This bronze-body scraper plane, patented by Leonard Bailey on August 7, 1855, was one of Donnelly's superstars for the day. It finished with the top price of the sale at $32,200.
A probably unique adjustable mechanical rounding plane, patented by Samuel M. Adams of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, on June 4, 1872, sold for $19,550.
This carpenter's tool chest, filled with the tools of 19th-century Ohio architect George Hovey and many of those of his father, John, also contained a trove of historical documents, pictures, and artifacts relating mostly to Marietta, Ohio. It was expected to bring huge money but sold for a hugely disappointing $11,040.
A rare first model bench plane by Bailey & Woods, Boston, Massachusetts, with the signature Bailey & Woods cutting iron, believed to be only the second known example still around with that type of iron, brought $2530.
To the untutored eye, it might look like an ordinary carpenter's try square. A little knowledge and a little closer inspection shows that it was patented on December 23, 1873, by the prolific inventor Leonard Bailey (1825-1905) and produced by his company. That made it worth $3565 to a serious buyer. Donnelly photo.
This patented plow plane by E.W. Carpenter of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with apple wood arms and nuts, a beech body, and an impressed Carpenter patent imprint, reached $1955.
Apparently there are four known versions of table-clamped Beckwith sewing machines. This one was patented November 26, 1872, and retained nearly all of its original gilt decorations. According to one collector, there are only about 100 of all models extant today. Nevertheless, it sold well below the $2000/4000 estimate for $661.25.
Martin J. Donnelly Antique Tools, Nashua, New Hampshire
by Mark Sisco
Martin J. Donnelly has been selling tools for almost 30 years. He started in 1983 with a yard sale. From that modest beginning, he went on to publish The Catalogue of Antique Tools from 1993 to 2002, then created the "Live Free or Die" auction venue in 2000. That auction business has now expanded to nine auctions a year, held in Nashua, New Hampshire, Indianapolis, Indiana, and Avoca, New York. It gives him fair claim to the title of the largest marketer of antique tools in the world.
His September 22 offering in Nashua had some five-figure megastars and a near bomb or two. But the spice of the sale came from a collection of what many folks would dismiss as pedestrian and ordinaryan assortment of anything but ordinary plumb bobs, most of which came from the collection of Nelson John Denny (1946-2012) of Connecticut. An architect by trade, Denny had amassed a collection of well over 1000 plumb bobs by the time of his death in April. They sold for prices ranging from the low hundreds to over $2500.
Because plumb bobs are a specialized and small market, none of them came close to the five-figure mark, but several other items flew much higher. Donnelly was pleased to have a super-rare bronze-body scraper plane for sale. He kept it sequestered in a storage room off the main auction floor, safe from the over-handling it might have received, so that only the most serious buyers would have a chance to examine it.
It was patented by the hyper-inventive Leonard Bailey on August 7, 1855, as shown by the heavy embossing on the frog in a style identical to the No. 12 scraper plane found in Roger Smith's Patented Transitional and Metallic Planes in America, Volume 1. It retained the proper screw mechanism and a thick, unmarked scraping iron. The body had a light coat of worn black paint over the bronze, and at the rear was an undamaged rosewood handle. It had the second-highest estimate in the catalog ($30,000/60,000) and finished with the day's highest price, $32,200 (includes buyer's premium), selling to a man from Wisconsin, one of the premier Bailey collectors in the country.
Everything sells at these auctions. There are no reserves. It all goes out the door. Donnelly usually saves some high-ticket items for the very end of the auction. This time it was the biggest lot of all, but it turned out to be the biggest disappointment.
It was an amazingly complete chest of carpenter's tools, first owned by mid-19th-century architect George Hovey. In it was a wide variety of documents and artifacts relating to Marietta, Ohio, the town where Hovey settled. Many of the tools first belonged to Hovey's father, John. Most notable among those was a set of planes marked by relatively rare plane maker I. (for John or Iohn) Sleeper, complete with the original bill of sale. The complete inventory could fill a whole page: planes by Sleeper, Bidwell & Hale; dozens of family photographs and documents; Masonic memorabilia; details and drawings of numerous buildings that Hovey designed; and much more.
According to Donnelly, it was the consignor's desire to sell it all in one lot, but Donnelly counseled against it. The consignor ultimately got his way, but he probably wishes he hadn't. The lot had a startling $75,000/150,000 estimate. Bob Welch was the winning bidder at a bargain-basement price of $11,040. Welch is building and stocking an antiques museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, so chances are it will remain together.
Following the sale, Donnelly commented, "It was just too much for people to get their arms around in one shot." He speculated that the I. Sleeper planes with their original bill of sale could have accounted for most of the price of the entire collection if pulled out and sold separately.
There's "rare." There's "extremely rare." Then there's "unique." An adjustable rounding plane fell into the latter category, probably because it was never commercially successful to begin with. It was patented by Samuel M. Adams of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, on June 4, 1872. The only other example known to exist has nine adjustable sections on the base, whereas this one has seven, closely conforming to the drawings on the patent application. That, plus the fact that the unmarked body is in bronze, suggests that this one was probably the prototype.
The Directory of American Tool and Machinery Patents (www.datamp.org) confirms that it never went into production. The adjusting knob on the front, currently frozen and in need of freeing up, would adjust the curve of the base to accommodate different degrees of curvature. But nearly a century and a half after its unsuccessful introduction, it has become a highly desirable mechanical relic and sold for $19,550 to Connecticut collector and tool museum owner Andrew "Andy" D'Elia. Donnelly, the catalog writer, lovingly described it as "a consummately stupid idea and a great collectible tool."
As Donnelly said to me after the sale, "There must be tool collectors that haven't heard of us, but they must be living under a rock somewhere."
For more information, call (607) 566-2617 or (800) 869-0695 or visit the Web site (www.mjdtools.com).
An all-whalebone plumb bob, about 2½" long with a matching line spool, brought $1035.
The term "plumb bob" derives from the fact that the earliest such tools were made of lead, the Latin term for which is plumbum. They've been used for everything from building skyscrapers, bridges, and dog houses to determining the center of gravity on a figure drawing and dowsing for water. When used in conjunction with a level or other suitable device, they were often joined with a scale to form an inclinometer to measure the angle of incidence to the vertical.
Most of the plumb bobs in the sale came from the collection of Nelson J. Denny (1946-2012) of Hadlyme, Connecticut. Denny was a professional architect who had been collecting plumb bobs for about 20 years. He had amassed a vast assortment numbering well over 1000, mostly in brass, but he also had a good number in more exotic materials, such as ivory, lignum vitae, and pewter.
An engraved solid ivory plumb bob with scrimshaw engraving around the equator reading "Jas. White Carpenter/ Bark Adeline Gibbs-1876," sold for $1955. The Adeline Gibbs had a long and active life, hunting in virtually all the world's great whaling grounds from 1841 until 1880, when she was wrecked in a hurricane off Bermuda. Donnelly photo.
This massive shipbuilder's plumb bob in solid brass must have weighed in at a hernia-inducing 30 pounds. It was belted around the equator with a raised band reading "H. & W. Belfast/ 1913," linking it to the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A newer brass chain was added on, and the whole thing went for about $84 a pound at $2530. Harland & Wolff was the builder of the famous White Star Line trio of ships, the Titanic, the Olympic, and the Brittanic. Titanic artifacts are, of course, enormously valuable. Hmm, let's see now, the plumb bob was dated 1913. The Titanic sank in 1912. What if the plumb bob was dated a year or two after it was made, hmm.
If one plumb bob wasn't enough to do the job, here's a pair. It was a brace of mine survey "plummet" bobs by William J. Young & Sons of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The company was founded in 1825, began making surveying instruments around 1831, and operated under that name until 1875. In the original dovetailed and fitted mahogany case, the pristine pair fetched $2530. Donnelly photo.
Patented September 5, 1899, by Albert A. Snebold of Natrona, Pennsylvania, and probably produced by the inventor, this all-brass little widget featured a set of internal gears that allowed the line to be ratcheted in or out. It went out at $2530. Donnelly photo.
One of the oldest items in the sale, and clearly the oldest of the plumb bobs, this carved Roman stone plumb bob was reportedly found in the ruins of the Roman settlement at Nikopolis ad Istrum, in present-day northern Bulgaria. The town was founded around A.D. 100 and destroyed by the Huns of Attila in A.D. 447 For all its rarity and antiquity, it fetched a modest $195.50. Donnelly photo.