In his article in the Spring 2008 issue of Antiques & Fine Art, antiquarian Donald M. Herr, a retired Lancaster, Pennsylvania, veterinarian, identified the Sussel-Unicorn Artist as Christian Beschler, a schoolmaster in Upper Mahanoy Township, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. When Herr photographed Thomas Umholtz’s fraktur collection for the article, he told Umholtz to get in touch with him if he ever wanted to sell the fraktur.
According to Herr, fraktur by the Sussel-Unicorn Artist is much rarer than fraktur by the better-known Sussel-Washington Artist. Fraktur by both artists were sold in the sale of the estate of Philadelphia dealer Arthur Sussel at Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1958, when these fraktur hands were given the Sussel hyphenated names. A Sussel-Unicorn Artist’s child’s blessing sold for $3400 in 1958, and the more famous and smaller drawing inscribed “Ledy Waschingdon” and “exselenc georg general Waschingdon,” attributed to the Sussel-Washington Artist,sold for $3800 in a sale where James Peale still lifes sold for $1000 and $1500, a Philadelphia ball-and-claw-foot card table sold for $650, and a walnut Dutch cupboard brought $750.
This pine and poplar blanket chest with two drawers and ogee feet, reddish brown with swirl decoration and black feet, with “Anderres Ganser” and “Anno 1828” in cartouches on the front, was bought from the Reverend Frederick Weiser in New Oxford, Pennsylvania, in August 1981. It sold to a collector for $13,200. A similar Mahantongo Valley chest for Daniel Ganser is pictured in Decorated Furniture of the Mahantongo Valley. Schadel photo.
“The rumor was Tom Umholtz hid his fraktur under his bed,” said Herr on the phone. “He never called me, but after he died his wife, Joyce, told the auctioneer to let me know about his estate sale.”
Tom Umholtz died in November 2016. His will directed that his friend Rick Schadel, an auctioneer, should sell his collection. Schadel sold it in two parts, on September 16, 2017, and April 7, 2018. The sales were held in Gratz, Pennsylvania, in a building built as an elementary school, now a community center.
“The auditorium was the salesroom, and we made the classroom across the hall the furniture gallery for the April sale,” said Schadel. “We leaned the old doors against the building, and the shelter for the kids to get on their buses was perfect for some of the big wooden items—a big workbench, bicycles, and wooden parts. There was so much. Tom collected from the time he was fourteen. He went to the York show for forty-five years straight, never missing one. I went with him in his last years.”
Tom Umholtz was a woodworker. He graduated from Penn State, having studied industrial education, and he taught shop for some years. Then he made fine furniture and repaired furniture. Some say he knew more about Mahantongo Valley furniture than anyone. In the introduction to his landmark book Decorated Furniture of the Mahantongo Valley, Henry M. Reed wrote, “One who generously and unselfishly contributed his vast knowledge and enthusiasm is Tom Umholtz. He deserves a great deal of the credit.” Reed illustrated some of Umholtz’s fraktur in his book. Planes used by Mahantongo maker J. Mayer and a chest made for Anderres Ganser (listed in Reed’s book) were offered at the sale of Umholtz’s estate.
The April sale lured locals and collectors from all parts of Pennsylvania, and those who drove there said it was “out in nowhere.”
Hand-painted birth and baptismal certificate for a child named Sofia, daughter of Magdalena (nee Schankweiler) and Moses L. Beissel, Upper Mahanoy Township, 1854. It is illustrated in Decorated Furniture of the Mahantongo Valley and sold for $11,000. Schadel photo.
“I remember photographing this image on Tom and Joyce’s kitchen table on November 17, 2007,” said Don Herr, who bought this fraktur by Christian Beschler, the Sussel-Unicorn Artist, at the Schadel auction for $39,500. Only eight taufscheine (one of them blank), one religious text, and a bookplate-size drawing by Beschler are known. Examples by Christian Beschler are in the collections of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Winterthur Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art (two promised gifts of Joan and Victor Johnson), Dietrich American Foundation, and private collections. They are much rarer than fraktur by the Sussel-Washington Artist. One in the Johnson collection is signed “gemacht von CB”(“made by CB”), the clue that Dr. Don Yoder needed to identify the Sussel-Unicorn Artist as Christian Beschler, a schoolmaster who emigrated from Germany in 1764, first settled in Bucks County, and by the 1790s had moved to the Mahantongo Valley, where he lived in Upper Mahanoy Township. Toothy angels, parrots and unicorns eating berries, and a red, orange, and black palette are typical of his style. Donald Herr photo.
“I could not have done the sale without Elizabeth Stamm, the main auctioneer, and Larry Michael, my storage and transportation engineer,” said Schadel. “We took out four windows to get the furniture out of the Umholtz house in Valley View. We lowered big furniture on ropes and ladders.”
Schadel did not advertise the sale widely. He put it online on Auctionzip.com and advertised in the Pennsylvania trade press and local papers. Word got out. The right people came and bid.
A blanket chest with the name Anderres Ganser and the date 1828 in cartouches sold for $13,200. Three boxes of 16 tallow candles, a few cracked, sold for $790 a box.
“Tom had a hundred and fifty wood planes. I sold seventy-five in the first sale in September and seventy-five in the second one. Thirteen planes with the name J. Mayer and one marked J. Braun, both Mahantongo furniture makers, sold to a collector,” said Schadel.
Schadel didn’t sell the way most auctioneers do. “I put four or five things up at once and asked for bids by choice—buy one or all—and then I went on to the next five.” Schadel said that is how he sold 721 lots beginning at 8:15 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m. “Only the rarest things were sold one by one. When the Anderres Ganser chest reached $13,500 and there were no more bids, instead of dropping back to the last bid of $13,000, I asked $13,200 and got it. I did not charge a buyer’s premium. What you bid is what you paid.”
The two fraktur by Christian Beschler in the sale were offered separately. The first one, an 1815 birth and baptismal certificate for Lydia Haas, whose parents were Elizabeth (nee Muller) and George Haas of Upper Mahanoy Township, sold for $5000. It was not in good condition and was full of holes. It is pictured in Decorated Furniture of the Mahantongo Valley with a yellow piece of paper behind it.
There was a bidding battle for the Beschler fraktur in better condition, the birth and baptismal certificate for Jacob Jaekle, born October 16, 1796, whose sponsors were Jacob Jaekle and Anna Maria Höhn, and whose parents were “the esteemed Conrad Jaekle, and his much loved house wife, Catharina, nee Höhn.” Don Herr’s bid of $39,500 bought it. Dealer Philip Bradley was the underbidder.
“We got up at five in the morning and got there a little after eight,” said 91-year-old collector Paul Flack of Bucks County. “Everybody was there—Kramer, Kinzle, Still, Bradley, the Herrs, and everybody else. I didn’t buy anything, but it was a lot of fun watching two old beautifully braided brooms sell for $1100 and $1050 and see the fraktur bring $39,500.”
The sale of the Umholtz estate was an old-fashioned happening on a cold April day. Though there were warnings of snow, it never came. Many of those there remembered the days when estate sales like this one were common. Now they are as rare as the Christian Beschler fraktur.
Like the old farm sale auctioneers, Schadel does not reveal totals.
Originally published in the June 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest