Purchase Story

The Father of Our Country Wins the Day

Case Antiques Auction, Knoxville, Tennessee
Photos courtesy Case Antiques

The Case Antiques winter auction on January 27 was, as always, an intense one-day sale that presented almost 900 lots from a broad spectrum of specialties. The expected regional furniture, fine art, and decorative arts alternated with surprising offerings from a variety of fields, including a Picasso plate, 20th-century studio furniture, and Georgian silver. President John Case feels that this multiplicity of categories has resulted in successful events. Noting that there were many auctions across the South on that Saturday, he said, “Looking at the number of bidders, the amount of absentee bidding, we really were blessed that we were one of the most active auctions in the world that day.”

Everyone has old magazines, but this bound copy of a 1789 issue of the Massachusetts Magazine: or, Monthly Museum of Knowledge and Rational Entertainment was owned and signed by George Washington. It concerns his inauguration as president and bears his library bookplate (see detail). All in all, the publication with its careful catalog notes was a perfect candidate for the top lot of the sale. It brought $138,000 (est. $28,000/32,000).

Washington’s bookplate features his family coat of arms, topped with a coronet and a raven with raised wings. He used this crest with pride on many personal items. The motto “Exitus Acta Probat” means the result is the test of any action taken, or the proof is in the pudding—an ancestral notion that held true for the key figure in America’s War of Independence.

Case continued, “When I look at the number of categories we’re doing well in, we’ve been above the mean for the last two years. I feel very fortunate—I’m in awe that we’re privileged to be in that situation. Is a themed auction with only art or only documents the way to go? We’re finding that having many categories works best. We had some really incredible mid-century modern pieces in this sale. What it results in is a maximum number of people looking at the catalog. The viewer may be looking for Asian art, but they look at the historical material as well. When we look at the invoices, we see many people that cross over several categories. We’ve been able to deliver prices as strong as specialist auctions out there. It’s encouraging for us.”

While the firm continues to value variety, Case has become especially well known for its offerings of well-researched historical documents and archives. From this category came the star of the sale—a volume from George Washington’s library, signed by the president, that sold for $138,000 (includes buyer’s premium). This was the most important item from a related collection of documents that had descended in the family of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835). Everyone involved in the antiques marketplace has heard stories of “the treasure overlooked.” The auction house or appraiser that turned down the middling highboy but never noticed the old master over the mantel or the Ming vase in the hall. At least two other auction firms had looked at the family’s material without realizing its significance or the importance of Marshall’s long friendship with Washington. A young associate in Chattanooga, who often works with Case, made the connection.

This Samuel Kirk & Son six-piece repoussé tea and coffee service, circa 1907, had been passed down from a Baltimore estate to an owner in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Densely covered with flowers and topped with grape cluster finials, the ornate set brought a strong $11,040 (est. $8400/8800).

 

Bonnie Scotland was born in England where he had his early racing career but was brought to America in 1857 and became the celebrated ancestor of many famous race winners in equine history, including Man o’ War, Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. The great sire finished out his life at Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville, where he and chief groom Robert “Uncle Bob” Green were painted in 1879 by Herbert S. Kittredge (1853-1881). The 24" x 28" painting has gone back to the historic house and stables after a campaign among museum supporters allowed them to purchase the portrait for $48,000 (est. $36,000/40,000).

German-born artist George Wilhelm Frye (1822-1872) had studios in Huntsville, Alabama, and Louisville, Kentucky, and was noted for his depictions of daily life in the antebellum South. This signed oval oil painting (26¾" high) of a bearded African American man posting the front page of the Louisville Commercial newspaper came from the estate of Lynn Scholl Renau, who conducted important research on African American history in Kentucky. The painting brought $15,000 (est. $6000/8000) from an institutional bidder.

From the Lynn Scholl Renau estate, this Federal inlaid cherry high chest (65¼" high) had been purchased from a Lexington, Kentucky, antiques dealer in 1974 and was cataloged as “likely western Pennsylvania.” The case piece went for $9600 (est. $6000/8000). The detail photo illustrates the extraordinarily fine inlay.

John Marshall (1755-1835) became the fourth chief justice of the United States in 1801 after serving briefly as secretary of state and a Virginia delegate to the House of Representatives. The portrait, attributed to Virginia artist William James Hubard (1807-1862), brought $16,640 (est. $5000/7000). Part of the estate that included documents relating to Marshall’s friend George Washington, the painting had been passed over as worthless before recognition and research by Case experts.

This 13½" high alkaline-glazed stoneware jar, attributed to the enslaved potter David “Dave” Drake (c. 1801- c. 1870), brought $7920 (est. $5000/7000). The jar has the incised date “April 3, 1840” and the initials “LM” for Lewis Miles’s Stoney Bluff Manufactory in the Edgefield District of South Carolina.

John Case said after the sale, “We always talk about the undiscovered gem, but what about the gem that’s been out in the light of day and we’re walking over it and no one’s paying attention to it? I think that’s the story of this collection. Those things were there, but someone had to dig deeper and ask more questions. Our friend saw certain documents and asked more questions about the family and its history. As they got to talking more, they started bringing out more of the material. I’m fortunate because I have a good friend—Stuart Lutz, a historic documents expert in New Jersey—who helps me out with that specialized field. He was able to uncover the significance of the Marshall and Washington-related materials. We’re not experts in everything, but we know who we should contact. It’s a collaborative effort, and in this case it obviously paid dividends. This family has been in Tennessee for over a hundred years.”

The volume mentioned above was a bound copy of the Massachusetts Magazine: or, Monthly Museum of Knowledge and Rational Entertainment, volume 1, for 1789, the year of Washington’s presidential inauguration. John Case referred to it as “the People magazine of its day.” Washington, who signed it on the title page and attached his armorial bookplate, was in effect performing the 18th-century version of saving his own press clippings, because the issue contained news of his inauguration and assumption of office, complete with speeches. Case added, “This was the most exciting find to surface on the market for some time. Books from his library seldom come up to auction.”

The entire collection included an autograph letter to John Marshall from Washington that sold for $19,200, a Marshall portrait ($16,640) and silver sauceboat ($11,040), illustrated here, letters written by Marshall to his family members, and the chief justice’s signed four-volume set of Plutarch’s Lives that sold for $18,600. Institutional bidders, according to Case, were strongly challenged by private collectors. The detailed research undertaken by Stuart Lutz Historic Documents Inc. on the Marshall archive can be read in the online catalog, and multiple photos allow the viewer to actually read the printed and handwritten documents.

Vice president Sarah Campbell Drury admitted that when it comes to handling these collections of documents, “We like it and enjoy it. I wish I could say we’ve gone out and tried to make historical material a key pillar of our business, but it’s really been a happy accident. Because we’re history nerds, so when this kind of material comes in, we grasp the significance of it, and we relish doing the further research that needs to be done. We have a lot of fun with the catalog entries on these pieces. On a lot of this material, museums were getting outbid. There’s a very healthy private collector community for historical items.”

History can take many forms. Case has often featured paintings of famous horses from Tennessee or Kentucky, but seldom has there been an equine homecoming story like the return of Bonnie Scotland’s portrait to Nashville. While followers of “the sport of kings” know famous recent winners such as Man o’ War and Seabiscuit, few have heard of the sire who, so to speak, sowed the seeds of their success. After a promising racing career in England where he was born in 1853, Bonnie Scotland was retired to stud at age three and imported into America by a Captain Cornish of Massachusetts in 1857. After a long career as the go-to father of champions, he finished out his life at Belle Meade, a Nashville plantation, which is now a historic property open to the public. The site launched a campaign that helped raise enough money from supporters to field the winning price of $48,000 that brought the painting back to the stables where the race horse died at age 28.

Although heavily refinished, this southern form with deep “bonnet drawers” on top is highly desirable. Attributed to South Carolina makers, the walnut chest (44½" high) was pursued by two determined bidders who took the final price to $18,000, far beyond the $800/1000 estimate.

Regional furniture collectors are connoisseurs of the sugar chest form and pushed the price for this lot to $19,800 (est. $5400/5800). Possibly made in Wilson County, Tennessee, 1820-30, this cherry and cherry veneer example with three deep drawers over a long flat drawer—all with locks—has the necessary dimensions (37¾" x 38¼" x 20½") to be termed a sugar sideboard.

This South Carolina Federal walnut sideboard is decorated with lightwood inlays including a pair of stars on the arched central apron. At 37½" high x 61¾" wide, a good size, this piece brought $7440 (est. $4000/4400).

Case has been dispersing artwork from the estate of Knoxville artist Beauford Delaney (1901-1979). This Abstract Expressionist watercolor on paper, signed and dated 1962, when Delaney was working in Paris, brought $15,000 (est. $6400/7000).

The big news at Case is its April move to expansive new quarters less than a mile away that will triple the gallery space. Drury explained, “We’ve been looking for a larger space for a while. We feel really blessed. Our business is growing—we’ve had great buyers and great consignors. This is going to allow us to serve more of both. You’ve got to look for something with the right setup—or you have to build it. We were about to consider building when we found the new location. Now we’re working on, how do we move all this stuff?”

Because Case is known for in-depth coverage of individual objects, readers interested in more information about any lot referred to in this review are urged to consult the online catalog, where the firm presents multiple images, including details, of every lot and the full results of research. Visit (www.caseantiques.com) for further information about the new gallery and a summer sale in July.

 

This silk-on-linen Kentucky house sampler (15" x 11¾"), stitched by Eliza Pearson, age nine, and dated 1832, demonstrated its rarity when competitive bidding took the final price to $6144, far beyond the $1000/1400 estimate.

From the Marshall family consignment, this English sterling George II sauceboat, hallmarked by Robert Innes, London, 1748-49, may have been given to John Marshall by Washington; the catalog research traces the documentation. But wait, there’s more—also in the lot was a fragment of red velvet purported to have come from a Washington top coat. This winning combination brought $11,040 (est. $800/1200).

In a block of melodious items near the end of the sale, this rare late 19th-/early 20th-century 69¼" high harp by Chicago makers Lyon & Healy made a surprise jump into the top ten when it sold for a strong $18,600 (est. $800/1000). The harp was followed by a selection of music boxes from two private collections.

A demonstration of the auction house’s devotion to diverse categories, this George Nakashima (1905-1990) walnut credenza (72⅛" wide) with sliding drawers brought $25,600 (est. $5400/5800), one of the best prices of the day.


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

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