Published: July 30, 2007
On Wednesday, July 25, after watching a Boston Red Sox game with his friend and client Jerry Conway, Wayne E. Pratt retired for the evening. Sometime before morning, the well-known dealer died in his sleep, several weeks after elective heart surgery from which he appeared to be making a full recovery. Pratt was 64.
A dealer in American antiques since 1969, Pratt emerged as a major force in the business in the 1980s, dominating the salesroom and cutting a sharp profile at leading shows. He embodied the restless, ambitious, investment-savvy spirit of the decade. In his 1993 book Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them, Thatcher Freund portrayed the street-smart, entrepreneurial Pratt as an aggressive trader and fearless, resourceful dealmaker.
Wayne Pratt was born June 16, 1943, to Eldon S. and Vera Thornton Pratt. He grew up in South Easton, Mass., roughly midway between Boston and Providence.
“Our grandfather dabbled in antiques and Wayne and I grew up with an appreciation for them,” recalled his sister, Cindy Pratt Stokes of Kansas City, Mo., 11 years his junior.
Educated at Oliver Ames High School in North Easton, Mass., and Bryant & Stratton College in Boston, Pratt worked for Ingersoll Rand and Sav-On, an office equipment company, while moonlighting as an antiques picker and wholesale dealer.
“Wayne brought business experience to antiques. He was interested in categories of objects. As Wall Street would say, he made a market in certain issues, such as block front chests and Nantucket baskets. He advised his clients to buy and he advised them to sell, often quite profitably,” said David Schorsch, Pratt’s friend and neighbor. The dealers planned to fly to Manchester, N.H., on July 27 on Pratt’s private plane to preview Northeast Auction’s August 3‵ sale. Along with Red Sox baseball and Patriots football, the plane, newly painted with Wayne Pratt, Inc,’s logo, was one of the dealer’s greatest pleasures.
Until the early 1990s, when he opened shops in Nantucket and Woodbury, Pratt, a tall, athletic man with twinkle in his eye and a mischievous sense of humor, dealt out of his home in Marlborough, Mass.
“I was working for Bob Skinner, who had a little shop on Burnham Road in Bolton, Mass. If we got in a carved breadboard, it went right to Wayne. Gradually, Wayne moved into Windsor chairs,” said Stephen Fletcher, executive vice president of Skinner, Inc, the Boston auction house.
“As time went by, Wayne became a major buyer. His knowledge and taste improved rapidly. He bought some splendid things at auction from us, pure and wonderful. He was fiercely competitive and that occasionally inspired resentment among his colleagues. Wayne bargained hard for favorable terms but always paid his bills. He brought attention to a lot of vernacular furniture. He certainly increased the appreciation of Windsors,” Fletcher continued.
“Some of the greatest stuff I ever owned came from Wayne. He’d come up the drive with Belknap paintings, painted Vermont chests and fabulous Windsors,” said Groton, Mass., dealer Pam Boynton, who met Pratt in the early 1970s and has long occupied the booth opposite Pratt’s at the New Hampshire Antiques Show. “Wayne loved anything wonderful, mostly furniture and primitive paintings. We did so many shows together that people thought I was his mother. He started calling me Mother Boynton. I nearly died of embarrassment but the name stuck.”
R. Scudder Smith, editor of Antiques and The Arts Weekly , said, “We would run into Wayne mostly at shows and his shop, where talk would center on the world of antiques. However, Wayne and Sarah vacationed in St Barts every year after The Winter Antiques Show and it was there that we saw a different person. Sports, good food and beach time dominated our conversation, with a smaller dose of antiques. We always enjoyed his company and it was great to see him chauffeured up our drive with Sarah at the wheel of the little Smart car.”
In 1978, Pratt went into business with Marybeth Keene, a dealer from Rochester, N.Y. “Wayne always preferred buying and I did a lot of shows, so he asked me to join him,” said Keene, vice president of Wayne Pratt, Inc. The working partnership continued until Pratt’s death. Keene’s husband, Rory Killeen, also works for Wayne Pratt, Inc, as did Keene’s daughter, former manager of the Nantucket shop.
Said Keene, “Wayne and I worked within each other’s parameters and completed each other. Wayne was the big picture, I was the details. We never made a deal involving money in which we were not in complete agreement.”
Pratt and Keene placed their first advertisement in The Magazine Antiques in 1983, Keene said. “Shortly thereafter we did a show on Long Island. A woman in a fur coat pulled out our ad and bought several pieces. Our business took off after that. We dropped shows as we got into better ones.”
Pratt joined the Winter Antiques Show in New York in 1991. Against the handsome backdrop of a hardwood floor and painted, paneled walls, the firm arrayed New England case piece furniture, Windsor chairs, primitive landscapes and portraits, Nantucket baskets, Cahoon paintings and, for many years, mechanical banks. Pratt was especially well known for Massachusetts block front chests and desks.
For years, Pratt did most of his business privately and at shows. His first shop, which he opened in Nantucket nearly 20 years ago, was seasonal. Pratt bought a house on the island to accommodate himself, his staff, and their children. Until he remarried, the Pratt menage lived there communally during summers.
In 1993, Pratt opened a second shop on Main Street in Woodbury, in what had been the home and shop of Kenneth Hammitt and, before Hammit, the home of Ethel Bjerkoe, an early authority on antiques. Pratt sometimes entertained visitors by juggling Indian clubs, an apt metaphor for his bold, complex business style.
In the past decade, the company expanded its line of high quality reproduction furniture and decorations and moved into related services such as interior design. Through active participation in the Woodbury Antiques Dealers Association, Wayne Pratt, Inc, bolstered the town’s reputation as a regional center for antiques.
Johanna McBrien, editor of Antiques and Fine Art magazine, worked in Pratt’s Woodbury shop between 1995 and 1999. “Wayne built one of the biggest businesses in the country. He was the quintessential salesman. He had a great eye. He was not afraid to step up and he really did buy for inventory. He handled some very important objects,” said McBrien.
Pratt bought or underbid dozens of major pieces at auction in the 1980s and 1990s. Among other purchases, he will be remembered for paying a record $552,500 for a Boston tray-top mahogany tea table at Christie’s 1987 sale of the Collection of Mr and Mrs Eddy Nicholson.
Pratt appeared on Antiques Roadshow for six seasons, extending his national reputation. Pratt’s death was announced at Roadshow ‘s July 28 session in Louisville, Ky., by executive producer Marsha Benko, who asked for a moment of silence in his memory.
In 1994, Pratt met Sarah LeBaron Shinn, a former vice president and auctioneer at Sotheby’s in New York. Their courtship later began when she worked for Northeast Auctions. Shinn Pratt told Antiques and The Arts Weekly that she accepted Pratt’s dinner invitation only after auctioneer Ron Bourgeault approved it.
Drawn together by shared interests and similar taste, the couple married in 1996. After renovating a Manhattan apartment, the Pratts bought land in Woodbury in 2000 and built a dream house, completed in 2004. Always a caring father, Pratt was devoted to their two young sons, James and Henry.
“Wayne, like all of us, had dreams. I know that he fulfilled many of them. He exhibited at major antiques shows, had prime advertising space on the back cover of The Magazine Antiques , and found in Sarah a wonderful companion who not only gave him two future baseball stars, but supported him through the trials and tribulations of the business,” said Bourgeault.
“Wayne had great taste and an encyclopedic knowledge of American furniture. He was a force in the auction room, whether he was buying or underbidding. He was also a concerned, caring person. Marrying Sarah and finding Marybeth were two of the best things he did,” said Stonington, Conn., dealer Marguerite Riordan.
Said Albert Sack, “There are those who dream big dreams, those who follow big dreams, and those who dare and are not afraid to venture. I was not close to Wayne personally, but I admired his courage and ability.”
Pratt dodged controversy in recent years, but throughout it maintained his composure, humor and essential optimism. Colleagues and employees recall his kindness and generosity.
“If your car broke down in Oshkosh, Wayne would come get you. He took care of many people,” said Pam Boynton.
Wayne Pratt, Inc, is exhibiting at the 50th Anniversary New Hampshire Antiques Show August 9‱1, but has otherwise suspended its show schedule until further notice.
In addition to his sister, wife and sons, Pratt is survived by two daughters, Jessica and Christina, from his previous marriage; two grandchildren, and a nephew.
A memorial service in Pratt’s honor is planned for September 1 at 4 pm at Mill House Antiques, 1068 Main Street North, Woodbury. Donations in his name may be made to Woodbury Baseball and Softball, PO Box 9, Woodbury CT 06798 or the Woodbury Scholarship Fund, PO Box 716, Woodbury CT 06798.
In Memory of Wayne Pratt
The phone call seems like it was long time ago. “What do you think of Kenneth Hammitt’s shop?” “I think it’s one of the best storefronts in town,” I replied. “I think I’ll come down and buy it,” Wayne Pratt said. And, he did. The years go by and our lives mix. After 40 years of picking, Wayne would bring a new life into an old picker. I would find in Wayne Pratt one of the best antique salesmen I have ever met. A salesman with an uncanny sixth sense&⁴o be in the right place at the right time; and, he so often was able to put himself there.
For many years we covered New England and New York, picking the best&⁰assing the rest. I would design, build and maintain his Eastside booth. Redesigning the front for the Nantucket baskets; build the four-foot extension when the show gave him four more feet. Yes, and we stocked it. How many opening nights I would go around the show and come back to check the red dots. They always showed up.
The last few years were Wayne’s powerful tribute to the Boston furniture he loved. No booth will ever have more block front or block end serpentine chests than Wayne could get into a booth. With his great love of Boston furniture, and his ability to assemble the vast amount that he could handle, he still had time to be an expert on toys&⁹es, toys. And, yes, also one of the top authorities on Nantucket baskets, as well as an exceptional expert on folk art paintings, miniatures and portraits.
With Wayne leaving us today, a sad hush has fallen over the people that have feelings for Wayne, of which I am only one of many. It is fitting that a letter came today from the Eastside Show, with its early offering of “opening night preview tickets.” The show will be different now; the wonderful booth of American furniture will be different without Wayne. I hope I speak of many others when I say, “Let’s make our donation to the Eastside Show this year a tribute to Wayne Pratt. Let’s make it a special year for the show and for Wayne.
Harold E. Cole
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