Published: August 30, 2022
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Additional Photos Courtesy Bonhams Skinner
MARLBOROUGH, MASS. – Add gold-plated Nina and Bertram Little and Cogswell Grant provenance to Elmer Crowell carvings and Seventeenth Century needlework and you’re likely to have a very strong sale. That’s what Bonhams Skinner did on August 13 with a live sale, the first August Americana sale under the new ownership, which grossed a bit more than $1 million. For those unfamiliar with the Littles and Cogswell Grant, some clarification: Nina Fletcher Little and her husband Bertram put together one of the finest collections of American folk art ever assembled. In 1993 and 1994, Sotheby’s sold the part of their collection, which had been in their Brookline, Mass., home, for more than $10 million.
Nina Little was famous for the research she did, her frequent lectures, the books on folk art that she wrote and the small handwritten labels on many of their things noting the results of her research. Cogswell Grant was the couple’s summer home in Essex, Mass., now owned by Historic New England. The circa 1720 farmhouse is furnished as they left it and it is truly a museum (open to the public) of American folk art. The Bonhams Skinner sale included numerous lots belonging to their son Warren, many of which had, at one time, been in Cogswell Grant. Bidder participation was strong, and the second most expensive item in the sale was bought by Historic New England. More than 90 items in the sale had the Little provenance, including more than 40 miniature carvings by Elmer Crowell, which had been packed away at Cogswell Grant.
There were two parts of the sale; the live, cataloged sale with 262 lots, which grossed about $1 million, and a timed, online portion, which ended a couple of days later, on August 16. The timed sale had almost 600 lots, including a large collection of wicker furniture, an enormous lighting collection, paintings, Chinese export porcelains, weathervanes, furniture and more. It grossed $381,000, giving a total for the two portions of the sale of nearly $1.4 million.
Leading the live sale, from the Little collection and selling for $100,000, was a 246-page manuscript Journal of the Yacht Cleopatra’s Barge on a Voyage of Pleasure, Vol. I, March 30, 1817 to October 3, 1817. It included 22 watercolor, pen and ink and pencil illustrations of harbors, towns and landscapes encountered on the journey. The ship was built for George Crowninshield in Salem, Mass., in 1816 and was the first ocean-going yacht built in the United States. The Crowninshield family became wealthy during the Revolutionary War, and $50,000 was spent building this yacht and another $50,000 was spent on furnishings. According to the catalog, on the ship’s only transatlantic voyage, it was visited by thousands at each European port of call. George Crowninshield died two months after the initial voyage, so Cleopatra’s Barge never sailed again as a pleasure yacht.
Over the next few years, it was sold, resold, auctioned, used, abused and some of the furnishings were sold as salvage. The story of the ship and its only voyage is fascinating, including a suspected plot to rescue Napoleon from exile, and the ship’s eventual sale to the king of Hawaii. The journal Bonhams Skinner sold was kept by Benjamin Crowninshield Jr (1782-1864), a son of the ship’s commander, another member of the family. The journal came into the possession of Betram Little in 1949 and was passed down to his son, Warren. It is believed that the journal was purchased by an institutional buyer.
Also from the Little collection, the second highest price in the sale, $75,000, was paid by Historic New England. Senior curator Nancy Carlisle was present in the gallery with recently appointed associate curator Erica Lome. They bought a double-sided carved and painted George Washington profile portrait plaque made by Samuel McIntire sometime between 1805 and 1811. It was actually two plaques fastened back-to-back. There is a hole in the bottom, perhaps allowing it to be mounted on a pole. It’s illustrated on page 181 of Little By Little, one of the books written by Nina Fletcher Little. At the sale, Carlisle and Lome removed the plaques from the base, revealing Nina Fletcher Little’s handwritten label on the bottom of the base. They left shortly after making this purchase.
The sale included two sand bottles made by Andrew Clemens, McGregor, Iowa. To say that Clemens’ sand bottles have been “hot” recently would be an understatement, as one almost reached $1 million at an auction elsewhere last fall. Skinner has sold several, including two last fall for more than $800,000 each. Is the market cooling a little? The larger of the two in this sale, 8½ inches tall, depicted an eagle, a steam locomotive and tender with an American flag on one side and another steam locomotive on the other side. It earned $75,000. The smaller of the two, 5¾ inches tall, depicted an eagle holding a flag on one side and a floral wreath circling the date “1890” on the other side. It sold for $23,750.
The live sale included a collection of more than 30 early pieces of needlework that had been well cared for. The colors were bright, and the condition was exceptional. Several dated from the Seventeenth Century. Two pieces finished within the six highest prices of the sale. Leading the selection was a Seventeenth Century silk needlework picture of a mythical scene depicting a pair of griffins above a dog, a boar, a man with a club, lions fighting a cow, a horse and a town, all within a meandering floral vine border. It, along with several other pieces of needlework, far exceeded the estimates, earning $35,000.
Realizing $33,750 was a circa 1700 unfinished needlework picture finely stitched on linen, with images representing the continents of America, (misspelled on the piece) Africa, Europe and Asia, with animals and plants native to each region. The unfinished center panel was open. A silk needlework portrait of Queen Anne with angels and crown above, dated 1718, realized $2,750. An earlier needlework picture with portraits of Charles II and Queen Catherine, circa 1675, sold for $1,750.
China trade items included a repousse gilt-silver and enamel teapot dating to the early Nineteenth Century, which included military scenes around the body and lid. It had an ivory handle and reached $21,500. Selling for $15,000, an unsigned watercolor and gouache portrait on paper had a label on the back identifying the sitter as “H.E. Kiying, High Imperial Commissioner and negotiator of the first treaty between China and the United States, known as the ‘Treaty of Shanghai’ July 3, 1844,” and “Painted for Daniel N. Spooner at Canton 1845.” A small, early Nineteenth Century oil on copper painting of the hongs in Canton sold for $12,500.
There was so much more, including nearly 50 Elmer Crowell miniatures, a Bellamy eagle, marine paintings and silver. The collection of Crowell miniature carvings, which had come from Cogswell Grant, were displayed in a showcase during the preview. Ron Bassin, Bird in Hand Antiques, who deals in decoys and Crowell carvings, predicted that the miniature ring-neck pheasant would bring the highest price of the group. He was right – the 3-inch carving with Crowell’s circular ink stamp on the bottom sold for $8,125. Crowell produced more duck and shorebird miniatures than he did of the upland game birds, therefore, the higher price. Most of the miniatures were ducks and shorebirds and sold for under $2,500. Crowell’s life-sized common tern, more than 11 inches long, sold for $6,250.
Leading the furniture selection was a Chippendale mahogany blockfront bureau table, made in New York, circa 1760-80, which earned $6,250. It had condition issues – the base and brasses had been replaced, and the surface was an old refinish, not original. A serpentine Chippendale cherry four-drawer chest, Salem or Newburyport area, circa 1760-80, came from the Little family and was illustrated and discussed in Little by Little. It sold for $4,375.
The timed Americana sale included Chinese export porcelain, dozens of lots of whale oil lamps along with candleholders of all types, candle snuffers and other lighting devices, a large assortment of historical blue Staffordshire and a collection of about 35 pieces of fancy wicker furniture in fine condition. The highest price for this part of the sale was achieved by a lot of eight Chinese export plates with figural scenes. Dated as late Eighteenth or early Nineteenth Century, the lot brought $10,000. One of the pieces of wicker, a very fancy wood and wicker center table, earned the second highest price, $9,375, far over the estimate. Paintings were led by an unsigned late Nineteenth Century American School portrait of a cockateel, which realized $6,875. Other export porcelain included a plate from the service of President Ulysses S. Grant, circa 1870, which was decorated with a brightly colored polychrome fish. It realized $5,938. Most of the extensive selection of lighting devices, primarily from one collection, was sold in lots, which may have provided some good buys.
Steve Fletcher and Karen Keane talked about the transition and integration into the Bonhams system. Fletcher said, “We’ve been integrating some of their IT systems, and it’s going well. Those systems will be providing us with a lot more information and we’re easily fitting in with their people. As far as teamwork goes, I’m really pleased. The combination will give all divisions of the company access to clients and collections that we wouldn’t otherwise have. I think you’ll see some results coming down the road.” Keane reiterated that feeling. “The integration of the computer systems is going smoothly,” she said. “The people we’ve met have been very good at their jobs and easy to work with. Our staff will be growing. For example, we’re adding a client services department that will improve the way we interact with our customers. We’ve promoted Valerie Worth, who has been with us for five years, to head that department and she’s building her team. And as Steve said, we’ll have access to Bonhams specialists and department heads, as well as access to collections that we might not otherwise have had. I’m very pleased with the way it’s all working.”
All prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.skinnerinc.com or 508-970-3211.
This label, handwritten by Nina Fletcher Little, was on the underside of the base of the George Washington profile plaques.
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