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Bonnie Parker's Pistol Fires National Attention

Karla Klein Albertson | January 25th, 2014

This item became a story picked up by national media. The .38 Colt Model 1902 pistol had been found on the body of Bonnie Parker at the Conger Funeral Home in Arcadia, Louisiana, after the law caught up with the infamous pair in 1934. Very well documented for outlaw memorabilia, the firearm was pursued by two bidders on the auction floor in a run that took the lot to $99,450.

Here’s yet another fabulous tale of a country auction lot that yielded treasure. The buyer paid about $25 for box of silver plate, only to find a pair of sauceboats by Colonial silversmith Lewis Fueter (1746-1784) in the batch. Case struggled to find comparable pieces outside of museum collections made by the Swiss-born London-trained Loyalist artisan. Anyone familiar with the silver collection at the New-York Historical Society has seen Fueter’s spectacular 1772-73 presentation salver with the pre-Revolutionary seal of New York City, which was featured in the 2013 collection catalog and exhibition Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York. An East Coast bidder from the trade picked up the rococo pair for $43,290, demonstrating that it pays to watch those regional auctions.

Wonderful Vieux Carré courtyard paintings by Abbott Fuller Graves (1859-1936) of Boston usually turn up in New Orleans sales. The artist came to paint in New Orleans during the winters of 1927 and 1928. This 20" x 18" painting had descended in a prominent Nashville family and was purchased by a southern institution for $23,400. The same institution also bought a portrait of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard (not shown), which sold for $2925 later in the auction.

This dramatic and spacious landscape by William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900), approximately 66" x 54", led the painting prices in the January Case auction, selling to a private collector on the phone for $40,590. The oil painting came with a winning local back story. Although the work is undated and the location unspecified, there is an 1874 letter signed by Sonntag documenting its purchase by R.H. Armstrong of Knoxville, and the painting had descended in that family. Sonntag had been based in Cincinnati in the 1840’s though 1850’s and had made numerous painting expeditions in the Ohio River valley, so the scene may have held special meaning for the purchaser.

The estate of Bill Selden of Athens, Tennessee, was rich in 19th-century furniture, attributed to McMinn County, his home territory southwest of Knoxville. The collector had been the go-to guy in supplying examples from his area to illustrate The Art and Mystery of Tennessee Furniture, wherein this cherry corner cupboard appeared. That recognition in print helped lift the mid-19th-century lot to $13,455, triple its estimate.

Although the cupboard is simple in design, the surface is embellished with diamond incisions, foliate carving, and ring-turned moldings.

One of the Selden estate lots, attributed to the Jacob Fisher cabinetmaking shop in McMinn County, was a hard-to-find set of eight cherry country Empire side chairs. The set went all the way to a surprising $4446 (est. $600/800).

Another fine example from the Tennessee furniture collection of Bill Selden, this 1820-30 Knox County walnut chest of drawers with inlaid escutcheons, 45¾" x 44½" x 19¾", brought a strong $9594 (est. $1000/1500).

This simple stoneware jar, covered with a dark salt glaze, was distinguished by a valuable incised inscription, “Sarah Price, 1827 JM,” which took the lot to $4212, well above the $700/900 estimate. Cataloged as possibly Knox County, the jar had been featured in a regional pottery exhibition at the East Tennessee Historical Society in 1996.

Case Auctions, Knoxville, Tennessee

Photos courtesy Case Auctions

Before his firm’s sale in Knoxville, Tennessee, president John Case was asking, why aren’t there more auctions in January? A certain segment of high-end collectors would be off at Americana Week in New York City, but at a regional level, January 25 seemed a perfect day to have a sale. Case said, “If you have your catalog up in time, you catch people before they’re done with Christmas and New Year’s. People are on their computer during the holidays, and you’re able to pull their attention to your sale. I always found January to be a pretty good auction month.”

As January progressed, Case hired more workers to handle an avalanche of bidder registrations. As he put it, “I’m getting clobbered on traffic—that’s why I ask, where are all the other auctions? We’ve got more phone bidders than we usually have. We have this atrium auction room, which works fine with 200 bidders or so. I’m hearing of more people coming to the sale.”

In the end, the very healthy auction brought in about $1.35 million with buyers’ premiums, of which around $425,000 was in on-line bidding through LiveAuctioneers. Case felt his team had done a good job executing the event and, once again, cited the timing of the sale.

The decision had been made to auction over 900 lots in a single day, a very ambitious scheme. A detailed catalog with multiple images was up on line and available in a simple printed format in the auction showroom. Vice president Sarah Campbell Drury summed up, “It was a great auction with some surprises and lots of highlights—truly our most successful sale to date. We had a total of 3200 registered bidders, and over the day we had at least 300 people coming in and out of the auction room. We started at nine a.m., and I think we finished about six thirty or seven p.m. It was a late day. I was actually amazed at the number of people who stayed all day. When the gun came up, of course, we had a full house. We were at capacity.”

Every auction needs some attention grabbers. In this sale, it was .38 Colt Model 1902 pistol that had been found on the body of Bonnie Parker, the vicious female partner of the infamous Depression-era outlaw couple. Case said, “I have a problem personally with notorious people in history who’ve done evil things, yet their memorabilia brings more than Lincoln letters. So many of these objects have a background based on oral history or hearsay, and you ask, where’s the evidence? The most interesting thing about this weapon is the documentation. I believe it’s the most-documented weapon of this type ever sold.”

The lengthy catalog entry relates the intriguing story of the weapon’s descent to the consignor and the affidavits that record how it was discovered folded in her skirt when the body arrived at the morgue in Arcadia, Louisiana. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were much better looking than the real Bonnie and Clyde, but the classic 1967 movie accurately portrayed their violent death and retold the story for a new generation.

The upshot was that Sarah Drury, who handles Case publicity, had an object in the sale that easily attracted national media attention when it was picked up by Reuters and the Associated Press. While the actual market for crime memorabilia is limited, the story made many people take a look at the total sale and introduced a new group of bidders to Case.

The winning bidder and the underbidder for the pistol fought out the firearm’s future on the auction floor. The final price of $99,450 was under the low estimate of $125,000 but still came in as the top price of the sale and gave the crowd something to buzz about. Case did recently acquire a Federal license to sell firearms, so he will be offering more historic weapons in the future, although none may be as notorious.

Outside of this atypical lot, the January auction was a perfect example of what Case does best: it secures good material from nearby estates and makes it available to the world. While the auction was strong in the essential regional material—art, furniture, pottery—Tennessee collectors obviously got around. They bought art from a prominent New York painter, gathered up English ceramics, or traveled to the Far East for objets d’art.

Chinese collectors have had their eye on Case Auctions for some time. After U.S. buyers, the most numerous bidders participating in the Knoxville sale were in China, so it was no surprise that the top-ten list included a pair of huanghuali chairs that brought $20,295 and a diminutive white jade table screen that opened the sale and jumped past its $600/800 estimate to sell for $7020.

John Case is at the main office in Knoxville, and Sarah Drury is based three hours to the west in the Nashville area, so they can easily view potential consignments throughout the region. According to Drury, the January success had a firm basis. “We had a couple of key ingredients here. We had a great estate in the collection of Bill Selden of Athens, Tennessee, which had a lot of really rare Tennessee furniture. We were really surprised at how well furniture did; it was very strong and drew a lot of people. And then we had the Helen B. Patterson estate from Gallatin, just outside of Nashville, which had some good art. And we had a single-owner estate of bronze sculpture out of Nashville. And there was the A.R. Dickey estate out of East Tennessee and southern pottery from a private Mississippi collection. So you had some good estates, and that’s always so attractive to people, when they realize they’re getting first shot at material that’s not been on the market for some time. These were well-curated collections at that.”

Case mentioned that Selden was such a well-known collector of regional furniture that authors Nathan Harsh and Derita Coleman Williams consulted him when they were writing The Art and Mystery of Tennessee Furniture and used images of the pieces that he had collected from the McMinn County area, where Selden lived. One case piece illustrated was an East Tennessee cherry corner cupboard from the second quarter of the 19th century that brought $13,455. Also from the Selden collection were pieces attributed to McMinn County cabinetmaker Jacob Fisher (working 1837-43) such as a walnut blanket chest that sold for $6084. This chest had been illustrated in Art & Furniture of East Tennessee by Namuni Hale Young. After Case picked up the Selden estate furniture, it went on display at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum before it went to Knoxville for the sale.

The featured estates yielded a remarkable range of American paintings, many of which sold in the five-figure range. Case said, “The Patterson estate in Nashville had a really nice grouping of Tennessee fine art along with a whole range of decorative arts. We probably have more art than we’ve ever had, when you look at the variety and number of pieces. The number of lots over a certain dollar value is higher. We usually have one or two of those, but now we have four or five.”

Among the specific examples he cited were a landscape by William Louis Sonntag for $40,590; a Moonlit Canal scene by Frits Thaulow for $36,270; a New Orleans courtyard painting by Abbott Fuller Graves for $23,400; and a still life by John Steuart Curry for $31,590.

The Knoxville auctions always include deep sections of historical documents, which are not as flashy as paintings or furniture but are well researched. There are archives, signed letters, and vintage photographs, thanks in part to John Case’s own interest in the subject. Furthermore, the market for such material seems strong. An 1873 Tennessee railroad map brought $2457 (est. $300/375); a Civil War archive of 20 letters by Corporal Hiram C. Barney of the New York Cavalry brought $1845 (est. $700/1100); and a Sam Houston-signed document along with a small engraved portrait sold for $2340 (est. $800/1000).

Drury pointed out, “Part of our strength is the number of photographs we use and the quality of the cataloging. We spend a lot of time with these objects. That gives people confidence in bidding with us, even from afar.”

In the future, John Case would like to do two large cataloged auctions of this type each year and will probably schedule the next one for this summer. In between big auctions, the firm will present smaller on-line sales. He likes the southern focus of his major sales, noting Neal’s success with its Louisiana Purchase auction in New Orleans.

He said in conclusion, “This was probably across the board the largest collection of Tennessee decorative arts to come on the market, at least until we have another auction. Having only a couple each year makes it more of an event, and it gets people here. At heart, I’d just like to catalog and research all the time. And I just love getting people together to talk about southern stuff. The Internet is never going to provide that one-on-one contact. Having live auctions, having people present, is always going to be part of our auctions.”

Case continues to spread his knowledge around. He takes on interns at the auction house, talks to school groups, participates in appraisal fairs, and brings his own kids to work so that they understand the family business. Keep up with Case events at the Web site ( or call (865) 558-3033.

Case knew exactly what he had in this rare poetry book from the estate of Robert Keith of Brentwood, Tennessee (near Nashville). Not only was it an 1807 first edition second issue of Lord Byron’s Hours of Idleness, it had a sumptuous, jeweled Cosway binding by Sangorski & Sutcliffe of London, executed shortly after they began their business in 1901. The interior featured miniature portraits of the poet and his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey. The volume brought a fully justified $22,230 (est. $4000/5000).

Norwegian-born painter Frits Thaulow (1847-1906) moved to Paris in the 1870’s and enjoyed some heady connections in the artistic community, including friend Claude Monet, cousin Edvard Munch, and brother-in-law Paul Gauguin. This 31½" x 39" view, Moonlit Canal, had once been owned by Gilded Age industrialist John Warne Gates and descended through that family to the consignor. Sold for $36,270 to a phone bid from a private collector, the oil on canvas still bore a label from its 1915 exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

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

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