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Cigar-Store Princess Sells for Princely Sum

Susan Emerson Nutter | November 7th, 2013

 This carved wood cigar-store figure attributed to the New York City shops of Samuel Robb or Thomas Brooks, circa 1880, 83" tall x 23" wide x 14" deep, sold for $747,500 (est. $125,000/ 250,000) to a collector.

The Indian princess wears a feathered headdress and a dress decorated with carved tobacco leaves painted in the same color palette as the headdress; she holds a bundle of cigars in her left hand and a gathering of tobacco leaves in her right; her legs are paint-decorated from the dress to the leather shoes; her right foot is elevated at the heel; and she stands on a wooden plinth with cast-iron wheels attached to the underside.

The figure has a red lead primer with bold paint colors of mostly red, yellow, green, and blue covered by a coat of varnish that has yellowed and crazed over the years, making the blue dress appear dark green. It has age cracks, some filled prior to painting and a few that opened up after the paint was applied.


One-of-a-kind hooded merganser drake by the Ward brothers of Crisfield, Maryland, 1930’s, slightly turned head with carved wooden crest, underside of body ink stamped “L.T. Ward and Bro.” and with painted inscription “Male/ hooded merganser/ or/ snowl,” $92,000.


Merganser drake by Harry V. Shourds of Tuckerton, New Jersey, first quarter 20th century, strong original paint with good patina, minor discoloration and wear, area approximately 1" x 2½" on underside with wear slightly into the wood, small crack partway through top of bill, a few tiny dents, Gerard collection, $97,750.


Large hollow-carved swan by William Basnight of Manteo, North Carolina, circa 1890, with raised neck seat and bill carving detail, old in-use repaint, small cracks, worn area on one edge of tail, knot in back, Jeffers collection, $183,750. With Carter Smith’s coaching, James “Spann” Jeffers obtained this decoy in 1952 from Raymond Rodgers in Wanchese, North Carolina (see text).


Redhead drake by Elkanah Cobb of Cobb Island, Virginia, last quarter 19th century, with inlet head, traditional Cobb “V” tail wing tip carving, glass eyes, and exceptionally fine dry original paint with good patina and very slight wear; underside branded “E.B. COBB”; a very small amount of discoloration on back and one side, a thin in-the-making surface crack in the back, and a tiny crack through one eye; $47,725.


Rare bufflehead drake by Nathan Cobb, Jr. of Cobb Island, Virginia, last quarter 19th century, with well-carved inlet head with glass eyes and raised “V” wing tip carving; underside carved with small serifed “N”; original paint with moderate wear on much of the decoy, a second coat of paint on white areas that has worn to bare wood and original paint in some areas; defect in wood on underside from when decoy was made and a small crack in one side and top of tail; Jeffers collection; $69,000.


Presentation-grade green-winged teal hen by the Ward brothers of Crisfield, Maryland, in resting pose with wide body and slightly turned head, structurally excellent, near-mint original paint with fine paint detail and patina, underside of body with ink stamp “L.T. Ward & Bro.” and with painted inscription “Female/ green wing teal/ life size.” From a home near Oshkosh, Wisconsin, it sold for $43,125.


Bishop’s Head Club (Dorchester County, Maryland) style black duck by the Ward brothers of Crisfield, Maryland, 1933 model, with slightly turned head and lifted tail, original paint with minor wear, the head with feather paint detail, a few tiny dents overall and a thin crack in breast, $47,150.

Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter, Easton, Maryland

Photos courtesy Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter

She was a beauty, always had been. Time had been kind to her—pretty face, pretty figure. Her coloration was still of the highest quality. As with anyone who has lived a long, enchanting life, there were signs of aging, but those just enhanced her appeal.

She could still draw the suitors, as was evident on November 7, 2013, when many duked it out, willing to offer top dollar to take her home. In the end, Leigh Keno deferred to an anonymous collector who paid the handsome and record price of $747,500 (including buyer’s premium) to become the proud owner of a cigar-store Indian princess, thought by many to be the best example of its kind outside of a museum.

“An American Treasure” was how Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter (GSD) described the circa 1880 cigar-store figure that sold during the company’s annual fall decoy auction, held November 6 and 7 at the Talbot Community Center in Easton, Maryland. Thought to be the work of New York City figure carvers Samuel Robb or Thomas Brooks, the princess had been on display in the Louisville, Kentucky, establishment of the John R. Rose Tobacco and Candy Company, which opened in 1874, was in business for 100 years, and closed its doors in 1974.

At that time, an attorney from Louisville purchased the figure, which had resided in his care for the last 40 years. Last July, the attorney contacted GSD and hired the firm to sell the figure.

It was never truly known how much the attorney paid for the cigar-store princess in 1974. He was savvy enough to photograph the carving on the day he acquired it, and savvy enough not to reveal the purchase price. However, in February 1978 the Louisville Courier- Journal ran a story about the Indian princess in a column titled “What Ever Happened To?” The article discussed the store’s closing and noted that the tobacco-store figure had been sold for $5000.

Jon Deeter commented on the sale saying, “It was an honor to represent the Indian princess. It is such an incredible piece. Knowing our audience already has an appreciation for great form and surface, we knew she would be well received.”

The impeccable provenance, which included photos of the figure in front of John Rose’s tobacco store prior to 1895, again around 1920, and in 1974 when the consignor purchased it at the store’s closing, contributed to the figure’s desirability.

“The surface was so perfect and the colors so bold, we anticipated some scrutiny,” Deeter explained. “We decided to have the paint analyzed by chemist Jennifer L. Mass, Ph.D. Her full report was offered to interested parties.”

Prior to the day of the sale, a number of the country’s top dealers previewed the figure at GSD’s office in St. Michaels, Maryland. At the auction, 11 phone bidders as well as bidders in the audience vied for the figure.

“When the hammer fell, she had achieved a new world record price of $747,500, nearly three times that of any cigar-store figure. A private collector was the successful bidder and was underbid by Leigh Keno and David Wheatcroft,” Deeter said.

The sale of the Indian princess was truly exciting and added to the electric atmosphere already surrounding the decoy auction. Although the cigar-store figure caused a stir and took center stage when it came up for bids, the majority of the buyers were there for the decoys—ducks, shorebirds, and even swans—or utilized absentee bidding or on-line bidding through Artfact Live.

“This year’s fall auction featured two very old collections of decoys: that of Bob and Wilma Gerard, legendary collectors since 1984, and the collection of James ‘Spann’ Jeffers, who began acquiring decoys in the 1940’s and ’50’s. And all were selling without reserves,” Gary Guyette explained.

Held in conjunction with the November 8-10 Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Maryland, which included an indoor and outdoor buy, sell, and swap event, the decoy auction offered approximately 730 quality decoys and related items. In the end, the two-day auction grossed over $3 million; 49 lots sold for over $10,000 (including buyer’s premium), and two of those lots topped $100,000, making GSD’s 2013 fall sale the most successful November decoy auction for the firm since 2007.

And, yes, the auction set another record. A large hollow-carved swan by William Basnight of Manteo, North Carolina, circa 1890, caused a ruckus when it was bid to $183,750 (est. $15,000/20,000), setting an auction record for the maker. The story behind the swan’s acquisition is also worth noting.

According to Guyette, “Jeffers put together his collection back in the day when these items truly had little to no value.” Collectors at that time would simply grab a decoy left behind after a hunt or pay a couple of dollars for ones that they found for sale, and the swan acquisition was no different.

According to the catalog entry, “[Jeffers] spent quite a bit of time hunting in North Carolina, Long Island, Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, and Massachusetts in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. During his many hunting trips, he collected decoys (usually single examples) as mementos. These were displayed in his office where many were mounted on the walls.

“In 1952, he corresponded with early decoy collector Carter Smith. Smith told him about a William Basnight swan that he bought out of Raymond Rodgers’ barn loft in Wanchese, North Carolina. Smith said there were four swans left—two with heads and two without heads. He suggested that ‘Spann’ send a letter to Rodgers if he wanted one of them.

“In later correspondence, Smith wrote that ‘the little Butler girl said you picked up the swan decoy. Give me the details.’ He also gave ‘Spann’ some advice, ‘When I say collect, I mean for free or 2 bucks max—to hell with expensive stuff.’”

How the swan and the other items in the Jeffers collection came to GSD is an even better tale. “I couldn’t have made up a more interesting story,” Guyette stated.

According to the catalog entry, “On September 15, 1957, ‘Spann,’ along with 27 other people, died when their plane crashed at the New Bedford, Massachusetts, airport on a return flight from Martha’s Vineyard. His wife, Anna-Louise, was one of three survivors. [After recovering from her injuries,] she wrapped ‘Spann’s’ decoys in newspaper and packed them in cardboard boxes, where they remained until this spring [2013] when her daughter-in-law mentioned to Zac Cote at our Freeport, Maine, gallery that they had some old decoys to sell, and that some were stamped, ‘Elmer Crowell.’

“That day, Gary was on the phone getting details. The following day, he drove to the son and daughter[-in-law]’s Connecticut home, where the boxes of decoys had recently been hauled down from the attic for him to look at.”

“It was one of those exciting times to be in the decoy auction business,” Guyette explained, “unwrapping piles of decoys that had been in storage for more than fifty years. We had no idea what the next box would contain. It could be decoys worth forty dollars or ones worth forty thousand dollars.”

Since the auction, Guyette has received another call from the Jeffers family. “They’ve found another box,” he said, “and its contents will be included in our upcoming South Carolina auction, to be held February 14 at the Charleston Marriott in conjunction with the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition.”

So what else of note sold from the Jeffers collection? An extremely rare bufflehead drake by Nathan Cobb, Jr. of Cobb Island, Virginia, brought $69,000. It had a well-carved inlet head with glass eyes and raised “V” wing tip carving.

The Gerard collection also offered up its fair share of wonderful waterfowl. A rare merganser drake by Harry V. Shourds of Tuckerton, New Jersey, dating from the first quarter of the 20th century, had strong original paint and fabulous patina, which helped it reach $97,750. Also selling out of the Gerard collection were a black-bellied plover from the Verity family of Seaford, Long Island, New York, that made $20,700 and a rig mate pair of mergansers by Doug Jester of Chincoteague, Virginia, still in the original paint, that went at $20,125.

Guyette thought that collectors were excited about the offerings in the November auction because so many of the decoys had never been sold at auction before or had been off the market for 30 years or more. Besides the Jeffers and Gerard collections, decoys from other well-known collectors, such as John H. Moore, Ray Kuntz, Richard Clayton, Ralph Sterling, Dr. Warren Sims, Anne and Carlton Willey, and Enrique Sajor, were up for grabs.

Aside from the fantastic items, the record-setting sales, and the wonderful stories behind the auction, Gary Guyette was most excited about the registered bidders, whether in house, absentee, on line, or on the phones. “We not only picked up new clients, but they are young clients and look to be long-term clients,” Guyette said. “This will have a huge impact on our business, now and into the future.”

For more information, contact Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter at (410) 745-0485; Web site (www.guyetteandschmidt.com).

Indians as Tobacco Trade Signs

According to information provided in the Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter auction catalog, “The history of tobacco in the U.S. precedes the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. At the time of his arrival, dried leaves for smoking already had a value for trade. Over the next 300 years, as tobacco shops were set up throughout the British Isles and America, the carving of signs for the shops followed naturally. Since tobacco was connected to Indians in the popular imagination, these ‘signs’ were often in the form of Indian figures. As cities expanded, more shops opened to fulfill the demand for tobacco in these communities. Illiteracy was common, and many could not read or write, but signs were easily recognizable by depicting the symbol of the service or product offered. A small cottage industry of ship carvers and figure carvers was born. The most concentrated area of carvers became New York City.

“Three of New York’s most notable carving shops were owned by John Cromwell (1805-1873), Thomas Brooks (1828-1895), and Samuel Robb (1851-1928). At one time or another, many of the carvers worked in each other’s shops, either in the capacity of apprentice, journeyman, shop foreman, or partner. This may account for the similarity of a great number of these carvings, and the difficulty in precisely identifying a specific shop or carver.

“Standing nearly 83" tall, this Indian princess would have been an expensive purchase in her day. The order was likely given to the most talented carver in the shop. Her well-executed proportions, small waist, and attractive face help her to stand apart from the more common looking figures of the day.

“Today, one would generally have to visit a museum such as the Smithsonian, the New-York Historical Society, the Shelburne Museum, Cooperstown, the Henry Ford Museum, and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller [Folk Art] Museum to see a piece of work comparable in quality to the Indian princess.”


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

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