North Bennet Street School Commencement Address
I was truly honored to be asked to speak at the North Bennet Street School Commencement on June 1, 2012. As I thought through what I might speak about, I concluded I actually have a lot in common with the graduates from this school that educates men and women in traditional trades and craftsmanship. These graduates are makers of objects today that appraisers like me will evaluate in the future.
Here are the words I shared with the graduates:
Your job and my job are alike: we must both recognize quality. So let me tell you briefly what I do. I have at least two jobs.
My title is President and CEO of Skinner Inc. — the largest auction house in New England, and one of the top auction houses in the country. However, many days I end up underneath a gate-leg table in someone’s living room, or in the barn peering under a tarp at an old Rolls Royce. I am one of our general appraisers, and, for the past 18 years, one of the appraisers on WGBH’s Antiques Roadshow. I regularly inspect and appraise objects of value, often getting to see my appraisal skills and perceptions tested in the marketplace of Skinner’s public auctions.
The job of an appraiser is to establish a fair market value for an object. This requires the answers to a series of questions.
1) Is the object authentic?
2) What is the aesthetic merit of the object?
3) How rare is this item?
4) How well is this item made?
5) Is there restoration to the piece?
6) What is the market comparable for similar objects in today’s marketplace?
After I answer those questions, I can arrive at a fair market value.
Why do we care? Because people sometimes want to monetize their tangibles – turn their stuff into cash. Their passion for collecting Saturday Evening Girls Pottery (which you know was made here at the North Bennet Street School) has waned. Or they inherit a group of French Marquetry furniture from a relative and they have no room for it. Maybe it just doesn’t satisfy their taste. There are many reasons why people sell and just as many reasons why other people want to buy.
The job of the appraiser is to give as accurate as possible opinion of the market value of an object – in turn that object may be bought, sold, taxed, traded, or stored away for another time. As CEO of Skinner, though, my skills as an appraiser must be complemented with a hefty dose of business sense to get that job done.
I approach my job of CEO as a team builder.
The auction business is extremely labor intensive. The appraisal staff at Skinner must reach out to prospective clients, and secure the antiques for auction. A dedicated transportation crew of experienced art handlers moves the material to our warehouse and then the internal process begins. Every object must be examined by a specialist, who must write a description for catalogues and advertising. Creative and talented photographers shoot every item. All the while the warehouse team organizes and carefully stores everything so we are able to locate a single item among many tens of thousands. Auctions themselves require a thoughtful preview set up to help customers envision items in their own homes. Gallery walks for the public hosted by specialists discuss the importance of various items to help customers understand the antiques.
Auction day is a make or break event. All work must come together to insure each object brings the most money possible. Auctioneers must excite the audience, telephone bidders and internet clerks gather competition from beyond the auction room. Accounting staff processes the invoices and the pace must be steady. On auction day, we sell hundreds of items owned by hundreds of people. An auction house serves a double set of customers in the form of sellers and buyers. Success depends on the team Skinner has assembled and the harmony in which the team works.
But enough about me. This is your day and you should be very proud of yourselves. The very tasks that got you here today will serve as a guide for you in the working world.
1) You met your deadlines
2) You did good work.
In other words, “you delivered.”
I have three take-aways for you on this auspicious day, your graduation from North Bennet Street School.
1) Make it beautiful
2) Make it good
3) Be good at making it