Published: June 5, 2018
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – Carl Nordblom’s May 20 sale proved once again that there are undiscovered treasures in New England homes, and diligent digging can bring them to the marketplace. The sale included more than 75 early pieces of armorial Chinese export porcelain that had been stacked up in a Cambridge basement for more than 20 years. Buyers described the collection as being the very best to have come to the market recently, and none knew the collection existed. The top selling lot of the day, a circa 1765-70 Boston bombe slant-front desk that sold for $240,000, was also previously unknown.
The desk came from an elderly couple, now residing in an assisted living facility, who had no idea of the treasure they owned. Ken Van Blarcom, an associate of Nordblom’s, said, “When I saw the desk in the house, we talked about possible value and the couple said they would be happy to get $5,000.” They had recently sold another slant-front desk, a walnut piece from Pennsylvania, through another auction house where it brought $600 and did not have great expectations for this one. Conservatively estimated at $30/50,000, the desk drew strong presale interest. Dealers with clients on their cell phones competed against Nordblom’s phones and a collector in the room, who ultimately was the successful bidder. The desk had descended through the Whitney family of Boston and Dedham. From the same collection, with the same provenance, a Roxbury tall case clock with a painted dial, went to a phone bidder for $7,200.
The day after the sale, Roberto Freitas, a Stonington, Conn., dealer, and Jack O’Brien, furniture scholar, appraiser and advisor, who were both underbidders, were asked what made this desk worth nearly a quarter-of-a-million dollars. O’Brien said, “Desks like this one are the rarest form of American furniture. This was a very good buy, as prices have been much higher in the past. I liked the fact that it was new to the market, with good provenance. It had some condition issues and old repairs, but, to me, that added to its interest. The repairs were what I would call ‘honest’ repairs, not done by a dealer to enhance the value of the piece. Some of the construction details make me believe that it might have been made in Marblehead. Drawer bottoms run front to back, not side to side. And the sides of the drawers, about 3/8 inches thick, were thicker than Boston examples that I’ve examined.”
According to O’Brien, only four bombe desks have been sold at auction since 2004, when one brought $605,000. Sotheby’s sold one in the Nutt Collection in January 2015 for $635,000. That example had ball and claw feet and a carved and blocked interior. The catalog noted that only 14 bombe desks were known at the time. In 2007, at a high point in the market, they sold a bombe secretary desk for more than $1.6 million, and sold a desk for $698,500 in 2010.
Freitas said, “It was a very rare form, and its condition issues were minor. The hardware was right, the surface was right, and it had a great provenance. The market has changed dramatically; they’ve brought more in the past. The collector I was bidding for has a good bombe chest, so his interest in the desk was limited. The last one like this that I owned, I bought at Sotheby’s for more than $500,000.”
The European Chinese export armorial porcelain came from a Cambridge home where it had been stacked up and stored in a basement for the last 20 years. Nearly every bit of it sold at prices much higher than the estimates. It had been meticulously cataloged by Karin Phillips, Nordblom’s partner, using David Howard’s basic reference Chinese Armorial Porcelain and other sources. Phillips’ description of condition included details such as spots from stacking and glaze flaking, if appropriate.
Also included were the names of the original owners of the porcelain and other details. Those descriptions undoubtedly helped online bidders assess the value. Boston dealer Polly Latham has been specializing in export porcelains for more than 30 years, and she said, “This was a wonderful collection. It all came from the best period of manufacture, 1720-30, and the quality was high throughout.” Latham bought several lots and was an underbidder on others. A collector in the room, who also bought some examples, repeated Latham’s comments on the quality of the collection, and added, “It was all great stuff, and you can see that pieces with exceptional early provenance, by which I mean who was the original owner, brought the highest prices.”
Demonstrating the value of provenance was a pair of plates with the Dutch arms of Sichterman, from the Kangxi reign, circa 1720. Quoting from the catalog, “Jan Albert Sichterman (1692-1764) from the Netherlands, worked for the Dutch East India Company and was based in the East from 1716 until 1745. He had a seemingly insatiable appetite for porcelain, building a collection of at least 3,000 pieces over the course of his lifetime, including ten dinner services and 41 tea services.” The pair more than tripled the estimate, finishing at $4,800 to a buyer in the room. The same buyer, mentioned above, who had made the comment about provenance, also paid $3,000, five times the estimate, for a circa 1725 plate from the Yongzheng reign with the Dutch arms of De Newfville and De Wolf accolle (accolle is a term used in heraldry, meaning two or more shields or other armorial bearings displayed side by side.)
The sale was strong throughout. Several phones lines were in use, and bidders in the room were successful on many lots, including the top selling piece of the day. Part three of an exceptional collection of Spanish colonial did well, as did tea caddies, fine art, European furniture, Rose Mandarin porcelain, a collection of fans, China trade paintings, Oriental rugs and a Picasso ceramic jug. The Picasso Madoura jug, one of 100 and decorated with three large black birds in a pond stood more than 11 inches tall. It brought $15,600, more than triple the estimate.
Leading the selection of colonial Spanish silver, finishing at $9,600, was a detailed sacramentary lectern in the form of a full-bodied pelican. From the catalog, “The pelican pierces its heart to feed its blood to its young. In Christian art this symbolizes Christ sacrificing himself for man. Sacramentary lecterns were placed on the altar during a Eucharist celebration holding the book containing the ritual words of the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood. A lectern of this quality would most likely have been used in a cathedral or wealthy church.” It dated to the late Eighteenth or early Nineteenth Century, was 19 inches tall and weighed about 148 troy ounces. There were several other pieces of colonial Spanish silver, all from the Connecticut collection of an American diplomat who served for many years in South America and other regions. Many of the pieces were from Peru, Guatemala and Mexico. Finishing at $3,300 was a 17-inch-tall pair of silver altar candlesticks, made in Mexico in the Eighteenth Century.
Nordblom sales often include a selection tea caddies. One exceptional example in this sale far exceeded its estimate. It was an octagonal caddy with mother-of-pearl and green tortoiseshell inlay in a harlequin pattern. It sold for $9,600 against a $1,500 estimate. An unusual Georgian multicolored-rolled paper tea caddy on a mica ground earned $3,900.
There was strength in the market for European and Asian furniture. A pair of Irish George II footstools, with shell carved knees and pad feet, brought $6,000. An unusual early chest with ornate mother-of-pearl and bone inlay, made in Syria, sold for $1,560.
Fine art started the sale, and the first lot, a pair of ink on paper abstract drawings by Joseph Albers (American, 1888-1976) got the day off to a good start, selling for $17,400. An oil of a busy harbor scene by French impressionist Eugene Clary (1856-1929) realized $4,500. A colorful Twentieth Century painting of a funeral scene done on the Indonesian island of Bali, in Penestanan, Ubud, sold for $330. In the 1960s, Dutch born painter Arie Smit invited local children to his studio in Ubud to learn to paint. This large painting was signed G. Kupelir, perhaps one of those young students.
Needless to say, the elderly couple who had consigned the desk were delighted with the results. When asked after the sale, Carl Nordblom said, “They were speechless. They never expected the prices that their pieces sold for. It’s nice to able to give people that kind of news. As far as the sale in general, of course we’re happy with the results. Some categories like the tea caddies and the paintings did nicely, while other things, like the American furniture, sold at very affordable prices. The armorial pieces did well, but I thought the Rose Mandarin pieces were a little on the low side. We’re looking forward to the next sale.”
Prices are given with buyer’s premium, as reported by the auction house. For information, www.crnauctions.com or 617-661-9582.
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