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The Collection of Seward J. Kennedy, New York

Seward Kennedy layered his surroundings with a marvelous microcosm of civilization. To visit him at home was like attending a curious picnic in a foreign land. “What am I looking at?” I often wondered as I peered at his other-worldly possessions. A soft-spoken and curiously fascinating man, Seward forged profound connections to humanity through tangible relics, oddities, curios and objects of material beauty. We met ten years ago on the Portobello Road where he kept an unkempt stall with goods somewhat for sale. My heart leapt at a wine coaster, 18th century Georgian mahogany with pleasing concentric rings, hidden among piles of Tribal carvings and Pre-Columbian pottery, broken shards from Antiquity, Chinese jades, Naga shells and lumps of polished agate and amber. This bit of treen seemed misplaced and comparatively ordinary at first, yet its centuries-old patina and distinctively charming warp were quirky and compelling. Seward barely spoke except to raise his price when I balked at the asking; in the end, the piece sold itself to me, so often the case with something unusual.

An American domiciled in London, Seward was born in the 1920s in Newton, Massachusetts and graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University Law School. As a lawyer, he worked for many decades at Mobil Corporation, maintaining residences in London and New York and travelling extensively to Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus and Greece. He developed a passion for Ancient civilizations and was always a particularly enthusiastic buyer of Antiquities. His foremost interest was to protect, somehow, disappearing culture and in that quest he developed a dialogue with many, varied aspects of decorative arts. He learned to appreciate as if by osmosis, much as one attains fluency in language; that process produced a cross-pollination of interests and created an intertwined accumulation that made his taste so wide-ranging.

In New York City, his Park Avenue apartment was brimful and the juxtapositions idiosyncratic. Islamic teamed with Tribal, scientific instruments stood alongside reliquary subjects, a Pre-Columbian textile faced off with an Egyptian mummy cloth. Hundreds of objects, undusted for decades, were carefully arrayed on a vast polished steel, brass and glass shelving system designed in the 1960s by his close friend, the sculptor George Ciancimino. Venturing aloft on a stepladder one day just a few years ago, Seward caused several tiers to come shuddering down. I was there for the splintering crash and shattering crescendo of broken glass followed by an eerie silence. As sunlight pierced a billowing volcano of dust, particles spinning, glinting, twinkling like golden fireflies, he stared ahead and said, “There’s more where that came from.”

Miraculously, many tumbled pieces were unscathed as if the accident were a test of strength; among those that suffered every shard, chip, and fragment was carefully culled and set aside for repair. And repair he did, painstakingly for weeks, although he was not kidding about plenty more either. I later learned that drawers, cupboards and closets were chockablock too. At nearly ninety years of age, Seward had accumulated for more than sixty years and continued to buy until a week before he died. His possessions were somehow a window to his soul, such rarefied surroundings his true artistry.

To open one’s eyes is to listen, Seward seemed to say, for treasured artifacts speak louder than words of a vanished world worth exploring.

— Angus Wilkie

Stair Galleries is pleased to offer property from The Estate of Seward J. Kennedy, New York, in our February 25, 2017 auction, Objects & Curiosities from Around the World.
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