Christie’s deputy chairman John Hays shows the Townsend signature on the bottom of the top drawer of the mahogany block-and-shell bureau table that brought $2,210,500 from a phone bidder.
James Buttersworth painted “Flying Cloud”on her record breaking voyage to San Francisco around Cape Horn in 89-days, April 20th 1854. It sold for $398,500. Bonhams photo.
This is the Samuel Talcott cherrywood blockfront desk-and-bookcase with a rich old surface, probably made in Hartford, Connecticut. It sold for $1,082,500. Sotheby’s photo.
Edward Hicks painted this smaller version (17¾" x 23¾") of Penn’s Treaty, which sold for $2,546,500 to Downingtown, Pennsylvania, dealer Philip Bradley. Christie’s photo.
A double portrait of Wealthy Jones Winter and sister Sarah Marie Winter, painted in Bath, Maine, circa 1839, probably by John Brewster, sold for $74,400. Keno Auctions photo.
A preening eider drake decoy by Augustus Aaron “Gus” Wilson (1864-1950) of Maine sold for $172,500. Copley Fine Art Auctions photo.
Americana Week in New York City in January was a very good time to buy. The auction rooms were crowded; the shows well attended; and there was plenty of energy as the market settled down to its new lower price level. Collectors are buying better examples for less money, thanks to the downturn in the antiques market of the last decade.
The longtime players at the top of the market were not as active, but reportedly there were a few new collectors among the many phone and Internet bidders. There were also some good buys in the middle market. As usual, condition, unreasonable estimates, or recent appearances at auction were the reasons for lots failing to sell. About a third of what was offered was left behind at the auctions, and sales at the shows were patchy. Some dealers sold well; others, who were not willing to meet the lower price level, had plenty left for another day.
As the economy slowly begins to recover, so does the Americana market. It has been difficult for seasoned collectors to trade up, since they can’t sell the things they have for what they paid in order to buy something better. And more collectors are downsizing rather than filling new houses as some lifestyles change.
The total sold at auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Keno Auctions, Copley Fine Art, and Bonhams was well below the $50 million total in 2012, when Sotheby’s and Christie’s had their highest totals since 2007. (See M.A.D., March 2012, p. 26-A.) This year, the total came to a little more than $31,000,000.
Christie’s posted half of it ($15,008,200, including buyers’ premiums), selling 338 of the 404 lots offered for 83.7% sold by lot for sessions of silver, English pottery, and Chinese export porcelain. Sotheby’s offered 639 lots and sold 443 of them for a total of $9,976,830. Sotheby’s multi-owner sale accounted for $8,681,885 (69.9% sold by lot), and $1,294,944 came from the sale of the collection of Dr. Larry McCallister, of which 67.5% sold by lot.
Leigh Keno of Keno Auctions added about $2.5 million including a few after-auction sales of American furniture, and he said 87% of the lots offered were sold. Copley’s approximately $1.7 million total included decoys, some fishing gear, and sporting art, and 90% of the 363 lots sold. Bonhams put 103 lots of American furniture, American silver, and Chinese export porcelain in a sale of English and Continental furniture and decorations, of which 82 sold for $480,344. Bonhams maritime auction of paintings and decorative art added another $1,432,338 for 132 lots, of which 77 sold.
Another comparison can be made. The week’s total is less than prices paid recently for a single painting by artists such as Pollock, Warhol, and Rothko. One reason for the contraction in New York City antiques auctions is that many Americana sales are held outside Manhattan in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia, South Carolina, and elsewhere, where it is cheaper to buy and sell. Those who embrace Americana watched recent discoveries and works off the market for generations perform well at auction in January, but many lots sold for prices less than the amounts paid a decade or two ago, and pieces with repairs, insensitive refinishing, or design flaws fail to sell.
This season may be remembered for some first-rate furniture and folk art selling for reasonable prices. At Christie’s, a small (17¾" x 23¾") version of Penn’s Treaty by Edward Hicks sold for $2,546,500 to Downingtown, Pennsylvania, dealer Philip Bradley, underbid by dealer Bill Samaha. It had come from a Swiss bank vault along with several other folk paintings collected by an American couple who spent time in Switzerland and Washington, D.C. It was the highest price of the week, and the price seemed fair, because it was well below the $3,600,000 paid for another Penn’s Treaty by Hicks, 18" x 24", that sold at Christie’s in January 2007.
The big discovery of the week at Christie’s was the mahogany block-and-shell bureau table, one of seven known from the shop of John Townsend of Newport, Rhode Island. It is signed in pencil “Jonathan Townsend” in large script on the bottom of the top drawer with the date 1767. Jonathan was John Townsend’s younger brother, who died in 1773. The date 1767 appears twice on the drawer bottom. Infrared light reveals what may be the words “John Townsend finished 1767” in half-inch-high script to the right of the large Jonathan signature. It is known that Jonathan worked in his brother’s shop, and he would have been 22 years old when he signed this drawer.
This collaboration of the brothers, the only kneehole bureau signed by a Townsend in pencil, was estimated at $700,000/900,000, a conservative estimate because 4" of the feet had been missing and then added masterfully by furniture restorer Alan Andersen of Pennsylvania. The estimates and repairs were ignored, and it sold for $2,210,500 to a phone bidder, said to be a young collector. The underbidder, standing at the back of the salesroom, took bids from his father, who was seated several rows in front of him and who signaled his bidding by tugging his ear. Many said if the table’s feet had been intact, the price of the kneehole bureau could have been higher. The rich old surface and the fact that the top mahogany board had the same figure as that on the labeled John Townsend bureau table at the Metropolitan Museum of Art made it worthy. Plus its recent discovery in a New York City apartment of descendants of the original owners, the Pell and Costar families, made it the most talked about piece of the week and the most expensive piece of furniture sold.
There were ten 18th-century rectangular tray-top tea tables for sale this January at various auction houses—more than in anyone’s memory. Christie’s offered two Boston tray-top tea tables, one with candle slides, the other with a drawer. Both are top-of-the-line. The one with c-scrolls on its cabriole legs had sold at the Eddy Nicholson sale at Christie’s in 1995 for $552,500 and sold this time for $962,500 to dealer Todd Prickett of Yardley, Pennsylvania, for a client. The underbidder was the young man at the back of the room taking signals from his father.
The young bidder taking signals won the tray-top tea table with one drawer, once in the legendary C.K. Davis collection, for $290,500 (est. $250,000/350,000). It had sold at Christie’s in January 2005 for $426,000 and at Sotheby’s in 2007 for $385,000. The same buyer paid $170,500 for a New York serpentine-front card table that had sold at Christie’s in January 2009 for $254,500. He was the underbidder for the very rare japanned maple and pine bonnet-top high chest of drawers, Boston, circa 1740, with replaced legs and heavily restored, that sold for $362,500 (est. $100,000/ 200,000) to Linda H. Kaufman, who recently promised her collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Sotheby’s sold just one million-dollar piece of furniture this January. The exceptional Samuel Talcott cherrywood blockfront desk-and-bookcase with a rich old surface, probably made in Hartford, Connecticut, sold for $1,082,500 (est. $200,000/ 400,000), an auction record for any piece of Connecticut furniture. The buyer was Leigh Keno, sitting with his clients John and Marjorie McGraw. The desk-and-bookcase came from the collection of Thomas and Alice Kugelman, who wrote the definitive book on Connecticut furniture, Connecticut Valley Furniture: Eliphalet Chapin and His Contemporaries, 1750-1800, which Patricia Kane, curator of decorative arts at the Yale University Art Gallery, called a “model of regional furniture studies.”
Provenance and old surface count. At Sotheby’s, for example, the carved cherrywood side chair made by Eliphalet Chapin for Alexander King of East Windsor, Connecticut, with a rich old surface, and also from the Kugelman collection, sold for $170,500 (est. $20,000/30,000) to Woodbury, Connecticut, dealers David Schorsch and Eileen Smiles. (At the Winter Antiques Show, Schorsch bought a needlework chair seat of the period for it from Carol and Stephen Huber, who had mounted the chair seat in a fire screen.) The single Chapin chair brought the same price as a pair of Newport side chairs, attributed to John Goddard and sold at Christie’s, and brought more than the $146,500 paid at Sotheby’s by a collector for a very fine pair of Philadelphia mahogany Chippendale side chairs from the Wharton family that had been deaccessioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Two early chairs sold for well over estimates. At Sotheby’s, a Boston turned and upholstered William and Mary armchair, 1705-15, sold for $182,500 (est. $15,000/30,000) to Virginia advisor and furniture scholar Luke Beckerdite. At Christie’s, a 1735-43 carved maple armchair attributed to John Gaines of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, went for $542,500 (est. $200,000/300,000) to Todd Prickett, underbid by Bill Samaha.
“Don’t say the market is not strong,” said Christie’s auctioneer Andrew Holter after he knocked down a rare Federal parcel-gilt églomisé girandole timepiece, signed by Lemuel Curtis of Boston, for $578,600 (est. $60,000/ 90,000). Two phone bidders fought over it, even though it had lost its eagle and part of one hand. When it was pictured on the front cover of Sotheby’s catalog for the June 19, 1992, sale, it had its original eagle and sold then for a hefty $154,000 to Jack Warner for the Westervelt Company collection. In 1817, it had been hailed as America’s most beautiful timepiece.
Some reasonable expectations made it possible for dealers to buy for clients at the new lower level. At Christie’s, for example, a diminutive Queen Anne mahogany dressing table, probably made in New Jersey and estimated at $40,000/60,000, sold for $74,500 to Prickett. In January 2008 at the Schoedinger sale at Christie’s, it had sold for $115,000. The Boston Queen Anne side chair that Samaha bought for $80,500 had sold at that same sale in 2008 for more—$103,000. Also at Christie’s, the pair of Newport side chairs, attributed to John Goddard, that dealer Deanne Levison of Atlanta, Georgia, bought for $170,500 (est. $100,00/150,000) had sold at Sotheby’s in 2011 for $230,500, and at Sotheby’s in 1984 for $143,000. At Sotheby’s the Trimble family Federal painted klismos chairs, attributed to John and Hugh Finlay (1781-1831) of Baltimore, Maryland, sold for $122,500 and $98,500, which was far less than the $194,500 paid for each of two other chairs from this set at Sotheby’s in January 2010.
The buy of the week was a Classical pianoforte of stenciled rosewood by Firth Hall & Browning, New York, circa 1830, sold together with a Restoration rosewood piano stool, circa 1840, possibly by Phyfe & Sons, for $3125. At the Frederick Hughes sale at Sotheby’s on October 10, 2001, the piano sold for $21,450 and the stool made $1680. The buyers, a Georgia couple, said they had not planned to make the purchase but couldn’t resist the bargain for a piece that Hughes had bought from Hirschl & Adler Galleries for a lot more.
Gothic Revival furniture consigned to Sotheby’s from the Lee B. Anderson estate seemed reasonable; it is a thin market. A walnut side chair, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis and probably made by Burns & Brothers, New York, sold for $116,500 (est. $15,000/20,000) to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, even though it was announced from the podium that 2" of the feet have been replaced. (A chair of the same design in oak and with no repairs was sold at the Winter Show by Associated Artists for $225,000. Oak is more desirable than walnut, according to David Parker of Associated Artists.) The form is rare. There was museum interest in a monumental Gothic Revival carved armchair, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, possibly made by Burns & Brothers, circa 1857, and it sold to one of three phone bidders for $46,875 (est. $15,000/30,000).
Works of historical interest were not overlooked. At Sotheby’s, the View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family on the Terrace by the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and dated July 16, 1796, sold for $602,500 (est. $500,000/700,000) on one bid to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. It will go back to Mount Vernon where it belongs. At Christie’s, a Chinese export porcelain punch bowl (painted with views of Philadelphia’s Waterworks Pump House at Center Square, designed by Benjamin H. Latrobe and built in 1799-1800, on front and back and the engagement of the Constitution and the H.M.S. Guerriére on the sides and with grisaille fish on the interior) sold to the trade for $134,500 (est. $20,000/30,000). A collector on the phone bought a Chinese export porcelain Order of the Cincinnati plate for $98,500 (est. $25,000/40,000), and a rare Chinese export porcelain “Lady Washington States” dish went to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for $86,500 (est. $20,000/40,000).
A tiny tea bowl made by John Bartlam in the 1760’s at Cain Hoy, South Carolina, one of four known pieces of the earliest American porcelain, was offered at Christie’s. It sold for $146,500 (est. $30,000/50,000) to dealer Bill Samaha for a client, who will probably place it in a Massachusetts museum. It is just 1 5/8" high and 3 1/8" diameter and light as a feather. The transfer-printed chinoiserie vignettes include one inside that mysteriously had a palm tree and a hand-painted fretwork band. Those motifs match shards found at Cain Hoy. Scientific analysis of the clay proves that it was made at the factory operated by the Staffordshire potter John Bartlam, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Three other similar tea bowls are known—two in public collections, the third in a private collection. The decorations on all are the same, and each has a hairline crack. The first to be so identified was acquired by the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. The discovery was heralded by Robert Hunter in his article for the January/February 2011 issue of The Magazine Antiques and subsequently celebrated at the November 2011 meeting in Milwaukee of the American Ceramics Circle. Another Bartlam tea bowl was sold to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the fall of 2012 for $75,000. Let’s hope the fourth will be acquired by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts; MESDA should have one. Incidentally, all four extant examples of Bartlam’s work originated in English collections and came from the same dealer, Jupiter Antiques, which sold them as Isleworth. It is likely that two examples were together, since they were made together and may have been taken back to England when Bartlam returned or sent in a shipment for sale in London.
Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s offered collections of schoolgirl needlework that had been purchased over the last 30 years. Christie’s offered 24 pictorial samplers from a Connecticut collection and sold nearly half of them. Those that failed to sell were estimated too high for their poor condition or were of weak design. The star lot of needlework for the week was Nancy Winsor’s sampler, stitched at Mary Balch’s school in Providence, Rhode Island, dated December 4, 1786. It sold to a phone bidder at Christie’s for $110,500 (est. $80,000/120,000) and was considered a good buy. Some said competition was scared away by talk that it would bring much more.
Sotheby’s offered the sampler collection of Mary Jaene Edmonds and sold two-thirds of it. The surprise was $86,500 (est. $5000/7000) for a lot of three samplers that included one by Nancy Graves (Ku-To-Yi) of the Cherokee Mission in Arkansas and dated 1828. It sold to Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, underbid by another museum. Philadelphia dealer Amy Finkel was successful in buying a colorful sampler by Martha Mulford (1796-1868) from New Carlisle, Clark County, Ohio, dated 1824, for $68,500 for Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens in Houston, Texas. And from another collection at Sotheby’s, Finkel bought a rare early Charlestown, South Carolina, sampler, dated 1745, for $68,500 for Colonial Williamsburg. It was stitched by Mary Chicken, under the instruction of Elizabeth Hext. The most expensive sampler at Sotheby’s was the Philadelphia sampler by Maria Bolen, stitched by her at 14 years old, in 1816. It came from the legendary Kapnek collection and is pictured on the cover of Glee Krueger’s book on the Kapnek collection, published in 1978. It was not included in the Kapnek sale in 1981. It sold to Finkel for a collector for $86,500.
Americana Week began on January 21 with sales at Copley Fine Art Auctions, where a preening eider drake decoy by Augustus Aaron “Gus” Wilson (1864-1950) of Maine sold for $172,500 (est. $150,000/250,000). That set an auction record for an eider by any maker. The buyer who got it at one bid over the reserve was New York City folk art collector Jerry Lauren, who bought it as folk sculpture.
At Keno Auctions on January 22, a painting of Boston’s Exchange Coffee House Burning in 1818, signed and dated “J.R. Penniman Pinxt 1824,” sold for $117,800 (est. $50,000/100,000) to a Boston curator for a private collection. Two folk paintings were among the top lots. A portrait of a young child in a white dress and red shoes with a peach and a dog, circa 1830, sold for $86,800 (est. $60,000/100,000). It had sold at Sotheby’s in January 2005 for $102,000. A double portrait of Wealthy Jones Winter and sister Sarah Marie Winter, painted in Bath, Maine, circa 1839, probably by John Brewster, was a recent discovery and sold for $74,400 (est. $40,000/80,000). A diminutive mahogany table with rectangular drop leaves (1740-60) sold to a collector in the salesroom for $68,200 (est. $15,000/30,000).
At Bonhams maritime sale on January 25, the oil on canvas “Flying Cloud” on her record breaking voyage to San Francisco around Cape Horn in 89-days, April 20th 1854 by James Buttersworth sold for $398,500 (est. $200,000/300,000).
The shows—the New York Ceramics Fair, the Metro Show NYC, the Winter Antiques Show, and Antiques at the Armory (in order of their opening)—offered collectors from all parts of the country their annual treasure hunt, provided learning experiences at lectures and in conversations. Some dealers reported strong sales, noting an uptick in the market.
Many dealers and collectors gathered at Sotheby’s on January 21 for the presentation of the first Wunsch Americana Foundation Award for Excellence to Patricia E. Kane, who is the Friends of American Art Curator of Decorative Arts at Yale University Art Museum. On the evening of January 25, Friends of the American Wing were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to hear about new acquisitions, which included the heart-shaped William Crolius inkwell (a promised gift of Dr. David Bronstein of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) and a Tucker Factory urn with a view of Sedgely Park, the Gothic Revival house designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1799 that once stood on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.
On January 28, a memorial service celebrated the life of Wendell D. Garrett (1929-2012), mentor to many and from 1975 to 1990 editor and publisher of The Magazine Antiques. Garrett authored 474 editorials for that magazine, which Morrison Heckscher called “mini lessons in democracy.” This fearless proselytizer for American arts, who wrote 16 books in 49 years, inspired two generations and touched many lives during a heyday of collecting Americana.
The auctions and shows will be illustrated and discussed in detail in the next issue of M.A.D.