Surrounded by beauty


Tableaux of antiques at Bruneau & Co. auction showroom, in Cranston.

Spent Friday morning surrounded by beauty at the auctioneer’s showroom of Kevin Bruneau out Elmwood way, just over the line in Cranston. The exterior of the low, tan cinder-block building belies its contents. A visitor, having mastered the desire to flee, enters a steel door, only to confront a large, equally dismaying blank hall of clutter.

But to approach the clutter and immerse yourself in it, as I did before my presence was noticed, brings enchantment after enchantment. A couple of rococo tables of (I imagine) oriental origin, upon the nearest of which sat an ornate sculpture of a mythical creature upholding various carved bowls rising up and up and bedecked with groups of other strange animals – my descrip- tive faculties fail me, and that’s only one of the pieces in this set.

As I learn under the guidance of Bruneau and his associates, the studio boasts a variety of antiques, difficult to fathom, from entwined embracing winged figures in marble to a steamer in a case whose paddle wheel operates to a ketch sculpted from ivory to a wretched hand “after” Rodin ($1,000 in value, or $30,000 had it been an actual Rodin) to a stuffed puma, a clay fish standing on its tail, a zinc terrier on alert, a hippopotamus in evening garb. Nudes, such as that held by Kevin below, do not go unrepresented in the showroom stock. There are paintings galore from every period. Now and then you might stumble upon a piece of architectural ornament. The most valuable item on the premises is a Patek Philippe watch valued at $150,000. Must be old, eh? No, it was manufactured in Geneva, circa 1990.

A rococo clock designed after a love story popular in the Napoleonic era, depicting its sad end in a shipwreck, is described by Bruneau’s associate and fellow auctioneer Travis Landry in “The French Revolution and its Influence on the Arts,” an article written last year for the Bruneau & Co. blog:

Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers is proud to offer this rare and important French early nineteenth century Charles X Romantic ormolu and silvered bronze clock. The bright ormolu clock topper of the shipwreck sits in beautiful contrast of the silvered bronze ocean wave base. The rim of the clock body is decorated with a repeating Rococo stylized shell pattern in high relief. The corners of the body are decorated with stylized open work cornucopia patterns with gilt highlighting. The base is decorated with swirling floral patterns with a central crest depicting a dragon and phoenix. The clock is supported by curled feet adorned with Rococo shells. The dial is silvered with black Roman numerals. The movement has an impressed maker’s mark “P.C”.

Eventually these items will disappear under the auctioneer’s hammer, to be replaced by more lovely stuff brought in by Bruneau and his network of col- lectors to fill the chamber and then vanish in their turn, bought by collectors who love them or speculators who love what they will bring in five years. I did not ask him how much this hurts. He could not think of the item in the shop he’d miss most, or even the top three. He asked his staff. They had no idea either. He took me out to his house in Scituate woods, however, where he has built a museum, clearly stocked with some of the things he loves the most, with a collection of architectural ornament clustered here and there in front of the house.

Perhaps I have missed my calling – to surround oneself with things that bring a thrill with each encounter. I was in Bruneau’s shop for just an hour but he is in his shop every day, when he’s not he’s out searching for beautiful things. In his life a marvel might be waiting to greet him around every corner. Ahh!

He did not detail the irksome aspects of being surrounded by beauty all the time. Or so I assure myself. It is a business, after all. He does not come in to work and enter full swoon for eight hours and then leave. (Does he?) I once participated in an auction. I described it in a 1989 column for the Providence Journal called “Supply versus demand at its worst: Two book lovers chasing one book,” one of my last before embracing architecture as my usual topic. The edition of Hazlitt’s 1826 essay collection The Plain Speaker was taken, after “wallet-to-wallet combat,” by Michael Chandley, of Cellar Stories on Mathewson Street. He was bidding on behalf of a Brown professor, whose name I learned years later but have since forgotten. The rascal.

[The column about my bidding at auction will be my next blog post.]

Coming up at Bruneau & Co., at 63 Fourth Ave., in Cranston are auctions on Monday, May 22, at 6 p.m. and on Saturday, June 3, at 10:30 and noon.

A tip of the chapeau to Nancy Thomas, of Tapestry Communications, who helps Kevin spread the word about his auctions and who put me in touch with the auctioneer and arranged my tour on Friday. She showed up, too. Who could stay away?


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About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Surrounded by beauty

  1. Lovely! And, thank you for the time you spent with some of my favorite people I have had the pleasure to work with. Who knew this existed here in RI? I did not. I so enjoy watching others discover this land of pretty, source of value and investment, and extended life for one’s treasures. At every auction I find my ‘one favorite thing’ and I feel sadness when I hear the closing bid and off it goes to a new home, alas, not mine. This all mimics the cycle of life in a much more defined way they what we, simple imperfect humans, will have. To hold a treasure in one’s hand is a lot like holding someone’s hope of immortality.


  2. Pingback: My auction bid for Hazlitt | Architecture Here and There

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