By Bob Jackman
BOLTON, MASS. – Skinner’s Americana auction on June 11 witnessed aggressive bidding from morning to evening. The eight hundred lots offered included the deepest selection of strongly painted furniture offered at a New England auction during the past five years. There was also a fine array of folk art, formal furniture and decorative accessories. Gross sales were $1,751,646 with 92 percent of the lots finding buyers.
The top lot was a sponge painted Massachusetts chest that a phone bidder won for $63,000. The chest was an exceptional example of boldly painted American furniture. The form of the circa 1830 piece was a traditional lift top chest with a chest compartment over two long drawers, and sides ended in flared French feet. The front facing surfaces were elaborately decorated in layers.
On each of these surfaces, the bottom paint layer was putty colored, and a wood-grain effect was created by applying a layer of chocolate brown lines. The third layer of paint was applied with a cut “sponges” about two inches high to repeat an elaborate abstract pattern in gold, green, and red with opaque paints. The final layer was applied with an oval sponge pattern that had been dipped in a transparent blue-gray paint. Since it was transparent, this layer exposed the design of other layers.
In effect, the front surface presented three different panels, one for each drawer front and a third for the upper chest. The bottom drawer front had the darkest undercoat and the upper chest had the lightest undercoat. The sponge pattern applied to the lower drawer appeared to be a closed tulip bud. The pattern on the upper drawer was a tulip in full blossom, and the pattern on the upper chest had the open end of the tulip hanging downward as with a withered flower. While these motifs were realistic, the overall statement of the design was abstract.
The top, sides, and apron were boldly painted to imitate rosewood. The chest was in excellent condition with a pristine surface, and retained the original Empire drawer pulls.
A dozen other examples of boldly painted furniture were also offered.
The top clock at $61,900 was a circa 1785 Rhode Island tall case clock with a dial signed by John Field of Cumberland. A beautiful and important clock, horologists anticipate that it will be widely discussed in relation to the controversies about the origin of mechanisms of American clocks and the sources of Rhode Island clock cases.
Robert Cheney’s recent article made a strong argument that many elements of early American clocks were imported from England. However Field may represent the start of an extensive domestic production. A Massachusetts native, Field settled in the lower Blackstone Valley following the Revolutionary War, and, in addition to being a clockmaker, he cast brass for the Slater mills in Pawtucket, R.I., and Uxbridge, Mass/ It seems possible that Field created brass elements for his own clock shop. Elements in this clock will be used to test this hypothesis.
The clock case featured boldly carved shells at the upper border of panels mounted in the waist and base. Efforts will be made to link these shells and other elements with the work of a cabinetmaker from Providence or Newport.
A major consignor to the auction was longtime Connecticut dealer Patty Gagarin who was very pleased with the prices that her rdf_Descriptions brought. Gagarin commented, “The auction is going very well. Some of my rdf_Descriptions have done particularly well. The Belknap painting and the child with a watch have really exceeded expectations.”
The Zedekiah Belknap painting that she referred to was a simple composition of a seated child petting a white rabbit. Despite an estimate of $4,000 to $6,000, phone bidders battled to $47,150. Gagarin’s painting of a child with a watch was attributed to the Prior-Hamblin school. Estimated a $4,000 to $6,000, bidding opened at $8,000 and ran to $18,400 where a phone bidder won it. A different consignor submitted another Prior painting that was estimated to sell for $2,500 to $3,500, but it climbed to $24,150.
An interesting oil on panel folk painting of a Quincy, Pa. farmstead shot to $17,250 against an estimate of $2,000 to $2,500. An inscribed note indicated that the scene was painted by Major W R Hershburger. Foreground elements such as a steam engine and post and rail fence were miniscule in comparison to the more distant cows. There was a total absence of shadows or shading. In some cases, the viewer was shown the front and side of the same building, but without a tonal difference or converging perspective lines to indicate which surface retreated into the plane of the picture.
A very interesting, folky ship portrait cruised to $3,220. An inscription at the base of the image indicated that it depicted the bark Aid of Yarmouth with P C Gooding, Master. The Stars and Stripes flying over the stern passed a black light test, and apparently the work was created in the vicinity of Yarmouth, Me. The remarkable feature of the work was the manner in which the swell of the sea was given form and captured reflected light. The sea was shown a series of a few large swells with modest inconsistencies along the top of the crest. This form is far more realistic than the shore chop often incorporated into paintings intended to show ships in open ocean settings. A second remarkable feature was the use of pencil thin lines of oil applied to depict the varied light reflected off the ocean surface. The primitive artist rendered light in a naïve manner. The back of the panel had a Pilgrim scene.
Dealer David Wheatcroft paid $23,000 for a fine pair of 1810 folk drawings and verses by seventeen-year-old Ephraim Warren of Chelmsford, Mass. The pages had been subsequently glued to the interior of a domed trunk on top of an 1817 newspaper. After winning the pair, Wheatcroft commented, “I liked the imagery and the account. The significance has nothing to do with the trunk, and I will explore removing the paper from the trunk. It will be a conservation project, and it will not be easy. If it is possible to remove them intact, then the pages can be seen as they were originally intended.”
The top textile lot was a 1795 Essex County sample created by Nabey Bradley. The scene at the bottom was rendered with a pastoral scene long identified with Essex County, and family records show that Nabey was born in Haverhill. The top of this sampler had a sawtooth motif.
After Steven and Carol Huber won the needlework for $18,400, Steve commented, “We’re very pleased. It is charming and very folky. It is very colorful, and it has more punch when it is out of the glass. We expected it to go higher.” Collector Maureen Taylor won a number of other samplers.
A pleasing assortment of a dozen weathervanes was lead by a full-bodied cow that appropriately sold to Farm Antiques of Arlington, Vt., for $13,800. The new owner dryly commented, “She’s pretty, but I will not be able to get daily sustenance from this cow.”
Willington, Conn. dealer Ron Dionne won a vane that depicted an early automobile for $6,900. “It was a beautifully done, one of a kind creation with great detail,” he said. “Although it was whimsical, it was finely made. It is a low mileage vehicle – fresh to the market.”
The auction included numerous other fine examples of painted folk art. For example a silhouette swan figurine whose form and carved feather surface indicated a French Canadian influence sold for $14,950. A Parcheesi board that had been painted in vibrant colors that aged to a mellow patina played to $17,250.
A sum of $1,955 was paid for a satirically carved and painted Rhode Island clam shell that opened to reveal a portrait of General McClellan, the Civil War Chief-of-Staff who stuck his ground like a clam rather than attacking the poorly outfitted, undermanned enemy. Auctioneer Karen Keane commented, “This is my favorite lot in the entire sale.”