The Ladies of the (Auction) House

Kathleen M. Doyle could summon assistance from her very own team of “hand-holders.”
The exhibition room at Doyle New York was ready last week for a preview of the continental furniture and paintings to be sold on May 23.

Anyone who has ever had to clean out a much-loved family home containing several decades’ worth of meaningful objects will understand how hard it was for Kathleen M. Doyle when she put her eight-bedroom Lily Pond Lane house in East Hampton on the market years ago. Unlike most people, however, Mrs. Doyle could summon assistance from her very own team of “hand-holders.”

“We have lots of those at the gallery,” she told a visitor to her Wainscott house, speaking of Doyle New York, a once-sleepy auction house on the Upper East Side that’s been expanding recently in every direction, not only across the internet but, in a co-marketing relationship with Berkshire-Hathaway Home Services, across the globe. While Doyle has clients in 90 countries, many of whom bid online through the house’s portal BidLive! or Invaluable.com, the nerve center is still its six-story building on East 87th Street, where, as chairwoman and chief executive officer, Mrs. Doyle oversees some 125 employees.

For Kathy Doyle and her three daughters, deciding what to keep from the big house, what to sell, what to send to auction (at Doyle, of course), and what to give to charity was an “incredibly emotional process,” said Laura Doyle, the youngest of the three, who is the gallery’s vice chairwoman and director of regions. Some of the employees who came to East Hampton to help “had worked with us for years and knew my father,” she said, tearing up a little. William (Bill) Doyle, the gallery’s founder, died of leukemia 25 years ago at the age of 53.

Laura, who heads her own all-online, low-budget offshoot of Doyle New York called Hayloft, chose a pair of Louis XVI consoles from the front hall, together with the gilt mirrors that hung above them, and a grandfather clock, for her New York City apartment, which she described as “a mix — formal and not-so.” She and her husband have four young daughters, including triplets.

People often experience upheaval in their lives when they resolve to sell longtime homes, Kathy Doyle noted. That’s where the hand-holders, who work in Doyle’s estate services department (and whose business cards say “relationship manager”) come in. “People have inherited a house, they’re moving from a house, someone’s died in the house,” Mrs. Doyle said. “They are usually sad stories. Not all of them — some people are moving out, redecorating, moving to Florida — so there’s the good news and the challenging news.” 

The managers supervise the process. They “go out to meet the family, typically with an appraiser, oftentimes just to do a walk-through, and then from there other appraisers needed will come,” specialists in furniture, paintings, jewelry, the decorative arts, silver, and much more. “I can’t imagine why anybody would want to buy silver at retail,” she said, “because frankly you can get so many beautiful pieces at auction, and it’s so much more affordable.”

On occasion, people will attend an auction where a former possession is on the block, some hoping for a killing, others just to see it for the last time. “People remember the pieces that they love,” Mrs. Doyle said. “They remember where they bought them, and they usually have some vague notion of what they paid for them. And what happens sometimes now is people are stunned to find out, after they’ve had something for 30 or 40 years, that it hasn’t increased in value. Dining-room tables now — unless they’re extremely special, usually English, usually triple-pedestal or large, round, pie-shaped — are bringing about the same amount of money as people bought them for.”

Mrs. Doyle holds out hope for the future of what millennials often dismiss as “brown furniture,” the chests, armoires, and other heavy mahogany pieces beloved of their grandparents’ generation. She may even have a sneaking liking for them. “If you notice the shelter magazines,” she said, “the designers for the last few years were never comfortable with that 100-percent beige palette, so they’ve gone back to really high-style decorating that can be adapted to anybody’s budget or anybody’s household. That includes so-called brown furniture, which adds a warmth and a depth that other styles of decorating don’t.”  

A problem for the gallery, though, apart from disappointing prices, was where to store the big brown pieces that remain unsold. Laura Doyle, whom her mother proudly calls “the future-thinker,” came up with the solution. A young woman of many parts — she has a real estate license and is “transitioning,” she said, in that direction as head of Doyle’s burgeoning regional offices — she found a warehouse for rent in the South Bronx Port Morris/Mott Haven section, just an 11-minute ride over the Willis Avenue Bridge from the mother ship on 87th. 

A graffiti artist who goes by “Crash” came by last fall and turned its concrete facade into an eye-catching mural. (It can be seen at hayloftauctions.com/hayloft-u/2017/10/26/watch-our-blank-doyle-warehouse-turn-into-a-work-of-art .)

A short walk from the warehouse is her “fun, affordable, user-friendly” Hayloft gallery. Founded three years ago with things that came from estates but were not worth auctioning at Doyle, it has turned out to be a resource both for across-the-road neighbors, who, Ms. Doyle said, “can pick up something that’s better quality than you can buy at retail,” and also for millennials, “who love finding things that are different, not just adding stuff to a cart. It’s not Pottery Barn.” Unless you count Instagram, there is little or no advertising.

Google “Hayloft” and a blue icon marking its location pops up like a beacon on the almost-empty map of Port Morris. Laura, who designed its website during a plane ride to California, clearly knows her real estate. A week or two ago, a website called untappedcities.com announced that Port Morris has “undisputedly some of the hottest neighborhoods in the Bronx right now, undergoing intense gentrification pressures as well as local revival.”  

“Every business that survives in New York City is a real-estate business and a tech business,” Laura said in a telephone conversation. Her mother, while emphasizing “the core of the business is what it always was, appraisals and auctions,” agrees.

“Laura describes us as a technology company,” Kathy Doyle said. “We are a research-based company and an auction gallery, but it’s all skewing tech as time goes on. Technology leveled the playing field as far as auctions were concerned. 

Someone said to us yesterday, ‘Well, this collection has to be sold in Geneva.’ Why would you say it has to be sold in Geneva? There are so many other markets for jewelry — there’s New York, there’s London and Paris — why say Geneva? It’s not locale-specific anymore. It could be sold in Hong Kong. It’s different; the market is different.”

Mrs. Doyle and her second husband, Richard Ravitch, were married in 2005. Between them, they have 12 grandchildren, 9 of them hers. She buys them books, old maps, and on special occasions, American gold coins at Doyle auctions: “They make great confirmation gifts.”

Mr. Ravitch is a skilled weekend woodworker whose financial acumen got New York City through a deep economic recession in the 1970s and who later had a stint as New York State’s lieutenant governor. The couple’s light-filled Wainscott farmhouse, which borders an agricultural reserve, is furnished with his handmade tables, chairs, bookcases, and cabinetry, which look for all the world as if colonial craftsmen created them. She calls the furniture “new American,” and, referring to her collections of American paintings and folk art, said, “We sort of made it merge together.”

Kathleen M. Doyle, right, is chairwoman and chief executive officer of Doyle New York. Her daughter Laura is vice chairwoman, director of regions, and “future-thinker.” Irene Silverman
“Purple & Figure” by Larry Rivers will be auctioned on June 6. Its estimate is $5,000 to $7,000.
A graffiti artist known as Crash turned the bare concrete facade of Doyle’s new South Bronx warehouse into a colorful mural.
The daguerreotypes are part of a collection also consigned to auction.