Decades before, a woman in New Jersey had admired a demilune table at a yard sale. The buyer plunked down all the cash she had in her pocket, a mere $25, even though the asking price was $30. She gently took off some mold with turpentine, used the table and, much later, she took it to the PBS series’s open call. The Kenos peeled back some Christmas wrapping paper protecting its underside. There was a label from John and Thomas Seymour, the father-and-son makers who had emigrated from England to Boston. Both Kenos knew that the Kaufmans owned one and thought they had found the perfect mate. “It would be as if Leslie and I had been separated,” Leigh Keno jokes.
The Kaufmans decided to pass. But at auction, the card table found a home, for $541,000, a record at the time. And to top it off, the makers’ name matched that of its new owner, the supermodel Stephanie Seymour, whose art-collecting husband, Peter Brant, bought it for her.
By the late 1990s, the market softened. The Kaufmans’ coterie dissipated — no more dinner parties where George would take up a host’s challenge to arrange all the chairs in a collector’s apartment in order of their worth. He died in 2001, at age 69. Today, auctions attract many secretive players, who often chime in via cellphone.
“It’s disappointing that I don’t see younger people bidding,” Kaufman says. “People are scared off by the very high prices.”
Pieces of worth still turn up. “Wonderful objects that may not be masterpieces, they’re out there,” Failey says. “It’s a bargain.”
At the museum, Kaufman beckons a preparator and a registrar, who are putting on gloves to handle what she has “tossed around” for years, she notes. “Let’s play a minute,” she tells the women.
She has just purchased a pair of Bristol blue glass decanters. They look like cobalt, and one has a label reading “RUM” and the other “HOLLANDS,” which she takes to mean gin. She’s arranging them on her sideboard, pulling at the little stoppers, which are marked H and R. She’s having fun.
She points to a yellow Grecian couch, the only piece she bought in Washington and a perfect example of Baltimore painted furniture, with brush strokes mimicking gilding and rosewood. Her daughters and granddaughters used to lie there, posing for photographs as if they were napping on it.
Kaufman has guided the curators to make the place look less like a museum, urging a rethinking of an array of portraits flanking her sconces and looking glasses. “It was one man after another, each in black coats,” she says. Instead, she helped choose women who were dressed more colorfully and added to the domestic vibe. One she liked because the subject posed with a little dog, and Kaufman relates. (Asked what kind of dog she likes, she says, “the barkless kind.”)
“We’re just trying to show things in the home context,” she says, walking over to a desk and chest, again by the Seymours. Its pointy top compartment has a fold-down door. “Here’s where you could store your tricorn hat,” she teases. A green writing surface appears when she unfolds the desk. “I served coffee on this many, many times.”
The gallery sent six trucks to load up her pieces. She was surprisingly elated to see them go. “I thought I would be tearful,” she says. “Now that they’re in the National Gallery’s hands, they never had it so good.”
Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, 1700-1830
on display indefinitely at the National Gallery of Art, West Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215.