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Americana Week

Lita Solis-Cohen | January 23rd, 2014


This scalloped-top Philadelphia tea table from the Eric M. Wunsch estate, probably made in the shop of Benjamin Randolph, with carving attributed to Richard Butts, brought $905,000. Christie’s photo.


This eider drake decoy from the legendary McCleery collection, from a rig probably made by an unidentified maker on Monhegan Island, Maine, sold for $767,000 to Arthur Liverant of Nathan Liverant & Son, Colchester, Connecticut, bidding in the salesroom for a client. Sotheby’s photo.


Peter Tillou of Litchfield, Connecticut, sold this portrait of Albert G. Gilman, attributed to A. Ellis, painted in New Hampshire, and inscribed and dated on the back 1831. It was the talk of the Winter Antiques Show. Solis-Cohen photo.

For 60-plus years, collectors, dealers, and curators have braved winter weather to gather in New York City in January in pursuit of the best Americana.

The Winter Antiques Show, the catalyst for the phenomena known as Americana Week, celebrated its 60th year with a festive opening on January 23. This grande dame of antiques shows looked more glamorous at 60, after a stylish makeover and bedecked in diamonds. (Queen Victoria’s diamond tiara was on loan for the occasion.) A Wunderkammer of treasures old and new, local and from afar, was on loan from the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, one of America’s oldest continually operating museums. In 75 stunning booths exhibitors presented a diverse assortment of furniture, decoration, art, and jewelry, the finest they could muster.

The Winter Antiques Show began in 1955 as a fund-raiser for the East Side House Settlement and has raised a lot of money for this community resource, now in the South Bronx. The show spawned an industry of other shows and events, creating the most layered and the biggest draw—Americana Week.

Collectors of American decorative arts arrived in New York City in the days leading up to the Winter Antiques Show to view presale exhibitions at auction houses and to attend shows that opened Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday and continued during the first weekend. (This year the number of shows was reduced to three, and the auctions were just four catalogs, eight sessions.) During the week there were cocktail parties for various museum groups; a tag sale; dinners with colleagues; visits to museum and gallery exhibitions; a week-long debate on the construction and carving of Boston and New York side chairs held at Bernard & S. Dean Levy; the second annual presentation of the Eric M. Wunsch award at Christie’s on Wednesday night; and a memorial remembrance for the beloved Bayou Bend curator Michael K. Brown on Friday evening. No one could do it all.

The New York Ceramics Fair opened during a snowstorm on Tuesday night at the Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd Street. Passionate collectors got there and bought major pieces. Many came to the lectures during the week and then shopped. Dealers were generally pleased; museum curators made acquisitions, and major sales are in the works. The ceramics fair has become a tradition that will continue.

The Metro Show opened on Wednesday night, presenting antiques as art, alongside contemporary, tribal, and Outsider art. Selling was spotty. Showgoers complained that there was not enough depth in any category. American Indian ledger drawings sold, as did samplers, toys, and banks, some edgy folk art, and tribal art (the show’s strongest suit).

Antiques at the Armory, under new management with higher booth rents, opened on Friday with fewer dealers but a broad range of material, a good gate, and plenty of sales.

Pundits say Americana Week is the barometer of the market; a good January in New York City bodes well for the year. Perhaps it does, but Americana comprises many regional markets, and the Internet has changed the way business is done.

The landmark event during Americana Week 2014 was the sale of the collection of Ralph O. Esmerian at Sotheby’s. It was bittersweet; his collection had been promised to the American Folk Art Museum and was sold as a result of bankruptcy. Folk art collectors who had not been seen in Manhattan for years came from all parts of the country to view the collection, and a surprisingly large number of them returned to bid in person. Others bid by phone or through dealers. Sotheby’s reserved 400 seats, and there were two dozen phone lines for bidders in addition to the Internet. There was so much bidding that it took four hours for auctioneer Brad Bentoff to offer 228 lots and raise about $10.5 million for Esmerian’s creditors. (There were 40 unsold lots, estimated at $990,000. In the weeks following the sale, Sotheby’s has been selling passed lots privately at 80% of the reserve. Some pottery and fraktur found buyers, but there is more to go.)

Many were surprised that the Santa Claus figure that Samuel Robb of New York City carved for his daughter Elizabeth in 1923 was the top lot. It sold to David Schorsch for a client for $875,000 (includes buyer’s premium), underbid in the salesroom by Leigh Keno, sitting with his clients John and Marjorie McGraw. There was no surprise that the full-length figure of a little boy named Jeremiah Emerson painted by Ruth Whittier Shute and Samuel Addison Shute sold for $665,000.
Esmerian always paid what he had to pay for the best, setting an example for the collectors in the salesroom, who ignored estimates and bid aggressively. Records were made; they are spelled out in a longer story (see page 30-D of this issue).

On Sunday, January 26, Leigh Keno held a one-lot auction for a historically significant document (12 pages on six leaves folio, with writing on both sides in the hand of Robert Livingston) and sold it for $912,500 to dealer Seth Kaller, who was representing a client. “The Letter from the Twelve United States Colonies to the Inhabitants of Great Britain” was a last attempt to reconcile differences with Britain. It was discovered last summer by Emilie Gruchow, a young archivist, in the attic of the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum in Washington Heights, New York City, inside a folder of Colonial doctors’ bills tucked away in a drawer. Kaller said he was bidding for New Jersey collector Brian Hendelson, who owns Classic Coin Company. Hendelson said he was thrilled to buy this original draft of the final plea to the British people to attempt to head off the Revolutionary War. Six other bidders competed. James L. Kerr, president of the Morris-Jumel Mansion board of trustees, said the sale quadrupled the size of its endowment.

The highest price for American furniture at the January sales was $905,000 (est. $800,000/1,200,000), paid at Christie’s for a carved mahogany scalloped-top Philadelphia tea table from the Eric M. Wunsch estate, probably made in the shop of Benjamin Randolph and carved by Richard Butts. It sold on one phone bid. There was more bidding for an eider drake decoy, once in the legendary McCleery collection, offered at Sotheby’s. It came from a rig probably made by a yet-unidentified maker on Monhegan Island, Maine, and sold for $767,000 to Arthur Liverant of Nathan Liverant & Son, Colchester, Connecticut, bidding in the salesroom for a client. It is the fourth-highest price ever paid for a decoy.

The Deshler family side chair, one of the most coveted of all Philadelphia side chairs, was deaccessioned by the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee because it has other furniture with carving by John Pollard and is buying aggressively to fill voids in its collections. The chair sold at Christie’s for $725,000 (est. $200,000/ 500,000) to young Noah Wunsch, standing at the back of the salesroom to execute bids for his father, Peter Wunsch, president of Wunsch Americana Foundation.

“The foundation now owns the three best chairs in American art,” said Peter Wunsch in the salesroom. “The foundation is buying the best American furniture for investment.”

Peter Wunsch presided at the Eric M. Wunsch Award for Excellence in the American Arts on Wednesday evening. He explained that the Wunsch Americana Foundation is dedicated to the preservation of 17th- and 18th-century Americana in all its forms, furthering scholarship in early American decorative arts and supporting students, collectors, and educators. “My father spent a lot of his life with like-minded collectors who appreciated excellence in this field, and these awards will continue to bring these people together,” said Wunsch before presenting two awards. One was to Linda Kaufman, who has promised the collection she put together with her husband, George (1932-2001), to the National Gallery of Art. And one was to Richard Hampton Jenrette, who in the last 45 years has owned and restored 16 historic and architecturally worthy 18th-century and early 19th-century houses and retained six of the finest on the Hudson, in South Carolina, and in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, all furnished with Federal and Classical American furniture, porcelain, and other decorative items of English and French origin and open to the public.

Auction sales began Thursday morning at Christie’s with a successful sale of silver, of which 98% sold! A brandywine bowl made by New York silversmith Cornelius Vander Burch, circa 1690, from the estate of Eric Martin Wunsch, sold to New York City dealer Tim Martin of S.J. Shrubsole for $317,000. It is one of 20 large brandywine bowls known. Martin bought 12 other lots of Wunsch silver; Colonial silver does not come up for sale very often. Wunsch silver accounted for $989,000 of Christie’s approximately $10.2 million total for the week.

Sotheby’s Thursday afternoon sale of prints, Chinese export porcelain, and silver did not perform as well. The highlight was the sale of a plain silver bowl, just 6" in diameter, made by Thomas You of Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1765, which sold for $53,125 (est. $20,000/30,000) on the phone, underbid in the salesroom by Brandy Culp of the Historic Charleston Foundation. A group of a dozen American swords from the John K. Lattimer collection all sold, but less than half the Chinese export porcelain offered found buyers, and silver tea sets and flatware were not embraced enthusiastically.

On Friday at Christie’s sale of furniture and folk art, property from the Wunsch estate accounted for $2.2 million of the $5.67 million sale, and a few favorite things of Kristina Barbara Johnson (d. 2013) accounted for $855,375. Johnson’s carved limestone Mother and Child by William Edmondson sold for $263,000 to New York City collector Jerry Lauren, but neither her large snow scene by Grandma Moses, Old Covered Bridge (est. $300,000/700,000), nor her fireboard attributed to Rufus Porter (est. $100,00/150,000) sold. Although Outsider art is not often offered at Christie’s, some of Johnson’s Outsider art was well received. Two Deer in a Fiery Forest by William Hawkinsand Brown Mule by Bill Traylor each sold for $37,500, and Tiger by Thornton Dial went for $32,500; other examples sold over modest estimates.

Two lots from the Eric Wunsch estate far exceeded estimates. A parcel-gilt blockfront dressing glass, Boston, 1760-90, sold for $185,000 (a record for the form), and a satinwood and figured maple paint-decorated octagonal sewing box, attributed to Thomas Seymour and initialed by John Ritto Penniman, sold for $125,000 (est. $3000/5000), both to the same New England collector. The Coates family walnut Queen Anne chair from the Wunsch estate failed to sell (est. $200,000/300,000). Those in the know said condition, not design, was the reason. A similar chair from the Wunsch estate had sold at Christie’s in September 2013 for $579,750. Collectors are very picky, finding any excuse not to bid and looking for bargains; high chests, blockfront bureaus, and a serpentine chest sold for half what they brought in the 1990’s or even a decade ago. Low estimates make this a great time to buy.

Sotheby’s offered American furniture and folk art on Saturday afternoon with just a 20-minute break after the Esmerian sale. An Asa Stebbins tall clock with works by Aaron Willard, its dial painted by John Minot and its case attributed to Stephen Badlam Sr., sold without competition in the salesroom for $185,000 to Philip Zea, president of Historic Deerfield, and will go back to the Asa Stebbins house in Deerfield where it belongs. The same price was paid by dealer C.L. Prickett, Yardley, Pennsylvania, for a small canvaswork hunting scene worked by Anna Woodbury (Swett) in Boston in 1748. Both were estimated at $150,000/250,000.

Sotheby’s sale of prints, silver, porcelain, furniture, and folk art totaled about $5.45 million. Added to the Esmerian sale total of about $13 million, it brought Sotheby’s total to $18.4 million worth of Americana. Christie’s total was about $10.4 million. Add to that a sale of some Americana at Bonhams and the manuscript auctioned by Keno, and nearly $30 million was spent on Americana at auction in January 2014, nearly half of it at the Esmerian sale.

After Sotheby’s various-owners furniture and folk art sale, collectors rushed to 27 East 69th Street where Leigh Keno held a hastily put together tag sale of furniture and decorations. The collection was on view a few days earlier but not well advertised. Nevertheless, people stood in line to get first dibs when the doors opened at 6 p.m. (Prices were negotiable after 7 p.m.) This “indoor yard sale” was a novel way to sell in Manhattan and a success.

Dealers at the Winter Show reported brisk sales of Americana after the auctions, especially of folk art. Peter Tillou sold his portrait of Albert G. Gilman, attributed to A. Ellis, painted in New Hampshire and inscribed and dated on the back 1831. It looks like a Modigliani and was deemed a masterpiece. It was fresh to market; Peter Tillou had owned it for years without offering it for sale. It was the talk of the show. To have a chance to buy such a thing is why collectors come to New York City in January.

A more detailed look at the state of the Americana market will be featured in individual articles in upcoming issues.


Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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