Published: September 18, 2007
Just as decoy collectors from around the country thought they would be able to unwind following a ten-day series of waterfowling auctions and shows conducted throughout the Northeast in early August, Northeast Auctions pulled the rug out from under them with the offering of the acclaimed John S. du Mont collection of Elmer Crowell decorative bird carvings.
The collection was sold August 19, as part of Northeast’s two-day Portsmouth Summer Auction, also commonly known as the Marine and China Trade sale. The Crowells from du Mont’s collection, consisting of 21 carvings, sold in 20 lots, and two plaques with carved and painted half-heads of shorebirds and ducks, grossed an impressive $843,000. Overall, the du Mont collection, 58 lots in total, brought in $1.58 million.
Interest in the collection was keen with hoards of people packing their way into the tight confines where the shorebirds were displayed for preview. More than one collector, realizing the inevitable concerning the premium prices that were to be established, was consoled by the opportunity to handle and examine each of the impressive shorebirds.
As a youth, du Mont, whose parents owned a summer home in East Brewster, would visit Crowell’s workshop, sitting quietly and observing the master carver while his father tended to the errands of the day. By age 12, du Mont exhibited an accomplished carving hand, fostered no doubt under the watchful eye of Crowell, although as with most teenagers, his attention apparently waned and youthful eyes began to focus elsewhere. While honeymooning after his marriage in 1941, du Mont returned to Crowell’s workshop with his new bride and his interests were rekindled with the purchase of a one-third size flying Wilson snipe for which he paid $15, and several miniatures at $5 each.
Described by Northeast’s principal Ron Bourgeault as a consummate collector with interests ranging from fine art and period furniture to French and Indian War powder horns and Leica cameras, du Mont’s interest in Crowell carvings flourished over the years as he sought out the finest examples.
In the catalog’s foreword, a remembrance fondly written by Brian Cullity, the former curator of what was then called the Heritage Plantation in Sandwich, Mass, and the author of The Songless Aviary, The World of A.E. Crowell & Son , du Mont’s varied interests, especially his fascination of the work of Crowell, are documented.
“I first met John after the Elmer Crowell exhibit opened,” recalled Cullity. “His enthusiasm was unbounded for Crowell and his work and he made annual treks to the museum while I was curator. We spent many pleasurable hours discussing Crowell’s carvings and the shorebird decoratives which John was particularly interested in&⁏ur discussions ranged from early armaments to furniture to Native American artifacts, but always returned to Elmer Crowell and his work.
“Even the most casual observer will be impressed with the discerning and discriminating eye that John had in selecting the full-sized decoratives for his collection,” stated Cullity. Those in the crowd at the Northeast auction could hardly be termed “casual observers”; instead they were enthusiastic collectors that all spent the final moments of the preview plotting their strategies.
The du Mont collection of decorative carvings was termed by Bourgeault as “one of the finest selections of decorative shorebirds ever assembled,” as he took to the podium under the large tent erected behind the historic Treadwell House.
The sale began with a mantel bird carving of a least sandpiper mounted on a round base and marked with the rectangular stamp. Opening for bidding at $5,800, it was quickly hammered down to a telephone bidder for $8,990. A flicker on a round base, also marked with the rectangular stamp, was the next lot to be sold, with two phone bidders chasing the lot, although it ultimately sold in the tent, going to Cullity for $17,400.
The top lot of the carvings came as a male willet in breeding plumage, marked with the oval brand, was sold. Executed during the carver’s “golden years,” the mantel bird, measuring 9½ inches tall, was termed a “masterpiece” exhibiting all of the characteristics of “the best of Crowell.” Estimated at $20/30,000, the willet opened at $18,000 and was chased to the $40,000 mark by two bidders in the tent. Advancing methodically in $2,000 increments, a third jumped into the action and pushed the price to the $70,000 mark. A phone bidder was the next to get into the action, hitting the lot at $72,000 and competing with a single bidder seated in the center of the tent until the phone claimed the lot at $92,800.
A golden plover with turned head, 10 inches tall, in excellent finely detailed paint and marked with the oval brand, was another of the lots to cause a commotion when it crossed the block. Estimated at $20/30,000, the lot opened at $18,000 and rapid fire bids came as two determined collectors held their paddles high in the air, never moving them until one weary bidder relented and the lot sold at $74,240. A preening Hudsonian curlew marked with the rectangular stamp was offered next, and it, too, was chased by the same cadre of people in the tent with the lot selling to the same buyer for $69,600.
An upland plover marked with the rectangular stamp in green ink, 9½ inches tall, also exhibited superb paint. Estimated at $10/20,000, a phone bidder and a bidder seated on the outside row of the tent pursued the lot, with the phone claiming it at $67,280.
A rare pair of Bob White quail with oval brands was described as finely sculpted figures with great paint. The lot opened for bidding at $22,000 and sold for $51,040, going to the buyer that claimed the golden plover and the Hudsonian curlew.
A lesser yellowlegs in a feeding position, a presentation bird with an inscription on the bottom and also marked with the rectangular stamp, went to a phone bidder at $41,760.
A nice 7½-inch-tall mantel bird carving of a knot was thought to be the only example of this species to have been carved by Crowell. A bidder on the center aisle hit the lot as it opened at $12,000 and he battled with a single telephone bidder until he claimed it at $38,280.
While the decorative shorebirds attracted a great deal of interest, the top lot of the du Mont collection came as the final lots of the session were offered. A Fitz Hugh Lane portrait of the clipper ship Star King under full sail amidst dramatic rolling seas and set against a luminous sky carried a $400/600,000 presale estimate. Listed in John Wilmerding’s Fitz Hugh Lane, 1805‱865 American Marine Painter, the painting sold to a buyer in the tent at $479,000.
A nice China Trade portrait of the clipper ship ” Flying Fish Approaching Hong Kong by Hingqua” surpassed the $15/25,000 estimates, selling at $87,000.
Aiden Lassell Ripley, a longtime friend of du Mont’s, was also represented in the sale with a painting titled “Grouse on a Hard Pine.” Purchased directly from the artist, the lot was also accompanied by a letter from Ripley to du Mont regarding the oil on canvas. A large work, measuring 27 by 40 inches, it sold to a phone bidder for $78,880.
Prices include the buyer’s premium charged. For information 603-433-8400 or www.northeastauctions.com .
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