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Purchase Story

Tobacco Figures Smoking Hot at Thomaston

Mark Sisco | February 12th, 2017

Thomaston Place Auction Galleries, Thomaston, Maine

Superlatives were easy to come by at the Thomaston Place Auction Galleries’ February 11 and 12 auction in Thomaston, Maine. President and auctioneer Kaja Veilleux called it “the biggest and best of this kind of stuff we’ve had in twenty-five years.” He was referring to the single-owner assortment of lifetime antiques collector Leo Wilensky of New York. “All from one guy,” Veilleux added, “and to give it to us unreserved is unheard of.” The Wilensky lots composed about one-third of the nearly 1000 lots up for sale and were the best of the best.

The work of sculptor William Rush (1756-1833) was in great demand following the Revolution when the U.S. Navy began building ships in Philadelphia. He carved figureheads for at least four of the six original navy frigates, and he may have had a hand in designing the other two as well. Rush is known to have made at least two Native American tobacconist figures, and the one offered here was trumpeted in the catalog as “possibly the earliest surviving example of a Native American as a tobacco advertisement.” The base was painted with the number “458,” perhaps the address of a Philadelphia tobacco shop. The catalog also referred to a quote in the papers of William Rush Dunton (1868-1966), great-grandson of the carver, that reads, “A figure in front of the cigar store on Third Street above Walnut is by Rush. If you look it up bear in mind it is not the standing figure at street level, but the somewhat grotesque little Indian in an iron frame over the door,” an apt description of the specimen offered. Here it was appreciated to the tune of $64,350 (including buyer’s premium). The price was not quite up to the level of the $75,000/100,000 estimate.

Native American tobacconist figure by William Rush, $64,350. Thomaston Place photo.

The origin of the term “Jim Crow” is not known with certainty. The persona was created by Thomas D. Rice (1808-1860), a white American actor, dancer, and playwright who performed in blackface and was one of the best-known minstrel show entertainers of his time. Rice often performed a song written in 1828 called “Jump Jim Crow,” decades before the popular mockery minstrel genre grew to prominence. In the wooden polychrome sidewalk trade figure offered at Thomaston Place, he was depicted in a typical stance as his character also known as “Daddy Rice” the “Dancing Negro.” The maker of the statue was uncertain, but it probably came from the New York area. It found a new home for a commanding $157,950, well within the $125,000/175,000 estimate.

Tobacconist figure of Thomas “Daddy” Rice in his Jim Crow persona, $157,950. Thomaston Place photo.

Ship commander’s liquor chest, possibly owned by William Bainbridge, $14,625.

The catalog listed a mahogany, rosewood, and brass-inlaid liquor chest as “reputedly owned” by Commodore William Bainbridge (1774-1833). Bainbridge was the commander of several naval ships, including the U.S.S. Constitution in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812, and it is possible, though unproven, that he had the chest with him aboard that vessel. It is also possible, but less likely, that he had it when he ignominiously ran the U.S.S. Philadelphia aground off the shores of Tripoli in 1803, resulting in the capture of himself and his crew and the destruction of the ship. The age of the chest would fit with either time frame, and the tenuous historical connection, plus the period gilt-decorated bottles and the “E PLURIBUS UNUM” banner-bearing eagle on the mirror inside the lid were enough to convince a least a couple of bidders to chase it to $14,625, just under the high estimate.

For more information, visit the website ( or call (207) 354-8141.

Early period furniture doesn’t have to be large and fancy to bring big bucks. Sometimes red-painted and extra small is the right combination, as with this child-size Queen Anne chest from the Delaware River valley area. In two sections, just as a larger case piece might be, with a simple flat cornice, two over three drawers in the upper section above two in the base, it stands only 38" x 19½" x 13½". Despite some minor chips and glue block problems, the small size and original paint were all it took to boost it to $38,610, just shy of the high estimate. Thomaston Place photo.

The best of the textiles in the sale was this patchwork quilt showing a large central panel of a wedding in front of a country church, surrounded by 12 panels of small cabins and with people or animals, including one of young man hoisting a flag dated 1876 and one of a family. Stitched in compelling detail right down to the individual facial features, it is now mounted on a canvas backing and stretcher and protected in a Lexan case. It had been featured in the May 1934 issue of The Magazine Antiques when it was described as “the best of an excessively rare type.” It closed just under the $20,000/30,000 estimate for $19,890. “It’s got everything in there,” auctioneer Kaja Veilleux enthusiastically explained before the sale. “It’s got trapunto work, it’s got needlepoint, it’s got stumpwork, everything. It’s amazing. Every little vignette is like a little painting.”

This American fire engine steam pumper weathervane appears to be the same model listed in the A.B. & W.T. Westervelt 1883 No. 6 catalog of weathervanes, in which it was offered in two sizes, 5' and 7' models. Even in that day, neither one came cheap. The retail price back then was $175 and $250 respectively. This 7' model with two horses and two cast firemen in bronze, copper, and zinc, with a robust gray and green oxidized patina, has inflated to $55,575, well within the $40,000/60,000 estimate.

An adjustable wrought-iron double candle light, standing a full 6' tall, with brass candleholders and drip pans, a hook for a snuffer (included), and a spring-loaded height stop, is very similar to an example held by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, made by gunsmith Benjamin Gerrish (1686-1750). This one sold for $12,870. Thomaston Place photo.

As often happens, there were a few items of Orientalia that seem destined to go nowhere important. Here’s a Chinese lacquered panel with a deep azure-blue background behind an intricately carved wooden table holding cloisonné vases and sculptures framed in hardwood. Expected to bring $2000/3000, it was a large hit at $21,060.

A cased prisoner-of-war ship model from the Napoleonic era, made of ivory and baleen, this 54-gun ship of the line, remarkably detailed down to the planked and pinned hull, has a full figurehead and carved sternboard. It sold just over the estimate for $16,380.

Competition quickly heated up for a Civil War quarter-plate tintype of a Union army tent camp in a gutta-percha case. Close inspection showed markings on the side of the covered wagon reading “3RD BRIGADE / CO.” above and below a diamond emblem. Officers’ and soldiers’ tents dot a deforested stump-filled field in the background. It was inconspicuously estimated at $600/800, and bidders didn’t quit until it hit $5265.

This 17" x 22¾" oil on canvas Connecticut winter farm scene has the panache of a Wyeth connection, having come from Phyllis Wyeth, wife of Jamie Wyeth. Its authorship is uncertain, but it was listed as “in the manner of patriarch George Henry Durrie” of Connecticut (1820-1863), with the further suggestion that it may have been done by George’s son George Boice Durrie (1842-1907). That, plus a reference to a nearly identical painting by the senior Durrie in Martha Young Hutson’s 1977 book George Henry Durrie (1820-1963) was enough to sell it for $17,550.

It was the second time around for this enormous 17" long bowie knife with an American navy provenance. It went unsold at Thomaston Place in August of last year, but this time someone took a solid stab at it for $11,115. The German silver end mount on the sheath is inscribed “From / W. H. Wood, U. S. N. / To his Friend / A. C. Sterrett, U. S. N.,” both documented warrant officers. On the ricasso is the impression “G. WOSTENHOLM & SON / WASHINGTON WORKS / NONE ARE GENUINE BUT THOSE / MARKED I.X.L.” It is illustrated in Norm Flayderman’s 2004 book The Bowie Knife (p. 182).

Originally published in the May 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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