Living Well: Auction house owner Stephanie Kenyon says collect what you love

Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST - Stephanie Kenyon, of the Sloans & Kenyon auction house in Chevy Chase, brandishes one of her auction gavels. She bought her orange designer jacket at auction.

The chandeliers from the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner are being rolled in on racks. Some dinosaur footprints and Eames molded plywood chairs have just been unpacked. And in the front window, a 100-year-old Italian donkey cart is waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.

“All we need is that one right person,” says Stephanie Kenyon, conductor of this pipeline of stuff. Owner and president of Sloans & Kenyon Auctioneers and Appraisers in Chevy Chase, the 57-year-old native Washingtonian says it was a job she was born to do.

(Brian Searby/SLOANS & KENYON) - An American Victorian RococoRevival carved walnut bed, circa1860, that is extremely similar to theone in the White House LincolnBedroom. It was auctioned by Sloans Kenyon in 2009 for $17,208.

“It was my destiny,” Kenyon says, calmly removing a dining table leaf from a camelback sofa so she can offer a visitor a place to sit. “I have observed that people who excel in a specific talent like ice skating or piano, or in my case collecting, seem to express that talent at an extremely early age.”

Kenyon began saving things as a child: Coca-Cola memorabilia, old marbles and antique patent medicine bottles she’d dig for in the sand dunes of Bethany Beach, Del. She interned at the Smithsonian and Winterthur Museum and polished her skills for 14 years cataloguing, appraising and auctioning antiques and fine art at C.G. Sloan & Co., a Washington auction house founded in 1853.

“Looking at objects all day long, you learn what is rare and what is not,” Kenyon says. “I was glad I started when I did because there were still great estates left in Washington, grand mansions full of generations’ worth of treasures.”

In 2003, she and two partners bought C.G. Sloan & Co. Eventually she bought them out. Today she has 25 full-time employees and holds at least five major catalogue auctions a year in her galleries. She also owns the adjoining S&K Consignment Gallery, where some of the city’s best antiques dealers can be spotted sifting through monogrammed silver baby rattles and vintage mirrors. Kenyon is also a senior member of the American Society of Appraisers. She lives in Bethesda, not far from where she grew up, with her husband Alex Beehler and two college-age daughters, Alexandra and Abigail.

She spoke with us recently about the business of identifying and selling mountains of stuff and how that’s influenced her personal style.

Your home: We have a 1930s house we reworked and remodeled. Each room is painted a different color. One of my favorites is the apricot octagonal study: The walls are painted in Benjamin Moore’s Pan for Gold; the back of the built-in bookshelves is Beverly Hills. We have a mix of traditional and contemporary things, all eras, ages and countries of origin. My husband collects antique maps. I don’t collect so much anymore, but I like old tarot cards and handwriting analysis books.

Food: For a quick takeout dinner I get sushi at Yirasai off River Road in Bethesda. I have great green glazed square sauce dishes that I got from an estate that had hundreds of pieces of Japanese porcelain. Praline is a great neighborhood restaurant and bakery and makes the best cookies and macaroons.

Fashion: We are developing a market niche in fashion. I myself bought a flame-orange Laura Biagiotti jacket at one of our auctions. I also got a sensational beaded 1920s flapper dress from an estate, as well as an Elsa Schiaparelli hat from the 1950s. We had a great sale a few months ago: Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Jill Sander clothes and Chanel and Hermes bags, lots of ’80s and ’90s things. Actually, the auction of the purses of the president of the Washington Teachers’ Union a few years ago opened our eyes to this possibility. We are doing another fashion auction in May.

Most unusual item auctioned: [Washington psychic] Jeane Dixon’s crystal ball.

On the TV show “Hoarders”: I have watched it, and I have been in the houses of hoarders for appraisals. We see it and we understand it. Entertaining: I bought my Hepplewhite-style dining table from a Georgetown estate in the 1970s. My wedding china is Wedgwood Wild Strawberry that I registered for at Garfinckel’s, but I tend to use my 1810 Spode orange-banded English dinner plates. I have a weakness for glass: It comes from digging up all those bottles as a child. I have many more sets of crystal than I need or can use. I mix in contemporary things such as Swedish 1960s crystal place-card holders.

Giving old objects as gifts: An antique serving spoon makes a great wedding gift. I have given them myself. You can find one between $75 and $125 in a good-looking pattern. Make sure you include a nicely handwritten card telling the provenance of the item, such as, “George III Sterling Silver Stuffing Spoon 1787.”

Collecting advice: Only collect what you love. There is a saying in our business, “Buy with your eyes, not with your ears.” Some people collect what they overheard someone else say is going to be valuable. If you don’t really like your collections, you don’t really get the enjoyment equity out of them.

Shopping: I occasionally go browsing at St. John’s Opportunity Shop or any thrift shop I stumble upon in my travels. I rarely buy new furniture. I have a vintage outdoor furniture set, and I just ordered new cushions for that online. Every year I try to go to the Smithsonian Craft Show, which is actually this weekend. You’ll find one-of-a-kind quality, handcrafted things. They have already been vetted and are reasonably affordable.

Childhood treasure: I still have a troll my grandmother gave me in the 1960s. This shows that the true value of stuff is in the memories and associations you have with it.

Living Well is a series about Washingtonians who live stylishly.

Chat Thursday at 11 a.m.
Stephanie Kenyon is the guest on our weekly online Q&A about design.

Related stories:

Living Well: Shop owner Pixie Windsor

Living Well: D.C. designer Joe Ireland

Living Well: Lifestyle blogger Meg Biram

 
Read what others are saying