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Major Nashville Estate Leads Sale

Karla Klein Albertson | May 18th, 2013

For the catalog, Case had photographed the Simon Willard of Roxbury tall-case clock from every possible angle in its assembled state as well as broken down into its component elements. The lot had been well advertised, and it  fulfilled its promise as a top lot of the auction when it sold for $42,120.

With the exception of the miniature whiskey jugs, southern pottery—a major component of many Case sales—was limited in May to a few offerings. This two-gallon stoneware jug, marked in script “C.F. Decker” for German immigrant potter Charles Frederick Decker (1832-1914), sold for $2223 (est. $700/900).

Competition was intense for a hunting dog portrait labeled “Champion/ Jersey JoJo/ Manitoba-1920.” The work surpassed its $5000/8000 estimate to bring $12,400. Frank Leonard Stick (1884-1966) was a popular illustrator, specializing in outdoor hunting and fishing themes.

Tucked away in a block of historical material was a collection of four campaign buttons, two with Abraham Lincoln and his running mate and two with John Bell. The lot brought $1178.

Not some puny arrowhead, this Native American three-quarter groove axe is 8½" long, big enough to make a hefty dent in its target. Sold for $1638 (est. $400/500), the artifact had been discovered on a farm in Quincy, Illinois, on the Mississippi River. The sale had many more lots of Native American material deaccessioned from an East Tennessee educational institution.

A one-drawer hunt table is in an entirely different price range than the average one-drawer stand. This East Tennessee cherry example, possibly Roane County, stands 41 5/8" high and came with a family provenance. Its final price was $6786 (est. $2000/2500).

This 39" x 74" x 27" cherry southern sideboard with lightwood inlay was made in either western Virginia or eastern Kentucky; poplar was used as a secondary wood, and the drawer bottoms are yellow pine. Purchased by the Connors in Kentucky in 1965, the serving piece brought $10,530.

Here’s a good example of how an international on-line presence works for a regional auction house. The diverse Connor estate contained some Asian material, although that was not a principal focus. This Chinese silk scroll painted with figures overlooking a landscape was estimated at $250/350, but at least two determined bidders with knowledge about ancient Chinese painters pushed the final price to $13,455. The next lot, a mountain landscape silk scroll painting (not pictured), brought $11,700 (est. $300/500).

This Kentucky aquarium (or terrarium) is not a modern tourist attraction but is an Eastlake-era cast-iron creation (37½" tall). It was patented in 1882 by the Klepper Iron Foundry in Covington—an unusual example of regional metalwork for $1112.

Case Antiques, Knoxville, Tennessee

Photos courtesy Case Antiques

In the May 18 fine art and antiques auction at Case Antiques in Knoxville, Tennessee, nearly a quarter of the 729 lots came from a single estate. Collectors Thomas and Margaret “Peggy” Wemyss Connor had been important figures in the Nashville fine arts and historic preservation communities. He had been president of the board at Cheekwood, the city’s art-filled house museum surrounded by botanical gardens. She had grown up at historic Fairvue Plantation in Gallatin, just to the northeast of Nashville. The Wemyss family had moved to Middle Tennessee from Alabama shortly after the Civil War, and heirlooms from that family formed part of the couple’s collection.

In addition to the inherited material, the Connors’ collection included diverse items they had collected. Sarah Campbell Drury, the Case vice president who handles Nashville consignments, said this about the breadth of their acquisitions:

“American paintings and American furniture, Worcester and Chinese export porcelain, silver, and early brass ware—they would pick up other things here and there—they just loved antiques. Asian wasn’t a really big category; she didn’t have a lot, but what she had were nice pieces. She had a very, very good eye, and that was true no matter what the collecting category was.

“She and her husband collected for a very long period of time—I think, almost from the time they got married—because they were both really interested in art and antiques. Her husband was very organized; we’d find these files where he had written to museum curators and had wood analysis done. He was such a student of everything they bought. So they were a collecting team. He died a few years before she did, so her name was a little bit better known.

“We had sold some things for Mrs. Connor when she moved from a big house to a smaller one,” noted Drury. “That was how we began to know her.” After she passed away in December 2012, her family once again turned to Case for help with the estate.

Decorative arts specialist Drury added, “We had a lot of new collectors from Nashville participate in this auction, because they knew who she was and associated her name with lovely things.”

Case is a strong regional auction house that has expertise in material from Tennessee and surrounding states but also has a presence in the international market through its on-line bidding platforms. As this reporter wrote in an upcoming article on downsizing (for Early American Life), some collectors have material destined for New York City, but Christie’s and Sotheby’s probably already have them on speed dial. For everyone else, regional auction houses around the ­country provide excellent service, easy access, and personal support for the sellers. And the Internet catalog reaches out to collectors worldwide; potential bidders are aware of what is out there, whether the lot comes up for sale in Chicago or New Orleans or eastern Tennessee.

Top lots of the sale—as expected—came from the Connor estate material. The commanding female portrait La Donna, 39" x 25", by Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931), which brought $42,120 (including buyer’s premium), had been purchased at a 1998 Sotheby’s sale. Hale had studied at the Boston Museum School with Edmund Tarbell (who remained an indelible influence), privately with William Merritt Chase, and at the Art Students League in New York City with J. Alden Weir. After furthering his art education in Europe, Hale returned to paint, write, and teach at the Boston Museum School and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Also selling for $42,120 (est. $35,000/45,000) was a mahogany Simon Willard tall-case clock with its original Isaiah Thomas-engraved paper label. The good documentation by Thomas Connor, which Drury referred to, revealed that the Connors had acquired the clock from a Gallatin estate in 1964.

Case Antiques’ president, John Case, commented after the auction, “When you sell a Simon Willard clock down in Knoxville for over $42,000, that fact seems pretty remarkable to me. I am surprised how strong the best material is—it has this resiliency. I look at the major items we highlighted for the auction, and those ended up doing well. And across the board, there was some strength in southern furniture and continued strength in art.

“I looked at what was happening in other auctions the previous week. I was concerned about some weakness. I think the economy had taken that jump up and then it leveled off again. For three or four years in a row, we’ve thought the economy was going to move, and then it remains static. I think we’re in a transitional period. That being said, although overall bidding was not as intense as we would see in a January sale, I was surprised how well we did with our big-ticket items.”

As he stated, May was a good sale for southern furniture. From the Connor estate, a cherry Chippendale chest with two deep drawers flanking a prospect door in the center over three graduated drawers brought $5382, well above its modest $2500/3500 estimate. The distinctive form is one usually associated with Mecklenburg County, Virginia, but this example—purchased by Mrs. Connor’s mother in Middle Tennessee in the 1920’s—had poplar as the secondary wood rather than the yellow pine typically found in Virginia. The piece had been published in The Art and Mystery of Tennessee Furniture, the 1988 reference book by Derita Coleman Williams and Nathan Harsh.

Another important lot from the Connor estate was a cherry Federal sideboard, circa 1800, nicely inlaid with husks and fans, which brought $10,530 (est. $8000/12,000). The central drawer is flanked by two side drawers with false fronts giving them the appearance of four drawers. Sarah Campbell Drury noted that the case piece came with documentation; the Connors had purchased it from well-known dealer Jeannette Marks of Lexington, Kentucky, in 1965. But exactly where it was originally created remains up in the air. “We could never pin down an exact attribution; some experts think eastern Kentucky, others western Virginia.”

Mixed in were several equally interesting southern lots from other consignors. An East Tennessee walnut corner cupboard, circa 1820, was twined with a whimsical lightwood vine inlay characteristic of the region. Oral history placed its origin in Greene County. The buyer picked up an excellent display and storage piece for a very reasonable $6552.

A form very rarely seen was the East Tennessee cherry one-drawer hunt board table, in appearance very much like a one-drawer stand but with the height—41 5/8"—of a wider hunt board. The piece, from the second quarter of the 19th century, had descended in the family of a local politician and may have been made in Roane County. So rare is the type that it quickly outstripped its $2000/2500 estimate to reach $6786.

Case sales always have extensive ­selections of silver. Although there were no major pieces of southern hollowware, there were important offerings of coin flatware, mostly spoons, including examples by makers in New Orleans, Mobile, Nashville, and Lynchburg, Virginia. Six pieces of silver retailed by T. Gowdey in Nashville sold for $351, and three dessert spoons marked “W.H. Calhoun” of Nashville brought $175.50.

Not all the fine art offerings came from the Connors. Drury pointed out, “The Champion JoJo painting by Frank Stick was a very successful piece, selling for $12,400. If you look at the number of bidders participating, we probably had more action on that than anything, because we had seven phone lines competing.” The subject was a hunting dog, and a plaque on the painting read “Champion/ Jersey JoJo/ Manitoba-1920.” Frank Leonard Stick (1884-1966), who studied in Wilmington with Howard Pyle, was a well-known contributor of hunting and fishing scenes to publications such as Sports Afield and Field & Stream.

Collectors also look to Case auctions for important archival material from the South. For example, a signed letter from Tennessean James K. Polk (1795-1849), who became the nation’s 11th president, brought $868. Anyone unaware of the true horror of the Civil War can read the quotes attached to the catalog entry for lot 126, a group of period letters that brought $1736. The collection included a very graphic September 27, 1862, description of the battlefield at Antietam, where bodies had lain in the sun for days. Writers fantasize about a zombie apocalypse, but human warfare is just as horrible.

On a lighter note, if a common activity at your house is trying to impress on your offspring what should not be put in a garage sale, the tale of the miniature whiskey jugs can be used as a teaching tool. The May auction offered a single-owner collection of miniature Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia whiskey jugs, most around 3" high. Offered in groups of two or more at several points in the sale, they brought prices commensurate with their rarity, some bringing as much as $500 each.

Drury said, “I was really glad to see those little pieces of pottery, which might be overlooked. In an estate sale situation, somebody might be tempted to throw that [type of thing] on the one-dollar table. There is a lot of money in those very small whiskey containers; they’re very collectible. They’re regional, which is wonderful, and they’re small and easy to display. I know someone who has a collection, and he displays them in miniature furniture.”

Summing up the sale, John Case said, “This was the best-executed auction that we’ve ever done. It’s just really neat when you have such an effective team of people from merchandising to inventory material in the back to checkout. They were hitting on all cylinders. It was a pleasure to watch how everything clicked; that was amazing to me. We were using two on-line bidding platforms this time—Artfact and LiveAuctioneers. You look at every auction and say, what could we have done better? And this time, I thought it all went so well.”

He continued, “I thought we had more people show up than I expected. In the future, if we make on-line and phone and absentee bidding so convenient, they’re going to stay home in their jammies, even if they’re in Knoxville. What benefited us there, we did have a rainy overcast day, and it’s pleasant in our atrium. We had about 220 seats out, and at one point we were pretty much filled. What’s interesting now is that people will come in, leave, and come back. In the old days, if they left, they were gone. I think it’s just a very convenient experience now for the bidder. I was surprised that we still had that many people come, but we don’t have that many sales, and it’s a chance for people to see friends that they haven’t seen in a while.”

Case Antiques is located at 2240 Sutherland Avenue in the Cherokee Mills Building, just off I-40 in Knoxville, Tennessee. For more information, check the Web ( or call (865) 558-3033.

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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