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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Kathleen Doyle

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-05

Kathleen Doyle seems to be always in motion.

She is animated when she talks. She's animated when she laughs. She's animated when pausing to reflect on a question. She gestures to illustrate a point. Then she gestures again to drive that point home. Even the slightest smile makes her facial muscles dance.

Had Ms. Doyle been an auctioneer that sort of animation would have served her very well indeed. In fact, if she wants to, she can wield a gavel at an auction podium at any time.

That's because she heads an eponymous auction and appraisal company in Manhattan, one that specializing in disposing art and antiquities from estates.

"I am really quite shy," she said yesterday.

But it isn't her shyness that keeps her away from the auction podium. She has several veteran auctioneers to drive prices. It's simply that, since the death of the firm's founder, William Doyle, in 1993, Ms. Doyle has had to run the company with great velocity.

To say that she's run the company is to engage in understatement. Her late husband was a charismatic figure whose passion for antiques enabled him to build a business that gave older auction houses a run for their money. But the company is what it is now - a market leader and buzz creator - largely on account of Ms. Doyle.

"Bill was a singularly exceptional person," she said. "The entire company pivoted around one person. My job was to broaden the layers of responsibility, to delegate, to work quietly behind the scenes and let the company's growth speak for itself."

Such growth often has the art world talk of Doyle in the same breath as Christie's, which was founded in 1766 by James Christie, or Sotheby's, which was started by Samuel Baker in 1744. Of course, Doyle's annual revenues aren't exactly close to those of these London-based auction houses. But among the smaller auction houses, which cumulatively do humongous business, Doyle is considered a jewel.

That status is largely due to the Doyle team's diligence in scouting for estates whose heirs wish to dispose their legacy. Over the years, Doyle has auctioned off the estates of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Rock Hudson, Gloria Swanson, James Cagney, and the longtime broadcast journalist Howard K. Smith, among others. A Chinese porcelain collection of F. Gordon Morrill, a Harvard professor, yielded more than $12 million.

One would think that her knowledge of art and antiquities must have come from rigorous scholarship in the field. However, the Pennsylvania-born Ms. Doyle initially set out to be an editor after graduating from Trinity College in English literature. One of her first jobs was at the erstwhile Saturday Evening Post, which paid $80 a week.

It was after meeting and marrying William Doyle - whom she would encounter in her neighborhood - that Ms. Doyle joined his company. She handled sales and marketing.

Then she decided to return to her first love, education. She enrolled at Bank Street College and obtained a master's degree in parent and infant development.

Ms. Doyle had no expectation that she would be pushed back into her husband's auction firm through a tragedy. She'd had three daughters by now, and had inherited a business that needed reinvigoration.

"I would often think of an inscription from Thomas Jefferson at the Library of Congress in Washington that I'd seen," Ms. Doyle said. "That truly inspired me."

The inscription said: "Too low they reach who grope beneath the stars."

She resolved to aim high. But some competitors suggested that her business would collapse.

"That was exactly the thing to say to someone who took a challenge very seriously," she said.

"So I started asking questions such as "How can we do better?' and 'What change is needed at our company?'" Ms. Doyle said.

One of the answers she came up was to build a broader management team. Still another answer was that Doyle would expand its reach internationally. Her tools were not only conventional newsletters and catalogues, but also the Internet.

"I am a very team-based person, and I'm very supportive of my colleagues," Ms. Doyle, who grew up as one of six children of James and Monica Mahon, said. "We're a research-based business - and we put our reputation on the line with every auction. Strong leadership is essential to build a good reputation. People have come to trust us."

The reporter asked her what imprint would she leave on her business when the next generation of leaders takes over Doyle (one of her daughters, Laura Doyle Hammam, works in the jewelry department).

"I hope it will be said that I considered it an honor and privilege to represent the works of such fascinating artists - and I hope that it will be said that I was always open to new ideas and change," Ms. Doyle said.

Then she paused a bit.

"You know, I'm never comfortable with self promotion," she said. "But I do think that you become more courageous in your life when leadership is thrust upon you."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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