being close in age and having so much in common, we became close friends. We stayed with each other when we could and often spent evenings with our dear friend Judy Lenett in Ridgefield, Conn. Around the table, we would tell stories and make plans and laugh a lot. I admired Suzanne because she was outspoken and could always back up her opinions.”
Jerry Grant has similar memories. He says, “We became friends and started visiting each other’s houses. We soon moved beyond the Shakers and into all kinds of other things. Suzanne was the best cook in the world and she did it without garlic. She was a great friend of the Shaker Museum, lobbying for the museum to be the 2008 Winter Antiques Show loan exhibition and recently serving on the our board of trustees.”
By the 1980s, their reputation boosted by an explosion of interest in Shaker design, Courcier and Wilkins were leading Americana dealers and among the most prominent Shaker specialists in the country. At the invitation of Russell Carrell, with whom Suzanne forged a bond, they joined the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 1987. In 1996, they became the first Shaker specialists since Ed Clerk to exhibit at the Winter Antiques Show.
“After we got the nod from New York, Illinois dealers Frank and Barbara Pollack called to congratulate us. They warned us that our lives would never be the same, that some collectors would take us seriously for the first time while others would conclude that they could no longer afford to buy from us. Both things were true,” says Bob. He adds, “We were proud to have been invited into the show and proud of the booths we put together.” Courcier and Wilkins were often helped in the endeavor by dealers John Hunt Marshall III, Richard Rasso, his daughter Dana Rasso, and by Paula Laverty, a collector, longtime friend and author of Silk Stocking Mats: Hooked Rugs of the Grenfell Mission. It was Suzanne’s capacity for friendship and pure enjoyment of life that Marshall and Laverty remember most.
Courcier and Wilkins exhibited at the Winter Antiques Show for 18 years, missing only 2001, when Suzanne was successfully treated for breast cancer. Her most salient professional qualities – deep knowledge, uncanny memory and principled conduct – were on full display as chairman of the vetting committee for American folk art.
“Suzanne had wonderful taste, incredible knowledge and an encyclopedic memory. She was straightforward and understated in her brilliance. Her recall for facts and circumstances was exceptional. The only other antiquarian I have personally known who had that facility was Rocky Gardiner. As a vettor, she was admired for her fairness, respectfulness and sound judgment,” says Connecticut dealer David Schorsch, a friend and Winter Antiques Show colleague.
“You always knew where you stood with Suzanne. She was very giving, both of herself and of her knowledge,” says Tommy Thompson, president of the New Hampshire Antiques Dealers Association. Fran Kramer, a Shaker expert from upstate New York and longtime friend, agrees. “She always took the time to talk to people, to make them feel comfortable. It was nice to see that.”
Having grown up on the coast, Suzanne and Bob pined for the ocean. They spent a year looking for the perfect house: antique, not heavily remodeled. In 1987, they acquired the Captain Ed Hallet house in Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod, Mass., living there in recent years with their beloved cocker spaniel, Pearl. Dating to the third quarter of the Nineteenth Century, the shingled cottage is appropriately understated but meticulously furnished, giving full expression to Suzanne’s growing interest in coastal Massachusetts furniture, Sandwich glass, ship’s dioramas, sailor’s valentines and baskets, an area in which she was expert.
“It’s a lovely place,” says Skinner Inc’s Stephen L. Fletcher, a part-time Cape Cod resident himself. “It takes talent to live in an understated way with such extraordinary things. Part of Bob and Suzanne’s success in the business has been their understanding of how objects relate to one another. Their house demonstrates that you can be knowledgeable collectors with a house full of antique furniture and art but in no way stuffy or old-fashioned.”
Suzanne’s other great interest was travel, a passion she shared with Fran Kramer and her husband, Herb. “Suzanne and I had long conversations about everything. It became a routine. We shared so many outlooks and perspectives,” says Fran.
Ohio dealer Tom Queen, a friend since meeting the couple at the Shaker Museum flea market in Old Chatham, N.Y., in 1983, visited Suzanne and Bob this summer. “Even though it was obvious that she was having some issues with mobility, she still whipped up the most delicious seafood chowder I’ve ever had. We could have gone out to one of the many local restaurants, but, as Bob said to me, ‘She wants to do this for you.’ It was always a treat to stay with them, as I knew to expect a memorable dinner and interesting conversation well into the late hours of the evening.”
On the Cape, friendships flourished, with Falmouth dealers Hilary and Paulette Nolan, among others. Suzanne and Bob increasingly found satisfaction in projects outside of the antiques world. Working to preserve the Cape’s historic character, Suzanne served on the board of the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth and the Old Kings Highway Committee. She spent her last months catching up with friends, mostly by phone. Few knew she was ill, let alone gravely so. She neither disguised the truth nor felt obligated to share it. As always, she lived privately but with enormous consequence. As David Schorsch put it, “We have lost a quiet pillar of the industry.”
In addition to her partner, Robert W. Wilkins, Suzanne is survived by six brothers and sisters, Bruce Courcier of North Falmouth, Mass., Lisa Courcier of Chaplin, Conn.; Brad Courcier of Falmouth; Leslie Smith of Wellesley, Mass.; Matt Courcier of Needham, Mass; and Christina Courcier of Carmel, Calif., as well as by many nieces, nephews and friends.
Services are private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Historic New England or Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon.
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