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The Adell Venus Collection of Miniatures

Danielle Arnet | July 17th, 2013

We knew the minute we saw it that the 1¼" wide walnut-cased drafting set by William R. Robertson (est. $200/400) would sell high, but the $18,750 result floored us. Bearing a tag on the underside engraved with the maker’s name and inscribed 1993, the chest has two rabbeted drawers. The lower drawer holds art supplies, including watercolors and colored pencils; the upper drawer holds a protractor, French curves, and a rule; and the case top holds drafting tools, dividers, and ruling pens.

A ¾" x ½" pop-up book is extraordinary; a colored pop-up book of this size is a phenomenon! From a library of 20th-century miniature books by Barbara J. Raheb’s Pennyweight Press, this cat book plus over 100 others brought $23,750.

The auction included several birdcages—with and without birds. This 2 3/8" high wirework, maple, and ebonized wood cage by William R. Robertson had a peaked top and a swinging canary. Estimated at $200/400, it brought $13,750. Hindman photo.

This walnut, maple, ebonized wood, and brass rodent trap by William R. Robertson has a fall-front door. Only 15/16" wide, it sold for $13,750. Hindman photo.

This American Federal-style tall-case clock by William R. Robertson, after a Simon Willard design, had all the refinements of the original, including suspended weights and a pendulum. In its original fitted box and with a handwritten note by the maker, the almost
8" high clock sold for $7500. The note reads, “Remove tape carefully” and advises the owner to use foam when repacking. Happily, Venus kept the original packaging and paperwork with many items.

This 1 5/8" high Georgian-style mahogany specimen case by William R. Robertson features ten fitted and dovetailed drawers of differing sizes behind a paneled door that locks with an honest-to-God original key, and the bottom drawer holds a miniature business card. Estimated at $300/500, it sold for $9375.

This 18k gold punch set by Peter Acquisto had 15 parts, weighed 70.5 grams, and sold for $6250. The set contains a Queen Anne style monteith; 12 gold cups, each less than half the size of the nail on a pinkie finger; a ladle with a handle smaller and finer than a toothpick; and a 1 7/8" diameter tray that is engraved on the bottom, “10 of 10/ Solid Gold Series/ Made For/ Adell Venus.”

This fly rod set by William R. Robertson in a 4 1/8" long cherry wood case attracted a great deal of interest before the sale. It comprised a three-piece rod with handle and a miniature reel engraved with a father and son fishing. Walcher’s thumb is next to the maker’s label. Estimated at $150/250, it sold for $3000.

Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, Chicago, Illinois

If building a better mousetrap is the route to success, then building a better miniature mousetrap is a sure route to riches. Or so it seemed when Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago sold a walnut, maple, ebonized wood, and brass rodent trap less than 1" across for $13,750 (including buyer’s premium). Made by William R. Robertson and with an engraved tag reading “Wm R Robertson 85,” the rectangular miniature with a fall-front door was made in 1985.

The mini trap sold when the Adell Venus collection of miniatures hit the block on July 17. All 767 lots sold for a total of almost $750,000, making it a white-glove sale and a benchmark for collectors of miniatures. The proportions may have been Lilliputian—Venus was a specialist in items created on a 1:12 scale—but the results were huge. The biggest buyer was a phone bidder from Qatar who picked up 51 lots.

Top lots included a drafting set by Robertson for $18,750 and a birdcage by Robertson for $13,750. A collection of over 100 Pennyweight Press miniature books sold for $23,750, and a pair of Louis XV-style occasional tables by Denis E.W. Hillman brought $22,500.

The sale was a sensation from the get-go. According to Hindman, “It was a frenzy from the minute we got it. Every miniatures dealer and collector wanted her pieces.”

Assigned to head the sale, specialists John Walcher and Caroline McCarthy visited the Chicago International miniatures show and sale this spring to test dealer interest. Within minutes, they knew there was a huge pool of interest in the near-apocryphal collection. Everyone knew it was out there, but no one seemed to know exactly what it held.

Readers who don’t know about Ernie Levy, William R. Robertson, W. Foster Tracy, Eric H. Pearson, Denis E.W. Hillman, Harry Cooke, and others, know little about scale miniatures. Named makers mattered in this sale. For example, a Louis XV style marquetry and gilt-metal-mounted bureau plat by an unnamed maker sold for $250, while another in the same style by Denis E.W. Hillman brought $3750. Of course, the quality differed, but the Hillman writing table got the most attention and the big bucks.

As the sale neared, auctioneer Leslie Hindman and staff found miniatures collectors to be “the nicest people in the world” (Hindman’s words), yet beneath their mild exteriors, they were the most focused, intent collectors we’ve seen in ages. Who knew that miniaturists could be so aggressive? One observer called their passion “a cult.”

The prize jousted over was anything in the collection; there were no dogs, merchandise-wise. The four lowest-priced lots at $25 each were a group of 12 Chinese happy Buddha figures; a Chinese Foo dog with pup and a faux Chinese bronze mirror; a mixed bag of children’s paper ephemera; and two vintage sports medals from the 1920’s.

The array of merchandise was staggering. There were dollhouses and doll furniture, quilts, rugs, quasi-Remington sculptures, reference books, and a case filled with boxes of miniature books. You like names? Present were Rembrandt, Tiffany, Daum, Fukagawa, and furniture in the style of Thonet, Queen Anne, Chippendale, George III, American Federal, and Louis of all numbers. Add to that mini clocks and painted turtles, Victorian tchotchkes, plants, Hummels, Toby mugs, carpets, canes, and taxidermy, plus lighting of all kinds, miniature cut glass, Native American artifacts, garden furniture, musical instruments, beer steins, and a 1¾" wide Underwood typewriter with working keys. About the only thing we did not see was angels dancing on the head of a pin.

An authority on miniatures and a prodigious collector, Venus (1932-2011) accumulated for five decades; the 767 lots amounted to about 10,000 separate items. The sale started at 10 a.m. and lasted 10½ hours. It was still going strong when we called it a day around 8 p.m.; many floor bidders stayed through the entire event. After it started and prices started rolling in, the collector blogs were on fire and still are.

To accommodate attendees and keep spirits (and blood sugar) high, Hindman popped for lunch. When polled, the audience gave thumbs down to McDonald’s and asked for Whole Foods. However, WF took too long, so it was Jimmy John’s with speedy service as advertised. Wine and cheese were served in late afternoon, and pizza kept the staff going toward the sale’s close. Between the shock of high prices, long sitting, and a seemingly interminable sale, we thought floor bidders might need defibrillators. The sale lasted so long, one phone bidder who signed up for a lot toward the end remarked, when his lot finally came up, “I thought you’d forgotten about me.”

Adell Venus’s acumen was so widely known and respected that floor bidders came from throughout the United States to attend. Miniaturists were drawn to the sale like moths to a porch light, and the previews drew hundreds each day.

Mounting the sale had to be horrendous. Imagine having 10,000 individual small objects to identify, catalog, consolidate, and display. We heard that workdays stretched far into the night. We offer kudos to Walcher and
McCarthy; the sale looked organized and attractive.

On sale day, every seat in the house was full. Expecting a spectacle, many brought friends. The South was particularly well represented in person. On-line bids accounted for more than 44% of the sales, but floor bidders provided most of the aggressive action. It seemed that many on-line bids were in response to action on the floor.

Hindman’s auctions are known for their crisp pace, but this sale moved slowly at first due to thrusts and parries between floor and on-line bidders. Watching the action on line, we saw one lot almost triple in value after the auctioneer called “fair warning.” Another lot was about to close at $650 when on-line and floor bidders got into it until it reached $4200. On-line text frequently repeated the auctioneer’s “please bid quickly.”

By noon, it became obvious that something had to be done before it took as long to disperse the collection as it took to build it. Next, higher starting prices, usually the high estimate, opened bidding for each lot. That seemed to goose the process along, and after lot 300 the sale moved nicely. One lot grew by increments of $1000, prompting “short and sweet” from the auctioneer.

Hindman was not too much up on miniatures when the Venus family approached her about a sale some six months earlier, but she recognized a major collection when she saw it. Considering the interest, a separate catalog of over 200 pages was created, but given the quality and fame of the collection, word of mouth alone may have brought a high result. The miniatures world is small, and every serious enthusiast felt it absolutely necessary to view and, ideally, buy from the Venus collection.

“Buyers are smart,” Hindman told us. “When you have something like this, people smell it out.”

Asked when she realized that the sale would turn into a phenomenon, Hindman laughed and replied, “Lot two. We were dumbfounded.” That was when a 7 9/16" high George II-style mahogany secrétaire bookcase by John J. Hodgson (est. $600/800) soared to $10,000.

Another clue was when a woman at the preview said, “This would look good in my Aspen house.” Then she said, “This would be nice in my Miami house,” and so on for several more locales before the staff realized that she was talking about multiple dollhouses.

Specialist Corbin Horn told us that hundreds of viewers attended the previews each day. Some came for every one of the seven preview days and then sat through the entire sale.

Still another clue was when catalog viewers, thinking that the items were full-size, called the auction house to express interest in lots but then asked, “Aren’t your measurements off?” The low printed estimates must have been electrifying.

Horn also remarked that quite a few buyers seemed to be crossover collectors. Just about every category of collecting and every enthusiasm or interest was represented.

It didn’t take buyers long after the auction to capitalize on their finds. Barely weeks later, posts hawking single items from multiple lots surfaced on eBay. Other purveyors cited the sale and linked their merchandise, however tenuously, to the Venus collection. One boasted of buys at the sale and, without disclaimer, offered a knockoff of the $813 Peter Acquisto 18k miniature five-basket epergne—starting at $9.99. Four days later, it was at $51, with four bids. And so it goes.

 In the endless loop that is collecting, the Venus collection has become provenance. And we’re thinking career change—to a maker of fine miniatures.

For more information, call Leslie Hindman Auctioneers at (312) 280-1212; Web site (

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

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