Published: September 22, 2020
Review by Laura Beach, Photos Courtesy Brunk Auctions
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – In his introduction to Rather Elegant Than Showy: The Classical Furniture of Isaac Vose, Robert D. Mussey Jr examines the growth of interest in American Classical design around 1960, noting the popularizing role of curator Berry B. Tracy (1933-1984) and his 1963 exhibition “Classical America, 1815-1845” at the Newark Museum. Soon after, Mussey writes, “a generation of visionary collectors also began the restoration in the 1970s of grand Neoclassical homes in disparate locations.” One thinks especially of the Southerners Richard Hampton Jenrette (1929-2018), who restored and furnished the half dozen houses administered by his Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, and of William Nathaniel Banks Jr (1924-2019). Banks, admired for the 37 articles he wrote for The Magazine Antiques between 1972 and 2016, and for the soigné profile he cut on the collecting circuit, gathered American Federal and Classical furniture and Nineteenth Century American paintings for his circa 1830 house called Bankshaven – more formally the Gordon-Banks house – in Newnan, Ga.
In offering the estate of William N. Banks Jr, in Asheville on September 12, Brunk Auctions brushed aside the uncertainties of the present market: Was the sale too early in the fall calendar? Could a quantity of high-caliber paintings and furniture be sold successfully outside New York? Was the audience for Nineteenth Century material, never large and possibly declining, active enough? Would Covid hamper the company’s marketing efforts? In what can only be described as a feat of daring and skill, Brunk Auctions made a resounding success of the 328-lot Banks sale, generating from it $4,743,095, or nearly $15,000 a lot. In doing so it demonstrated the fundamental strength of the Americana market nationally, even in these unsettled times.
In retrospect, the white-glove Banks sale will perhaps be viewed as a watershed event, as the moment when the high-end auction market for Americana moved decisively online and out of Manhattan. “The stars were in alignment,” observed Massachusetts dealer Gary Sullivan, who purchased one of the day’s top furniture lots, an exuberant marble top pier table attributed to J.&J.W. Meeks, New York, circa 1830, for $110,700 and underbid a comparably robust Philadelphia center table, $98,400, attributed to Anthony Quervelle, circa 1829.
“It was a remarkable day. We had competition on every lot and every major piece went to a different buyer, contradicting the notion that it’s a shallow market,” auction house president Andrew Brunk said after the hammer fell. Planning the event was challenging. The auctioneer had no way of anticipating what health mandates would be in place in September. The firm considered mounting a New York preview, then abandoned the idea for similar reasons. Some prospective bidders traveled to North Carolina to inspect the collection. More opted for private video conferences. In the end, Andrew Brunk said, “we executed a ton of phone bids and had another 15 or so staff members at home on Zoom. We took online bids from three selling platforms, including our own, and had maybe 30 or 40 people, some of them friends and family of William’s, seated far apart in our 25,000-square-foot gallery.”
What mattered most was the accumulated reputation of the collection, the collector and of Brunk Auctions. As Andrew Brunk explained, “Everybody had a great story about William Banks. This was an early collection formed by someone with a great eye and deep pockets, who had the ability to seek out special things at a time when they were a bit more readily available in the marketplace.”
Brunk Auctions loaded its online catalog with historical context, condition reports and photographs of receipts and condition details, including black-light views of the surfaces of important paintings. As Andrew Brunk explained, “Online documentation has become essential to the chemistry of a sale, but we’ve taken it up a notch in the last six months, for sure. In this case the extensive documentation was also a tribute to Banks, who kept remarkable records and receipts for virtually everything. Added to that, the Banks pieces were particularly well published.”
Skillful as a host and steeped in the rituals of gracious entertaining, William N. Banks Jr, was a Southern gentleman of the old school. The heir to a textiles fortune, he grew up in Newnan, roughly 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. His lifelong attachment to New Hampshire began after he briefly attended Dartmouth College. His studies interrupted by military service, Banks completed his degree at Yale University in 1948.
Banks subsequently divided his time among his Newnan, New York and New Hampshire residences. He was active at MacDowell from around 1958 until his death. Perhaps to be near the Petersborough, N.H., writers’ colony, Banks in 1961 acquired a 1797 house in Temple, N.H., a purchase that appears to have prompted his interest in the architect-builder Daniel Pratt. The Temple native migrated south, where around 1830 he built a vernacular Palladian house near Georgia’s first capital, Milledgeville, for the cotton planter John W. Gordon. Banks purchased the house 1968 and with the help of restoration architect Robert L. Raley re-erected it on the Banks family property in Newnan. Over the next two decades Banks bought from the best dealers, and occasionally at auction, to furnish Bankshaven. The fruits of his efforts are arrayed here.
Paintings were the core of the collection. The sale’s top lot, at $664,200, was “Beacon Rock, Newport,” a classic Rhode Island view of 1856 by John Frederick Kensett. It is roughly half the size of a namesake work by the artist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Favored by America’s first landscape painters, the White Mountains of New Hampshire also figured prominently in the sale. The 1857 “Franconia Range from the South with Village of South Woodstock, New Hampshire” by Asher B. Durand went for $516,600; “Mt Washington from the Saco River” by Sanford Robinson Gifford, 1856, for $369,000; and a small, atmospheric 1856 oil on board by Jasper Francis Cropsey left the room at $184,500.
Outpaced by early Modernist paintings in recent years, some Nineteenth Century staples faltered. The impeccable “Gathering Wood for Winter, New Haven” by George Henry Durrie of 1855 sold below estimate for $135,300. Heightened cultural sensitivities may have dampened interest in Eastman Johnson’s 1859 “Confidence and Admiration,” a study for his best-known painting, “Negro Life at the South.” The study came in well below low estimate, selling for $104,550. Likewise, Joshua Shaw’s circa 1838 “Battle Scene in Georgia Near the Florida Line” made only $49,200 against its $40/60,000 estimate, its graphic depiction, complete with a bloody scalp, of armed conflict between Native Americans and US troops perhaps not to everyone’s taste.
A raft of new scholarship – most notably major cataloged exhibitions on the New York cabinetmakers Honore Lannuier and Duncan Phyfe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998 and 2011-12, respectively – has updated what we know about American Classical furniture in the decades since Banks was buying. A New York figural card table of rosewood with gilt and vert antique details was the most anticipated furniture lot. Attributed to Lannuier when Banks bought it, it is now accepted as the likely work of Phyfe. The 1815-20 piece with a history of descent in Charleston, S.C., more than doubled high estimate to bring $159,900, handily exceeding its closest comparable, a pair of Phyfe-attributed card tables from the Westervelt-Warner collection auctioned by Christie’s in 2013 for $255,000, or $127,500 a table.
The Banks results fit broader trends underway for the past decade or more. Andrew Brunk noted, “It’s a continuation of what we have seen, a consolidation of focus and energy on the top part of the market. Happily, Bill’s things were great. And in this case, lesser items sailed through on the coattails of greater ones.”
Sullivan agreed, “The sale was a blockbuster, with strong prices across the board in many categories. Buyers are feeling good about their financial portfolios. That translates to feeling good about spending money. Auctions have been surprisingly strong almost from the beginning of Covid because people are spending more time online.”
For Brunk Auctions, the benefits of the Banks sale are many. As Andrew Brunk noted, “We connected with new collectors and people who were completely off our radar. A collection of this magnitude tends to bring buyers back to the table. Objects of this quality just don’t come up that often.”
Prizes are calculated with Brunk Auctions’ buyer’s premium.
Brunk Auctions is at 117 Tunnel Road. For more information, www.brunkauctions.com or 828-254-6846.
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