Published: June 18, 2002
Americana, Aggressive Bidders, and a Gross of $2.3 Million in Elegant Surroundings
By Laura Beach
BOSTON, MASS. – Skinner got off to an auspicious start with its first auction of American Furniture & Decorative Arts at its expanded and renovated Boston salesroom. The 580-lot sale on Sunday, June 9, grossed $2,368,068, an eyelash less than the firm’s last Americana sale, held in February in Bolton.
Skinner has been operating in both locations since 1980. Most of its major sales, in fact, have for some time been at 63 Park Plaza, near Boston’s historic Public Garden and across from the Park Plaza Hotel.
According to executive vice president Stephen Fletcher, it was always the dream of Robert Skinner to conduct Americana sales in the city, but the sales were too large for the small, downtown facility. Having recently nearly doubled its Park Plaza exhibition space, as well as having improved lighting and other systems, Skinner was finally able to realize its founder’s dream.
“We’ve created an environment that is very gallery-like so that buyers can focus on individual pieces,” said Skinner’s Chief Executive Officer Karen Keane. “Our goal is to serve the great number of retail clients who will find it easier to get to the Boston gallery, some from Logan Airport. Our job is to see that the antiques that we are charged to sell bring the most money possible. After a lot of agonizing, we decided that we really needed to be in a major urban location to do that. In the interest of reaching the widest audience, we’ve also improved the Skinner website.”
The new Skinner Boston is decidedly elegant. Outside, it has Tiffany-blue awnings and handsome bays like oversized carriage-house doors for loading merchandise. A receptionist welcomes visitors to the richly understated, wood-paneled lobby. Upstairs, large, airy galleries are flooded with natural light. Despite the improvements, the new galleries will take some getting used to for Americana dealers, who loved the ease and convenience of suburban Bolton and who dread the prospect of rush-hour traffic in Boston.
Skinner’s cover lot, a “gentleman’s secretary” made in Salem, Mass., by Edmund Johnson between 1793 and 1811, added considerably to the day’s total, securing $556,000 ($100/150,000) from a private buyer bidding by phone. Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Mass., almost got the piece. “It’s a form we don’t have,” acknowledged curator Dean Lahikainen, who carried a bid of $450,000.
A paper label affixed to the back enhanced the desirability of this piece, which boasted beauty, rarity and a well-documented history. It seems that Israel Sack found the secretary in Virginia and soon thereafter advertised it, in 1926, on the inside front cover of The Magazine Antiques. The case piece, one of about a dozen known by several different Salem-area makers, sold to Walter Wright. It was illustrated in a revised edition of George Vincent Lockwood’s book, Colonial Furniture in America.
If the Salem secretary exceeded expectations, an exceptionally rare Connecticut six-board oak and maple chest of about 1670-1710 seemed under the money. From a group of furniture attributed by scholar Robert Trent to the William Gibbons and William Russell shops of New Haven, the example — lavishly ornamented with sawtooth inlays, rare parquetry paneling, applied moldings, ebonized spindles and bosses — sold on the phone to Quakertown, Penn., conservator Alan Miller for $88,125 ($75/100,000) on behalf of a client.
Examples from the small group are at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Yale. Much remains to be known about the chest, said Miller. “It’s had several bouts of restoration, but it is still probably the purest of the high-concept objects surviving from this shop. Cataloging it took almost two hours. What’s remarkable is how much of its original decoration survives.”
Other furniture highlights included a diminutive serpentine-front mahogany Boston bureau, sold to a dealer bidding by phone for $116,000 ($40/60,000); a Chippendale cherry carved desk-and-bookcase with an applied shell, serpentine dividers, blocked drawers, and fluted and stop-fluted columns, possibly New London County, Conn., or Providence, R.I., which sold to Bernard & S. Dean Levy Galleries of New York for $55,813 ($25/35,000); and an Eighteenth Century New Hampshire candlestand, possibly from the Dunlap shop, with vivid Victorian decoration, $25,850 ($800/1,200).
Maine dealer Ric Jorgensen underbid a Salem, Mass., serpentine chest of drawers with string and fan inlays. It sold to the phone for $21,150. Stripped of its upholstery, a Pennsylvania armchair left the room at $21,150 ($1/1,500). A Federal mahogany inlaid serving table with a bow front top and serpentine sides surpassed its $3/5,000 estimate to sell for $16,460.
Of several attractive Pembroke tables on offer, a cherry example with distinctive icicle inlays, attributed to Nathan Lombard of Sutton, Mass., fetched $11,750 ($6/8,000). A Federal mahogany and mahogany veneer breakfast table with an oval top, bowed sides, reeded legs and chevron banding fetched $8,225 ($2/3,000).
The other hot ticket was folk art. Leading sales was a 75- by 291/2-inch locomotive weathervane with exceptional patina. It sold to a collector underbid by Massachusetts dealer David Wheatcroft for $237,500 ($60/80,000). Interestingly, Skinner sold a similar, but smaller, locomotive weathervane in 1987 for $203,000 to Connecticut dealer David Schorsch. That example had stood atop the Providence and Worcester railway depot in Woonsocket, R.I., in the 1880s. Standing 561/2 inches tall, a molded copper and iron Statue of Liberty weathervane of circa 1886 brought $23,500 ($20/30,000).
There were portraits large and small for all tastes. Despite restoration, the anonymous “Portrait of the Twins in Green” sold for $70,500 ($50/70,000). Exhibited by Edith Halpert, an early champion of American primitive painting, the picture has long been prized for its striking, if rather eerie, composition of siblings in long green frocks and white britches.
Portraits of the Darling sisters of West Auburn, Maine, attributed to William Matthew Prior, were so nearly identical that they almost looked like twins. The large, vivid canvases sold to David Wheatcroft for $50,525 ($30/50,000). “They have great color and sweet faces. Their color will come up even more once the varnish is removed,” said the dealer, who also purchased two Joseph H. Davis watercolor, pen and ink portraits, one of a woman, the other of a man, for $4,113 and $3,290.
Attributed to Zedekiah Belknap, an itinerant who worked in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, a charming 26- by 231/2-inch portrait of a child in a white dress with a doll fetched $30,550 ($30/50,000). Included in two prominent exhibitions of children in American folk art in the 1980s, it had been retailed by New York dealer Gerald Kornblau before selling at Skinner to a private Boston collector. Also attributed to Belknap was a pair of portraits depicting the Stone family of Auburn, Mass. The circa 1830 pictures brought $16,450 from a phone bidder.
Miscellaneous examples of folk art included a rifle cadet’s paint-decorated knapsack inscribed “Benjamin Pope Bridgewater July 4th 1820,” $31,725 ($4/600). A wonderful silk needlework and watercolor picture attributed to the Misses Patten School of Hartford, 1785 to 1825, sold to the phone for $18,800 ($6/8,000). It depicts the story of “Moses in the Bulrushes” and is surmounted by a raised, metallic eagle holding a floral swag.
A selection of mocha ware from the collection of Elizabeth Macomber of New Hampshire found a receptive audience. Two of the most active bidders in the room were Fitzwilliam, N.H., dealer Bill Lewan and Dorset, Vt., dealer Bill King. Lewan helped build the Macomber collection and has been pleased to buy back pieces as they come up for sale.
Top lots included a large pearlware barrel-form jug banded in dark brown and gray and decorated with dark brown, rust and white trailed and marbled slip decoration, $6,463 ($1/1,500); and a baluster-form jug banded in black, gray, blue and rust with trailed slip decoration of twigs, dots and rick-rack, also $6,463.
Of Boston interest was a 91/2-inch Liverpool creamware jug that sold for $11,163 ($8/12,000). Chosen for the back cover of Skinner’s catalog, this rare piece, exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1943, bears the motto “Success to the Independent Boston Fusiliers Incorporated July 4th, 1787.” It is decorated with an image of a uniformed officer holding the Massachusetts flag. The Fusiliers were a military organization formed shortly after the Revolutionary War. It is said that pitchers were made for each member around 1790.
Skinner was pleased with its first Americana outing in Boston. “The auction exceeded our wildest expectations,” said Karen Keane. “The property was fresh and of world-class quality. Bidders in this economy are still very aggressive.”
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