Purchase Story

Americana at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s, New York City

Photos courtesy Sotheby’s

Americana filled seven floors of Sotheby’s on York Avenue in New York City in mid-January, daring collectors, curators, and dealers to explore a vast array of America’s past. Erik Gronning, head of Americana at the international auction house, gets one chance a year to prove that there is indeed a serious market for a broad swath of America’s worldly goods. He put it all out in a stunning exhibition, keeping collections together and integrating them with maps and prints while highlighting special items from various owners. He gathered scholars together on the Tuesday before the sales to talk about the latest research, hoping to expand interest in a field that requires scholarship and connoisseurship.

Dealers and collectors spent days taking furniture apart, black-lighting paintings, and examining silver, ceramics, and needlework. For the second year, American books and manuscripts were offered during Americana Week instead of with the regularly scheduled December book sales. “The success of the Hamilton sale last year made us realize there could be more crossover,” said Selby Kiffer, who masterminded the printed manuscript and cartography session. Even though Gronning hung regional maps with regional furniture in the exhibition, it did not influence buying in a big way; perhaps it will in time.

Of the 1081 lots of Americana offered at Sotheby’s during four days of auctions from two telephone-book- size catalogs, 864 lots brought a total of $9,601,162 (including buyers’ premiums); the Americana auctions were 79.9% sold by lot. The week’s sales included the well-preserved Declaration of Independence broadside printed by Ezekiel Russell in Salem, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1776, that sold on Wednesday, January 17, for $1.185 million on a single bid and added substantially to the books and manuscripts sale total of $4,289,502 for 94 of 175 lots offered. That is only 53.7% sold but boosted Sotheby’s Americana Week total to $13.9 million.

From Thursday until Sunday, January 18-21, museums, collectors, and dealers competed for furniture, Chinese export porcelain, and paintings during the four days of sales in seven sessions. More bidders were online and on phones than in the salesroom. Gronning said, “Thirteen hundred registrants from 26 countries participated. A lot of people were involved, and prices were rejiggered at new levels.”

Federal inlaid cherrywood and mahogany tall-case clock with case by Nathan Lumbard (1777-1847), Sturbridge or Sutton, Massachusetts, circa 1800, fretwork, finials, and feet replaced, 89½" x 18½" x 9", from the collection of Anne H. and Frederick Vogel III of Milwaukee, sold on the phone for $471,000 (est. $80,000/120,000) to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It is illustrated and discussed in Crafting Excellence: The Furniture of Nathan Lumbard and His Circle (2018), a new book by Christie Jackson, Brock Jobe, and Clark Pearce. The book, published by Winterthur, will be distributed by Yale University Press.

Two museums were successful bidders. A Federal cherrywood and mahogany tall-case clock by Nathan Lumbard, made circa 1800, sold for $471,000 to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, despite the fact that the fretwork, finials, and feet were replaced. The variety of inlay, including eagles, makes it the most extravagant of Lumbard’s designs and the vocabulary piece from Lumbard’s shop, an icon of New England craftsmanship. Brock Jobe, Christie Jackson, and Clarke Pearce’s book about Nathan Lumbard, Crafting Excellence: The Furniture of Nathan Lumbard and His Circle (2018), may have instigated the stiff competition for the clock between phone bidders and Maine broker Seth Thayer in the salesroom.

The Winterthur Museum in Delaware was also a successful bidder. Ann Wagner, Winterthur’s curator of metals, paid $50,000 (est. $50,000/80,000) for an engraved pewter tankard made for the Zabriskie family by Francis Bassett in New York, dated 1728. Winterthur owns a dish by Bassett that is engraved with similar flowers. It was bought for $85,000 at Freeman’s in Philadelphia a few years ago.

The Mansfield-Merriam family Pilgrim-Century black-painted carved and joined oak wainscot armchair, New Haven Colony, probably New Haven, Connecticut, 1640-60, appears to retain its original surface under later 19th-century black paint. The 43¼" x 24" x 20" chair with a seat height of 19" sold for $375,000 (est. $300,000/500,000) to a collector on the phone. It is in remarkable condition, with multiple layers of original surface, the first layer being Prussian blue under at least nine other coats. One of the earliest and most important wainscot chairs to ever come on the market, it had been on loan from the Merriam family of West Haven, Connecticut, to the New Haven Colony Historical Society. Family tradition holds that the armchair was given to a member of the Merriam family by a member of the Mansfield family of New Haven during the Revolution and continued to be passed down through successive generations of the Merriam family until this sale. It is one of only seven wainscot chairs made in Connecticut; five of them are in museum collections, and one is owned privately.

There was museum interest in the Mansfield-Merriam family joined wainscot chair of carved and painted white oak, probably the last of the great Pilgrim-Century chairs to come to market. It went to a discerning Midwest collector for $375,000 (est. $300,000/500,000). For years it had been on loan to the New Haven Colony Historical Society, but the consignor, who came to the sale, said she and her sisters decided it was time to sell. Twenty-three other wainscot chairs are known. Almost all are in museums or historical societies; only two remain in private collections. It is not a chair to sit on, but it is in a remarkably good state of preservation.

Great rarities at Sotheby’s were not overlooked. A silver and copper “Indian” punch bowl and ladle with real arrowheads used as ornaments, made by Joseph Heinrich of New York, 1900-15, sold for $312,500 (est. $125,000/175,000) to a collector on the phone. Another collector also bidding by phone paid $150,000 each for two rare Chinese export porcelain horses, one with a chestnut glaze and the other in a dappled blue, each estimated at $20,000/30,000. The prices were considerably more than the $87,000 paid for a similar chestnut horse at the landmark sale of the collection of Mildred and Rafi Mottahedeh at Sotheby’s in 2000. Only five of these horses are known.

Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852), pair of portraits of Solomon and Reuben Etting, charcoal and chalk on paper, 21½" x 16" and 22" x 16½", likely drawn in Philadelphia, sold on the phone for $112,500 (est. $25,000/35,000). Both have an exhibition history in the 1980s and were published in the The Magazine Antiques in 1959 and in the Saint-Mémin catalog by Ellen Miles for the National Portrait Gallery exhibition in 1994. Solomon Etting (1764-1847) was a Jewish merchant who lived in Baltimore, Maryland. Before moving to Baltimore, he lived in York and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He wanted to hold public office. In 1797 he and his father-in-law, Bernard Gratz, petitioned “to be placed upon the same footing as other good citizens” so he could run for office, but they were not successful until 1826 when Etting was elected to Baltimore City Council. Reuben Etting (1762-1848) chose a military career and was commissioned as first captain of the Baltimore Independent Blues; in 1801 he was appointed United States Marshal for Maryland by Thomas Jefferson.

The January sales tell us what collectors want and how much they will pay for it, what is hot and what is not. A pair of profile portraits of brothers Solomon and Reuben Etting by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin sold to a collector for $112,500 (est. $25,000/35,000). The sitters were Jewish Baltimore residents. There are passionate collectors of Judaica. A small engraving after Solomon Nunes Carvalho (1815-1897) of the Interior of the Hebrew Synagogue of Charleston S.C., circa 1838, sold on the phone for $43,750 (est. $6000/8000), underbid in the salesroom by Laura Pass Barry, curator of prints and paintings at Colonial Williamsburg. Museums want to tell a story of diversity.

There was considerable interest in Neoclassical furniture and lighting from the collection of the late Michigan collector Patricia Sax. Much of it was offered without reserve, and four collectors in the salesroom competed with others on the phones and online to send furniture by New York cabinetmakers Duncan Phyfe, Charles-Honoré Lannuier, and Deming and Bulkley well over estimates. A pair of Deming and Bulkley games tables, circa 1825, sold to a collector in the room for $137,500 (est. $50,000/100,000); a rosewood grain-painted and stenciled center table by the same New York makers sold for $112,500 (est. $50,000/80,000) to a phone bidder. A cellaret by Anthony Quervelle of Philadelphia sold in the salesroom for $56,250 (est. $10,000/15,000).

Some 17th- and 18th-century furniture sold well too. A Queen Anne cherrywood flat-top high chest of drawers made in Windham or New London County, Connecticut, sold for $93,750 (est. $25,000/35,000). An exceptional William and Mary red-painted figured maple shoe-foot hutch table, New York, circa 1720, appearing to retain its original red wash paint, sold for $81,250 (est. $15,000/25,000) to Massachusetts dealer Elliott Snyder for a Canadian client. A real rarity was the William and Mary turned and joined walnut candlestand made in New Jersey circa 1715 that sold in the salesroom to Luke Beckerdite for $13,750 (est. $5000/7000). The fact that one foot was replaced kept the price down. Condition often determines price. It was from the collection of the legendary pioneer scholar and collector Esther Schwartz (1904-1988).

Some of the furniture consigned by the Dudley and Constance Godfrey Foundation, a study collection put together for the Milwaukee Art Museum, sold reasonably. A Pilgrim-Century turned maple and ash slat-back armchair with mushroom pommels, from the J. Insley Blair collection and published by Wallace Nutting in 1928, was a bargain at $11,250 (est. $15,000/25,000). A set of Philadelphia rococo dining chairs, five sides and an arm, made for the Howell-Lloyd-Wistar family in Philadelphia, circa 1775, the carving by John Pollard, sold for $15,000 (est. $20,000/30,000). A Queen Anne Boston side chair fetched only $6250 (est. $10,000/15,000), and the Fisher-Warton-Smith family camelback serpentine-front sofa with its original underupholstery did not sell.

Pennsylvania dealers Skip Chalfant and Philip Bradley bought Pennsylvania furniture for stock and for clients, generally on the low side of estimates. Only a few lots exceeded estimates. A small reverse-serpentine block-end chest of drawers sold on the phone for $32,500 (est. $6000/8000). A New Hampshire Chippendale mahogany Pembroke table with a pierced flat cross-stretcher, possibly made by Robert Harrold (w. 1765-82) in Portsmouth, sold for $12,500 (est. $6000/12,000), far less than it might have sold for a decade ago. On the other hand, a George II mahogany and parcel-gilt overmantel mirror, circa 1730, sold for $22,500 (est. $1500/2500). In June 1989 at Christie’s, it sold for $8800. The rare Philadelphia Classical sofa attributed to Ephraim Haines that sold for $11,000 at Sotheby’s in January 1987 sold at this sale for only $3750 (est. $2000/3000). It seemed to be a good time to buy American furniture, yet one New England dealer complained that he left 23 bids on furniture he wanted and got nothing.

William Matthew Prior (1806-1873), Portrait of a Young Girl in a Pink Dress Holding Roses,oil on canvas, 21¼" x 15", appearing to retain its original stretchers and signed on the back of the canvas “By W.M. Prior 1843.” It sold for $112,500 on the phone to dealer David Wheatcroft bidding for a client. A full-length Prior portrait depicting the sitter with a sweet expression and in fine condition is very hard to find.

The market for folk art is very picky. William Matthew Prior’s Portrait of a Young Girl in a Pink Dress Holding Roses, oil on canvas, signed and dated 1843 on the back, sold for $112,500 (est. $60,000/80,000) to Massachusetts private dealer David Wheatcroft on the phone, while Prior’s Portrait of a Little Girl in a Blue Dress, oil on board, dated and signed “By Wm. M. Prior / East Boston, Sept 4th, 1852” on the back on a piece of cardboard from the original backing, sold online for $10,000 (est. $5000/7000). The portrait of the girl in a pink dress is full length, on canvas, and large, 21¼" x 15", and she has a calmer expression than the girl in blue, who is holding a book and painted in oil on cardboard and is worth a tenth of the price of the other painting, even though she came from the legendary collector Jacqueline Fowler, who is known for her keen eye. The portrait of the girl in pink was from the more recently formed collection of Ralph and Bobbi Terkowitz, which was filled with folk paintings by Ammi Phillips and others that were overestimated and did not sell. The psychology of estimates, intended as guides to quality, influences the success of an auction when they are based on retail prices.

Miniature redware plate with green and yellow slip bird decoration, circa 1800, 3 7/8" in diameter, found in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, sold on the phone for $5000 (est. $500/700).

Some little things brought big prices. A small New Jersey redware plate, 3 7/8" diameter, sold for $5000 (est. $500/700) because it was decorated with a bird in green and yellow slip. If it had not had some glaze loss it might have brought three times as much. A pair of tinned leaf-shaped sconces with floral punchwork sold for $18,750 (est. $4000/6000). They are attributed to Nelson Garey (1820-1910), Berlin, Pennsylvania, circa 1860. A black-painted gilt-stenciled miniature Hitchcock side chair, circa 1830, sold on the phone for $4000 (est. $300/500), and a full-length miniature dressed paper portrait of Theodosia Burr Alston, attributed to Mary Way (1769-1833) or Betsy Way Champlain (1771-1825), sold for $30,000 (est. $12,000/18,000). An article by Brian Ehrlich available online at InCollect or in the Autumn 2014 Antiques & Fine Art magazine discusses dressed portraits by the Way sisters, who worked in New Haven from the 1790s to early 1800s. Two other Way sisters “dressed miniature portraits” sold for $16,250 and $13,750, just over high estimates. Neither was a full-length portrait.

Exceptional objects were rarely overlooked, but there was a shortage of them this January. The pictures and captions illustrate just a fraction of them.

For more information, call Sotheby’s at (212) 606-7000 or check the website (www.sothebys.com).

The Zabriskie family elaborately engraved pewter tankard, attributed to Francis Bassett I, New York, dated 1728 and inscribed “When This You See Remember Me, JZ / CZ,” 7 1/8" x 4 7/8", sold for $50,000 (est. $50,000/80,000) to Ann Wagner, Winterthur’s metals curator. It has an impressive exhibition history, including in the Netherlands and the U.S. It is attributed to Francis Bassett, and it is one of only two surviving 18th-century pieces of pewter with a New Jersey history. It was made for Joost Zabriskie (1678-1756) and Christine Mabie (Meby) (1692-1733) of Hackensack, Bergen County, New Jersey. It descended to their eldest daughter, who married Sylvester Earle, then to their descendants in Middletown, Connecticut, then to Donald Ladd of Hampton, Connecticut, and then to a New Jersey collector, whose descendants sold it. Joost Zabriskie, who settled in Hackensack in 1662, became a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. The companion piece to this tankard, a dessert dish with a Zabriskie family history, sold for $85,000 at Freeman’s in April 2009 and is now at Winterthur. According to Ledlie Irwin Laughlin in Pewter in America: Its Makers and Their Marks, volume 2, Francis Bassett, born in New York in 1690, was apprenticed to pewterer William Horsewell in 1707; in 1718 he became a freeman of the city and in 1732, a constable. He died in 1758.

This rare Chinese export figure of a horse from the Qing Dynasty, late 18th/early 19th century, naturalistically modeled and standing foursquare, with a brindled chestnut coat, the mane combed to the right side, the long tail almost reaching the ground, the mane and tail both with red tassels, 11¼" long, sold for $150,000 (est. $20,000/30,000). The next lot (not shown), a blue and white piebald, the mane combed to both sides and a long tail close to the ground, sold for $150,000 (est. $20,000/30,000) on the phone to the same buyer. They were both once in the Jacob Goldschmidt collection and sold at Christie’s, London, on June 29, 1938. The blue and white sold again at Sotheby’s, London, on November 8, 1983, and the brindled sold at Christie’s on November 10, 1983, when they were reunited in a Midwest collection. Five horses like these are known in various coat colors. It is thought that they are after paintings by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who traveled to China in 1715 as an Italian Jesuit missionary and later became a well-known painter at the imperial court. Another chestnut horse sold for $87,000 at the sale of the Mottahedeh collection at Sotheby’s New York in October 2000.

Attributed to Mary Way (1769-1833) or Betsy Way Champlain (1771-1825), this miniature full-length dressed paper portrait of Theodosia Burr Alston (1783-1813), silk and lace appliqué with pencil and cut paper on a black silk ground, 4" x 3", late 18th century, sold for $30,000 (est. $12,000/18,000) on the phone. The daughter of Aaron Burr, Theodosia received an intensive education rigorously supervised by her father. Her curriculum included the harp, piano, riding, dancing, French, Greek, and Latin. Theodosia died at the age of 29, when her ship was sunk at sea (see Sandra Brant and Elissa Cullman, Small Folk: A Celebration of Childhood in America).Two other works (not shown) attributed to Mary or Betsy Way sold for more than their estimates. A dressed paper portrait miniature of Ebenezer William Safe sold for $16,250 (est. $8000/12,000), and one of Theodosia Barrow Prevost Burr (Mrs. Aaron Burr) sold for $13,750 (est. $8000/12,000). The Way sisters created their own American art form using fabric laid upon a background, with some elements painted or drawn. See the article titled “Evaluating the Shared Artistry: Mary Way and Betsy Way Champlain” by Brian Ehrlich in Antiques & Fine Art, Autumn 2014, or online at InCollect.

Rare engraved silver-mounted tortoiseshell comb and case, attributed to Paul Bennett, Port Royal, Jamaica, 1688, inscribed “Port Royal, In Jamaica 1688,” one side of the case engraved with a coat of arms with five pineapples flanked by figures standing on a banderole engraved in the legend “Indus Serviet: Uni, Terque,” the reverse engraved with palm trees and pineapple bushes. The corners are inlaid with silver. Measuring 8" x 4¾", it sold for $27,500 (est. $8000/12,000).

The Sotheby’s catalog goes into more detail about this type of comb: “There are now extant at least a dozen late seventeenth-century tortoiseshell combs and cases made from the shell of the hawksbill turtle, which is found in the waters of Jamaica. Engraved on both sides of the combs are vines and tulip-like flowers similar to engravings found on silver of that time. The cases are riveted with metal pins, most often silver, and some of the finer examples are mounted with silver at the corners of the case. The decorations on the cases varied in their detail and depictions. The most commonly used decoration was the Jamaican coat of arms, which includes a shield depicting five pineapples in a cross. The shield is surmounted by a crocodile set between two native Arawak Indians. In addition pineapple, cashew, banana, cactus and coconut plants and trees are often included within the engraving. Most of these tortoiseshell cases are dated. The earliest known example dates to 1671 and the latest dated 1692, with some of the later examples further inscribed ‘Port Royal in Jamaica.’ Port Royal was a successful shipping hub that was completely decimated in 1692 by an earthquake. The attribution to Paul Bennett is due to the fact that among lists of tradesmen and craftsmen in Port Royal, prior to 1692, he is the only comb maker on record. There is another example of a double-sided tortoiseshell comb and case in the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur collection.”

Deming and Bulkley, New York, games tables, made for the Charleston market, sold for $137,500 (est. $50,000/100,000) to a collector in the salesroom.

This Classical figured and ormolu-mounted mahogany bureau by Charles-Honoré Lannuier, New York, 1810-15, 39" x 48" x 24", stamped “H. LANNUIER / NEW-YORK” on top of each of the rear stiles and on the left and right ends of the wooden top below the marble top, which appears original, sold on the phone for $62,500 (est. $60,000/80,000) . In October 1985 it sold at Sotheby’s for $11,000. It sold again at Sotheby’s in January 2000 for $37,375 to Hirschl & Adler Galleries, from whom Patricia M. Sax, a Chicago collector, bought it. It was pictured in Peter Kenny’s catalog Honoré Lannuier: Cabinetmaker from Paris for the Lannuier exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998.

Federal gilt and églomisé paneled looking glass, 53½" x 22", possibly by Stillman Lothrop, retailed by George Dean, New York, circa 1805, the reverse bearing a printed retailer’s label, sold for $35,000 (est. $15,000/30,000) in the salesroom to dealer Taylor Thistlethwaite. George Dean (1778-1831) stated in his label that he was an agent for “S. Lothrop’s Looking-Glass Manufactory.” Stillman Lothrop (d. 1853) went from Boston in 1804 to open a gilding shop in Salem, Massachusetts, before establishing a looking glass manufactory at 7 Court Street, Boston, in 1806. It appears that Lothrop was importing glass from New York. Stillman and his brother Edward Lothrop trained under the long-established cabinetmaker Stephen Badlam, who also trained with the carver John Doggett. There are similar examples of looking glasses at the U.S. Department of State, the Henry Ford Museum, and Winterthur and in several private collections.

Originally published in the March 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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