Published: June 28, 2022
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Additional Photos Courtesy CRN Auctions
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – The June 18 sale conducted by CRN Auctions included 239 lots from the collection of G.W. “Bill” Samaha, one of New England’s best known and most respected dealers and collectors of Americana. The sale was widely anticipated and drew a large crowd, both to the auction and the preview. Carl Nordblom said, “I’ve seen people at this preview that I haven’t seen in years. And some of the regulars, who normally spend 45 minutes or so checking out the stuff they like, this time were here three or four hours.”
Bill Samaha, now in his 90s, grew up in Ohio. His parents were in the antiques business, and he got his start in the business there in the 1950s. American furniture listing him in the provenance is included in several museums, such as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and his name has frequently appeared in print when various newspapers, including this one, have listed him as the purchaser at six-figure prices for pieces of furniture and folk art. Several of his pieces have been included in books on American furniture, and pieces of his folk art have been included in major museum exhibitions. He advised major collectors on building their collections. He continued dealing both in Ohio and from his Boston residence until recently when age made him step back. The sale grossed $2 million, with one painting bringing more than $900,000 and about 30 items bringing five-figure prices. More than two dozen of those five-figure prices were from the Samaha collection. There were more than 50 buyers in the room, several of whom were active buyers, at least eight phone lines were in use and active internet bidders competed and were often successful.
Bill Samaha’s collection included mostly, but not exclusively, New England objects: paintings, very early furniture, paint-decorated furniture, tall case and wall clocks, needlework, Windsor chairs, decoys, firearms and still more. Nordblom and his partner Karin Philips added another hundred or so lots of American furniture, Oriental carpets, Rockport School paintings, Asian objects and more to the sale. The company is known and respected for detailed condition reports.
As expected, John Brewster Jr’s portrait of his 2-year-old half-sister, Betsy, painted about 1800, topped the sale, realizing $915,000. This painting had been included in the “American Folk” exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and a letter from the museum, as well as the wall label for the painting were included. It had also been shown at the American Folk Art Museum and the Fenimore Art Museum. Last fall, CRN sold the companion to this painting, a portrait of Brewster’s other half-sister, Sophia, which was probably a post-mortem. The two paintings had remained in the Brewster family until 1986 when Samaha purchased them, and when they were exhibited, they were always shown together. Each sold to private collectors, but not the same person. Perhaps they’ll be reunited someday. This painting was underbid by Woodbury, Conn., dealer David Schorsch, who bought several other items at the sale.
One of Schorsch’s purchases, another of the fine folk paintings, was an exceptional, unsigned scene of worshippers arriving at a country church. The white church, with a large bell tower, was framed by trees, and there were numerous well-dressed parishioners approaching the church in horse-drawn carriages, as well as on foot along roads and paths. There were other buildings in the scene. Schorsch paid $67,100 for this painting. Another folk portrait, with a very different “feel” to it, was a portrait of Abigail Elizabeth Avery, Buckland, Mass. She was in a red dress, seated among swags of drapery and holding her cat. It was unsigned and earned $42,700. Also doing well, selling way over the estimate, was an impressionistic work, a 65-inch-wide triptych of a New Hampshire landscape by William J. Kaula (1871-1953). His works are in several museum collections, including the Smithsonian, and his paintings have been in numerous exhibitions. A book has recently been published on his life and work. This painting earned $37,820.
Early New England furniture and clocks were a feature of the Samaha collection. Leading the furniture selection was a circa 1770, untouched Boston Chippendale mahogany oxbow four-drawer chest which earned $122,000, the second highest price of the sale. It had original brasses and surface, blocked ends and ball and claw feet with scrolled knees. There were multiple Eighteenth Century four-drawer block-front chests in the sale, including two that did especially well, one from Massachusetts and the other from Connecticut. The Boston example (not from the Samaha collection) had an overhanging molded top, original bat wing brass, and was on raised ball and claw feet. Israel Sack was included in its provenance, and it sold for $36,600. The Connecticut example, with original surface, molded top and bold ogee feet, sold for $24,400.
A Chippendale three-part block-front secretary, known as the Storer family example, was well documented, with a signed note from Bill Samaha saying, “This block-front secretary was in the Amelia Peabody estate and was purchased by me when the ‘estate’ was disposed of. Probably originally owned by Ebenezer Storer Jr.” There was also a remnant of a note connecting the piece to John Hancock. The circa 1770 piece was unusual in that it was made in three sections: a glazed top section, a central section with a fall-front lid and fitted interior, over a four-drawer base. It had original hardware, was an impressive 89 inches tall and had ogee feet. It sold for $40,260 to a buyer in the room. There were two pieces of painted furniture that must be discussed. One was a bow-front sponge-painted four-drawer chest, possibly from New Hampshire, which sold for $29,280. It was decorated with an overall red bull’s-eye pattern, had faux tiger maple paint to top and sides, and it retained its rare original alligator embossed oval brass. It had an illegible maker’s name and date on the backboards. There was also a decorated New York Chippendale blanket chest with a date of 1799. It was painted on the front and sides with pinwheels, horses, crowns, dogs and flowers and it brought $23,180.
Bill Samaha liked Windsor chairs, and was very selective in those he kept. David Schorsch bought two of them and commented, “I remember sitting on some of these when I visited Bill.” One that Schorsch bought was also identified by Nordblom as “my favorite thing in the sale.” It was an exceptional Eighteenth Century bow-back Windsor with a grain-painted saddle seat, boldly turned and splayed legs, with gold-painted rings on the spindles and legs. It sold for $17,080. Schorsch paid $18,300 for a New England comb-back, bow-back Windsor armchair with old black paint that was probably original and with knuckle arms. One of the other Windsors Schorsch bought, not from the Samaha collection, was a rare and fine Eighteenth Century Nantucket child’s brace-back Windsor armchair. It had old black paint, scrolled ears, knuckle arms and splayed, turned legs joined by a turned H-stretcher. It was the most expensive Windsor in the sale, earning $50,020.
New England clocks were well represented among the highest priced items in the sale. Finishing at $39,040 was a circa 1810 mahogany inlaid shelf clock by Newburyport, Mass., maker David Wood (b 1776). It had three original brass finials and handles, and the painted dial was signed. A Roxbury, Mass., mahogany tall case clock with a moon phase dial signed S. Willard (Simon Willard; Massachusetts, 1753-1848) brought $29,280, and a Silas Hoadley (Connecticut, 1786-1870) mahogany tall case clock with wooden works, brass capped quarter columns, three brass finials and a signed painted dial finished at $7,320. In 1809, Hoadley formed a clockmaking partnership in Plymouth, Conn., with Eli Terry and Seth Thomas doing business as Terry, Thomas & Hoadley. The partners gradually withdrew to create their own firms – Terry in 1810, Thomas in 1814 – leaving Silas Hoadley as sole owner. He continued to make clocks until 1849. There were several other clocks, including a scarce circa 1805, Elnathan Taber, Roxbury, Mass., wall clock, which went out for $9,150.
Other interesting items that did better than expected included sailor-made whalebone objects. An oval ditty box with a pinwheel carved on its exotic wood cover brought $8,540. A pair of rolling pins with whalebone ends brought $7,320, and a group of three of whalebone carpenter tools, including a saw and two planes, brought $5,795.
After the sale, Nordblom said, “It really was a landmark sale. Helps to put Americana back on the map. I spoke to Bill this morning, and he was really pleased with the numbers. He’s been a friend for years and I was glad for him. The small painting with the white church surprised me, and the Nantucket child’s Windsor did too. Not many pieces of American furniture get into the six-figures today, but the great oxbow chest did. It’s the kind of stuff I love to sell. It was good to see so many people participating, and there were some new customers, which is really nice to see.”
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, 617-661-9582 or www.crnauctions.com.
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