1840 Japanese vase
Christopher Kent walked into the “Gray Goose,” a Charleston, S.C., junk shop piled with debris and dust. “There were flea-bitten, 1950s armchairs that should have been given a good burial,” Kent said. “It was the sort of place that makes you want to disinfect yourself when you leave, frankly, just my sort of place.”
But two small panels—no more than 3 inches by 10 inches—hanging on a back wall drew his attention. Kent took them to the rotund proprietor, who said, “Don’t you just love Japanese art?”
After a quick negotiation that brought the price for the pair down to $15 from $25, Kent walked out with two 17th-century Russian triptych panels worth about $1,000.
From the junk shop to international auction houses and major museums, Worthologist Christopher Kent has used that keen eye to spot value in everything from Japanese porcelain to Italian decorative arts and everything in between.
“I am a generalist,” Kent explained. “A generalist has the ability to walk into a room filled with items and be able to say something about every piece. There are really only a handful of people who can do that.”
How does one become a walking encyclopedia of antiques and fine arts?
For Kent, it started with his grandparents who were both ardent collectors—his paternal grandmother was a textile expert and his grandfather, her husband, a collector of American furniture. “These were serious collectors who would go without dinner or lunch to acquire a piece.” Kent said he inherited both their interest and their collecting “genetic flaw.”
At the age of 6, he started his own collection with an 18th-century Japanese porcelain bowl given to him by a family friend who was in her own right an avid collector. At 11, he made his professional appraisal debut with a collection of 18th-century English porcelain for America’s oldest auction house, Freeman’s in Philadelphia.
And so starting with American furniture, textiles and porcelain, Kent added layer upon layer of period and style to his repertoire. In college, where he studied art history and architectural history, Kent also acquired knowledge of 17th-century Italian furniture and decorative arts.
17th-century Italian armoire
(For more information on the pictured items, click on the images.)
Coming out of college, Kent’s plan had been to do museum curatorial work, only to run into some real-world truths. “I loved the collections, but I hated museum politics,” he said.
Kent continued gathering expertise—from museum collections, auctions and research and by asking questions of dealers and collectors. “You begin to make associations,” Kent explained, “about why this piece is similar to that, and about changes in taste, and what influences dictate trends.”
Museums have sought Kent’s eye and knowledge to help evaluate a broad array of pieces.
Among the institutions he has advised are the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art—both in New York City—the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.
17th-century Italian chairs
In the 40 years he has been collecting, much has changed, Kent said, including the definition of an antique. “It used to be anything after 1860 wasn’t an antique, it was Victorian, and that was usually said with distain,” Kent said. “Then it was moved up to 1880 and then completely abolished.”
Art Nouveau, Art Deco and other well-designed and well-crafted styles became targets for serious collectors, and more and more collectors entered the market. “There is a lot of newly minted money, hedge-fund money,” Kent said.
Art Nouveau brooch
1920 Art Deco clown
Americana has gotten carried along on these waves, Kent said.
By the 1990s, a wrought-iron weather vane was selling in the millions, where a few years earlier the price tag would have been several thousand dollars.
1954 Hopalong Cassidy lunch box and thermos
In December 1992, Christie’s set a record for a lunch box with the sale of the Dudley Do-Right box and thermos for $2,200. It had cost $2.25 when it was new in 1962. But the kicker that changed the world, as far as establishing the world of collectibles, was the Matt Wyse sale in 1996 where the Superman lunch box circa 1954 sold for an unprecedented $11,500.
“That just changed the way people viewed the market,” Kent said. Once a major house auctioned something as modest as a school lunch box for big dollars, Kent explained, anything might be a valued collectible. “It was,” he said, “a transforming moment.”
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