Unique Auction Items

A conversation with Kathleen Doyle of Doyle New York.

The popular PBS program Antiques Roadshow has been inspiring America’s collectors to comb their attics, appraise their valuables and re-examine their knickknacks since 1997. In it, auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Doyle New York and Swann Galleries, among others, send event appraisers to venues across America.

Such broad popularity has only increased the traction of auction houses. We spoke to Kathleen Doyle, chairman and CEO of Doyle New York. Founded in 1962, the appraisal and auction house has auctioned the estates of Hollywood legends James Cagney, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis and Rock Hudson, plus musicians Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

The auction house has worked with royalty, famous decorators and designers, and even organized on-site auctions at locations such as the Russian Tea Room. As you might imagine, Doyle has a good feel for today’s trends.

Chubb: What kinds of unique auction trends are you seeing right now?

Kathleen Doyle: People have a real interest in natural pearls right now. We do appraisal days and a woman came in with some jewelry last year to show it to Kevin Zavian [a Doyle appraiser who travels with Antiques Roadshow]. She said, ‘You know, I have this pin with pearls and I’ve always wondered what it was worth.’ The pearls were so extraordinary—it was a little diamond wave with two little diamond drops and a very graceful piece—that we sent them to Geneva. They were perfectly matched in size, luster and color. The specialists told us that they were the most exquisite natural pearls that they’d ever seen. In fact, they had once been part of a piece belonging to Eugenie of France [wife of Napoleon III], and had come through two prominent families in America during the Industrial Age. They sold at auction for $3.3 million.

Chubb: Is jewelry a strong category in general?

KD: Yes! We are seeing great interest in high-carat diamonds. People are buying jewelry for investment purposes worldwide, and there is extraordinary property coming on the market right now. Of course, people are interested in them for their rarity, and these pieces are not being made in the same quality they once were. We sold a wonderful Van Cleef & Arpels ruby and diamond brooch for $335,000 from an estate. The classic brands like Van Cleef and Cartier understand that we are helping confirm the value of their brand. And rare gemstones are getting so much attention, particularly Burmese rubies, Kashmir sapphires and Colombian emeralds.

Chubb: How are the prices determined with these rare and unusual pieces? 

KD: That’s what’s so great about auction. Of course, anything that’s rare draws attention, and these pieces are of all different values. In our inaugural California auction, a classic 3.25 carat Burma ruby in an Edwardian setting sold for $245,000 because the ruby was exquisite.

Chubb: We’ve seen some major headlines for contemporary and modern paintings lately.

KD: Certainly those pieces are getting the screaming headlines—that’s a business and the collectors and guarantors are in a financial transaction. It’s the rarity that is the draw, and the provenance is so important. There is no central database for what’s out there, but [the art world] is going about creating a much more organized system. In general, of course, the more rare a piece is, the more desirable it is.