Published: October 19, 2021
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Blanchard’s Auction Service
POTSDAM, N.Y. – “There have never been two more recognizable names in the Rustic Furniture Movement than Barney Bellinger and Ralph Kylloe,” auctioneer Kip Blanchard told us following his firm’s October 10 auction. The 477-lot sale at Blanchard’s Auction Service grossed just under $1 million with more than 2,000 bidders registered for the online-only affair, with bidders also able to participate through phone and absentee.
A gentleman who bought from and commissioned contemporary rustic furniture makers to furnish his lodge in Western Pennsylvania supplied about 60 to 70 percent of the lots in the auction, including all the high-flyers. This is where the story with the man-about-town, renowned contemporary furniture maker Barney Bellinger, begins.
“Buying a piece of Barney Bellinger today is like buying a piece of Tiffany 100 years ago. It was expensive then, but it’s quality, and it keeps going up in value,” Blanchard said.
True to form, an auction record for Bellinger was set three times this sale, each result surpassing the $15,340 paid in 2019 at Blanchard’s for a flaming birch table with painted Adirondack scene backsplash. A multi-disciplinary artist, Bellinger is known for mounting his paintings onto his furniture designs to create an aesthetic all his own.
At the top of the sale, earning $61,200 and establishing Bellinger’s new auction record, was a regulation-size Adirondack pool table that sold to a collector with a great camp lodge in the Adirondacks. Including this example, Bellinger and his Sampson Bog Studios only made three pool tables. The other two include one at The Point, a resort on Upper Saranac Lake built in 1933 for William Avery Rockefeller II, and another at a private home in Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H.
Bellinger told Antiques and The Arts Weekly, “The pool table, the gentleman didn’t commission it, that’s something I did on my own. I purchased a 1917, old broken-down pool table out of someone’s basement and I rebuilt the whole inner works and got all the returns working and structurally made it so it was functioning; then I created all the embellishment with pine.”
Not just any pine, it was lodgepole pine, which Bellinger sourced from the western United States. It grows gnarlier and with more burl than eastern pine and can only be found at elevations above 8,000 feet.
“All that lodgepole pine was purchased from the Wind River Native Americans in Wyoming,” Bellinger said. “I would meet them in Jackson Hole on Main Street and they would have a wagon-load and I would put it in a container and ship it back east.”
To each end of the pool table was a painting of Boottree Pond, which Bellinger called one of his favorite fishing spots. All of the mosaic work was in striped maple.
More common in historic American furniture, where painted scenes graced the back of crest rails on chairs, Bellinger’s infusion of mounted paintings into his furniture is practically unique in the Twentieth Century and born from his lifelong passion for the Adirondacks. “The paintings added a unique sense of personality,” Bellinger told us.
A self-taught artist, Bellinger traces his wilderness reverence to his grandfather, a mechanic who would take him on fishing trips as a young boy of seven years old. When he grew older, he too became a mechanic focusing on motorcycles.
“The bikes were all custom painted, but space-type scenes, skulls and this and that in the biker world,” he said.
He then moved into the sign business where his artistic skills and eye for design were laid down to wood. Furniture followed not long after and by the mid-1990s, after gaining clients at the then-fledgling Rustic Furniture Fair hosted by the Adirondack Experience: The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake – the place where he first met author and gallerist Ralph Kylloe – he made his move into full-time furniture making, an action he described as “a big jump.”
Bellinger and Kylloe, the latter who ran The Kylloe Furniture Gallery in Lake George, became close friends and have remained so for the past 30 years. Kip Blanchard said Kylloe is among the most well-known authorities in rustic furniture, having authored more than 25 books on the Adirondack style and its furniture, decorative arts and figures over the years. In 1995, the author released A History of The Old Hickory Chair Company and The Indiana Hickory Furniture Movement, considered the authoritative work on the maker.
“Ralph was very interested in my work,” Bellinger remembered of the first time they met. “He thought it had a different look. Those first few Rustic shows really catapulted us into a busy session for the next 20 years. Ralph really wanted to do books and I had the art to do a book, so we kind of worked together. He covered us quite well.”
Bellinger was a solid feature in Kylloe’s gallery and in many of his books, lending to the fact that these two men, principally friends but also an artist and his gallerist, came up together. Bellinger’s works in Kylloe’s gallery were produced on spec and to the artist’s vision, which freed him from the weight of commissions and unwelcome suggestions.
The owner of the lodge in Western Pennsylvania did, however, commission Bellinger for some works. Among them was a two-piece cabinet titled “Sunset Cabin,” with twig mosaics, burl feet and a top with central painting of an Adirondack lake at sunset flanked by doored compartments that also featured a sunset scene to their faces. It won best in show a the Adirondack Experience museum’s Artisan Show in the early 2000s and was featured in Kylloe’s title Adirondack Home. The work sold to a Bellinger collector on Tupper Lake.
Bellinger recalled the day that the Pennsylvania collector commissioned the full-size bed that appeared in the sale and sold for $19,800.
“He’d sit here in my studio and I’d have a fire going in the potbelly stove, and he’d take a little nap or rest. I was in the other room one time and I heard him say, ‘Barney, I need a king size bed,’ and that was the bed in the auction. ‘I only have a few requests,’ he said, ‘One is I want a bench at the end so I can sit on my bench and face my fireplace in the evening and read my paper.’ So we built that into the footboard. And he also asked that I do a painting of the Shoshone River, a favorite place of his at Yellowstone. So I went there and spent eight hours on the river with my wife doing studies, I picked that portion of the river.”
To the right of the Shoshone River painting, which stretches across the headboard, is a bear.
“I painted that bear three times,” Bellinger said, “because I always called that man the thinker, I wanted the bear to look like he was having a thought.”
Blanchard said about 125 lots in the sale came from Kylloe, who has by now closed his Lake George gallery and sold his home in the same place. Bellinger produced a number of things for Kylloe that came to sale in this auction. Among them was a 1997 oil painting of a trout that measured 18½ by 23½ inches and sold for $6,900.
“The trout painting – that’s one of my favorite fish to paint,” Bellinger said. “I hand painted each one and a keen eye would notice the different character between them, but the Brook Trout was my all-time favorite.”
It was a favorite of his clients too, including the Orvis Company, who commissioned the artist to produce a number of works on the subject.
Notable among Kylloe’s furniture were two works by North Carolina folk art furniture maker Reverend Ben Davis. A circa 1920s china cabinet in oak covered in chip-carved mountain laurel or rhododendron branches sold for a heady $31,200 – an auction record for Davis. Kylloe acquired the cabinet 30 years ago for his personal collection and would go on to write the only title on the artist in 2012 called The Rustic Furniture of Reverend Benjamin Davis. Whereas Lee Fountain, Ernest Stowe and now Barney Bellinger are the northern kings of rustic furniture, Davis rules the tradition in the south. Kylloe featured the work in his Davis book, but also in Rustic Living and on the cover of Rustic Traditions.
Blanchard said, “When I was at Kylloe’s house picking these up, Ralph pointed to the china cabinet and said, ‘Should bring $10,000.’ That was his comment.” It did a bit better.
Closer to that mark was Kylloe’s dining table by Davis that sold for $12,600, also surpassing the previous auction record. The table featured yellow birch legs and a chip carved Mountain Laurel skirt. Kylloe published it twice.
Both Davis works sold to a collector with a home in the Adirondacks.
At $10,500 was Kylloe’s Old Hickory corner cabinet that measured 64 inches high. Nodding to his contributions in the field, the Adirondack Experience museum was successful in purchasing an ephemeral artifact of the author/dealer’s career in his 6-foot-long shop sign, which reads “Ralph Kylloe Rustic Furniture Gallery.” It sold for a modest $240.
Bellinger and Kylloe were movers and shakers in the broader contemporary rustic furniture scene that stretched from New York to California, and many of their colleagues were on show as well.
“There were some antiques in the sale,” Blanchard said, “But the majority of things were from contemporary Adirondack artists. Most of it was built from 2000 to 2010. It’s a whole new wave, there’s as much interest in the new rustic furniture as there is in the older pieces. The Adirondack and Rustic Furniture movement is stronger than ever.”
That the style spans the length of America speaks to its greater appeal – you can find it in its own idiosyncratic regional styles in Wyoming to the West, Ohio in the Midwest, North Carolina in the South and in the Adirondacks in the Northeast.
According to Bellinger, the style is unified by organic and natural materials. “That’s what makes the whole thing come together,” he said. “It’s the material we find in our forest. The same materials are being traded back and forth. That’s what makes it mesh, the sharing of materials from different locales. Any differences come from how an artist may see it and apply it and put it together.”
The Pennsylvania collector once had a business and home in Montana, Blanchard said, and much of the western material came from that residence. From Cody, Wyo., furniture maker John Gallis of Norseman Designs West came a chair and ottoman in the manner of Molesworth that sold for $9,000. The attractive set featured a stitched leather panel by Lisa Sorrell of a woman behind her Studebaker truck with upholstery stitchwork by Ryder Gauteraux. One buyer got an absolute deal at $5,880 for a pointedly strong West Box Cannon Desk in solid cherry with juniper trim and antler pulls by Gallis. It was a winner at the Western Conference. Also from Wyoming was “Yellowstone Bull,” a life-size bronze elk sculpture by artist James Marsico that took $43,200. Amber Jean, a Montana artist, created a bronze bench with a back in the form of a life-size buffalo that went out at $13,200.
There were plenty of impressive horn chandeliers to choose from, including a ram horn chandelier by Kentucky artist Dan MacPhail. The artist carved deep relief images of Bighorn, Dall, Stone and Desert sheep into the 24 ram horns that spiral upward, and bidders recognized the quality, pushing it to $16,200. MacPhail’s more routine large elk antler chandeliers sold for $9,000 and $8,400.
Other contemporary craftspeople from New York were alive and well, represented by Jessica & Jerry Farrell, Peter Winter and plenty of others.
The Adirondack Experience museum made a purchase of Wayne Ignatuk’s cherry sideboard at $6,900. It had won the award for “Outstanding Craftsmanship” at the museum’s 2004 Rustic Fair and will head into the institution’s collection. Ignatuk, who runs Swallowtail Studio in Jay, N.Y., successfully melds rustic furniture with the Arts and Crafts style. Bellinger called him one of the best fine woodworkers that he knows. High praise.
Blanchard said the sale was over 99 percent sold – the singular passed lot in a Victorian Launch boat made by Peter Freebody & Co of Hurley on Thames, England, that carried a half million dollar high estimate. He said most of the lots sold to retail buyers who kept homes in the Adirondacks, but some pieces of furniture are westward as buyers in California, Wyoming, Montana, Ohio and other wilderness-style hotbeds were keen on buying, no matter the cost to ship.
“A lot of pieces are staying around here,” Blanchard said. “It’s great to get the exposure and go throughout the country, but it’s better to see the pieces stay in the area. When you ship to the West Coast, you’re never going to see it again.”
When we hung up with Bellinger, he was gathering his watercolors and easels in preparation for a camping trip with his five- and three-year-old granddaughters. They were headed to the North Woods Club preserve in Minerva, N.Y., the place where Winslow Homer stayed and painted his famed Adirondack scenes. A pristine place where time stands still, save for the next generation of painters, who seem to already be on their way.
All prices reported include buyer’s premium. For information, www.blanchardsauctionservice.com or 315-265-5070.
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