Published: December 1, 2020
Review by Rick Russack, Photos Courtesy W.A. Smith
PLAINFIELD, N.H. – Thanksgiving came a few days early as Bill Smith’s Thanksgiving sale was held on Saturday, November 21. Varied would be a good word to describe it. What does “varied” mean? Before the sale, if you looked through the online catalog and sorted by high estimate, you would have found the two highest were for a John Deere diesel tractor and an Eighteenth Century Litchfield County highboy. Those estimates were accurate as both finished within the top three prices of the day.
Since the title of this publication refers to arts and antiques, you might be surprised at how they finished. The John Deere model 5420 tractor, probably made in the first years of this century, was the highest priced item of the day at $33,000, far more than the circa 1780 Litchfield highboy.
In addition to those disparate items, the sale included Smith’s usual selection of quality American furniture, weathervanes, paintings, jewelry, Shaker items, some collectible automobiles, silver, Asian items and a 1928 baseball signed by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and members of that New York Yankees team. And surprising Smith and everyone else, a lot of early lead soldiers, the next to last lot in the sale, earned $10,800 against an estimate of $250. Sales like these are what makes auctions fun. Live streamed and with three internet platforms in use, the sale grossed $770,000.
Smith knew that the unusual circa 1780 Litchfield County highboy would do well. The step-top cherry Queen Anne highboy had unusual carved shells in both the top and base, and period brass. It may have come from the workshop of Elisha Booth. It was found in a Watertown, Conn., home in 1933 and was included in the catalog on the exhibition of Litchfield County furniture mounted in 1969 by the Litchfield Historical Society. The consignor had purchased it in the 1970s and Smith sold it for $12,000.
Notable in the other American furniture offerings was a group of Shaker items – furniture and smalls. Which village the 66-inch Shaker tailoring counter had been used in was not known. It had eight drawers, a pullout slide, original pulls, an older refinished surface and realized $3,600. A 72-inch Shaker floor cupboard with two paneled doors over four drawers, also unidentified as to which village it originated from, brought a reasonable $2,040. Eleven photos accurately portrayed an attractive, heavily inlaid two-part circa 1800 Hepplewhite secretary with unusual architectural inlay. Probably from eastern Massachusetts or New Hampshire, its final price was $5,100. A Federal period dressing chest with mirror, circa 1810-20, attributed to the workshop of Thomas Seymour, Boston, earned $4,800. Always popular, and sometimes bringing more than period examples, an Eldred Wheeler Queen Anne-style two-part tiger maple highboy with fan-carved drawers, brought $2,400.
Buyers liked two weathervanes in the sale. A massive Nineteenth Century copper eagle with a 63-inch wingspan earned $16,800, well over the estimate. It had come from a building near Glens Falls, N.Y. Closer to home, a large full-bodied cow with a cast iron head came off a barn in Alstead, N.H. The circa 1880 cow, likely made by Harris, was 27 inches long, came with its original directionals but missing one letter, and realized $6,600. While we’re talking about New Hampshire items, there were at least two Nineteenth Century regional paintings that fell into that category. Frank Shapleigh (1842-1906) was the artist in residence at the Crawford House hotel in Crawford Notch. His studio still stands on the grounds of the AMC Highland Center. He produced numerous White Mountain scenes, many for the hotel’s guests. His oil painting, “Mt Washington from Jackson NH” may have been one of those paintings and it sold for $7,200. Benjamin Champney (1817-1907) had a studio in North Conway, N.H., in the heart of the White Mountains where he catered to the tourists in the area. His oil painting, “Haying by a Stream,” was likely painted nearby and it sold for $5,400.
An exceptional diamond and emerald ring sold for $9,000. The rectangular cut emerald was estimated to weigh 17 carats and a Tiffany platinum and diamond solitaire engagement ring, with a 1.5-carat diamond, sold for $7,800. There were numerous other pieces of jewelry in all price ranges, including a very colorful Victorian gold, diamond, ruby, emerald, pearl and enamel bracelet with rose and old square cut diamonds, set in blue enameled 14K gold, which sold for $4,500.
Bill Smith has been one of the staunchest supporters of old-fashioned live auctions with no internet bidding and he consistently filled his gallery with several hundred buyers, achieving prices certainly equaling other auction houses. The Covid-19 virus forced him to rethink and accept that internet selling had to be part of the business model, now and going into the future. His first New Hampshire internet-only sale was held in May and he has since conducted both live and timed sales, depending on what he is selling. We sat down with him for a candid conversation.
“I was brought up in this business,” he said. “My father started the business and I learned it the old-fashioned way. Often in tents in front of a nice old house or barn and buyers came from all over. They paid at the end of the auction, they took what they bought with them, we took down the tent and went on to the next one. Then came a fixed gallery, with telephone and absentee bids. And now we have the internet. Covid-19 changed it all, and I knew that I had to acquiesce or not survive. It’s been an education. The internet certainly brings us buyers that we hadn’t known in the past and that’s great for esoteric objects like Asian or Russian things. It’s also very helpful when we’re selling paintings by known artists. But interestingly, we’ve found that about 80 percent of what we’re selling goes to our regular, established buyers whom we’ve done business with for years. That’s good. And to that base, we’re certainly adding new buyers. But it’s a whole lot more work, especially after the sales. We now have to be concerned about storing things, collecting payments, arranging for delivery and things like that. Everyone is working more hours.”
We asked about the fact that he is conducting more sales now than he was before using the internet. “That’s true. This region is an area where many people looking to get out of large cities are buying real estate. And some of it is quite expensive, there are numerous million-dollar homes around here. So we’re getting plenty of good merchandise when these homes sell and we’re finding that the buyers are often looking for additional things for the new homes. The new buyers are a different generation with different tastes, so we’re incorporating more Twentieth Century material into our sales. We also wanted to broaden our market. We’ve always had an office in Greenwich, Conn., and we’ve teamed up with a company that runs estate sales in that area and around the state. That gives us access to another generation of buyers and from a new area. And we’re giving that company access to buyers they never did business with before. The world has changed and we have to change. It’s as simple as that.”
For additional information, www.wsmithauction.com or 603-675-2549.
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