Published: March 7, 2017
Review by Rick Russack, Photos Courtesy Duane Merrill & Company
WILLISTON, VT. – Duane Merrill & Company’s February 25-26 had a wide variety of fresh merchandise, and bucking the trend, had a crowd of around 200 in the salesroom in spite of the availability of internet bidding on two platforms. Also unlike many recent sales, bidders in the salesroom bought heavily, taking about half the lots, and they were able to take advantage of some items that apparently were overlooked by online bidders.
A dealer from Pennsylvania made the nine-hour drive, hoping to buy some of the items from that region – he did. The top grossing lot of the day was a painting by John Ross Key that realized $46,000, more than 20 times its estimate. Probably to be expected, items made in Vermont did quite well, including several paintings by Vermont artists, with one likely setting a new world’s record.
Jewelry also did well, with a platinum and diamond ring bringing $21,850 and a stainless steel Rolex fetching $13,800. There was a large collection of Wedgwood sold on the second day, with Fairyland and other lusterware proving to be popular. Numerous etchings by American artists were interspersed throughout the sale.
Merrill’s is a third generation, family-owned business, now operated by Duane Merrill and his son, Ethan. Another son, Todd, runs a gallery in New York, specializing in mid-to-late Twentieth Century design and studio furniture and exhibited at this year’s Winter Antiques Show.
The auction business was begun in the 1930s by Duane’s father, Nathan, who ran the Ethan Allen antique shop in Burlington. Duane began antiquing with his father at a very young age and tells of his father stopping along the roadside one day to change his diaper (not sure how he would remember that but that is how he tells the story). This was in the days before vans were used and Merrill said his first memories include loading an old “woody” station wagon as full as possible on buying trips around Vermont.
He started in the auction business at age 11 as a runner for Dick Withington and he conducted his first auction in 1967, making this his 50th year in the business. Ethan, the third generation, also grew up in the business, helping both his grandfather and father and he started auctioning in 1998. Prior to auctioning, Ethan spent four years as a pitcher in the Boston Red Sox organization. Both Duane and Ethan, along with other staff members are history buffs and Duane provided a concise history of Vermont, noting that many Eighteenth Century settlers came from Connecticut and, therefore, numerous high-quality examples of American furniture and decorative arts of Connecticut origin are found in Vermont.
Duane Merrill has been active working against overly restrictive and poorly worded legislation that would ban most sales of antiques with ivory in Vermont. At one point during the auction, he reminded attendees to “get involved” with this legislation.
The first day got off to a good start as an attractive Grenfell hooked rug sold for $1,725, followed shortly thereafter by the sale’s highest priced item, which ended up at $46,000. It was an oil on canvas painting cataloged as a scene of “sailboats on a lake with the Green Mountains in the background,” painted by John Ross Key (1837-1920). It had been estimated at $2,000.
Ethan Merrill, when asked after the sale why it had done so well, said, “A day or two before the sale, we were finally able to decipher a pencil inscription on a stretcher that identified it as a Mount Desert Island, Maine, scene. That made it a more desirable painting and we know that several of the bidders had recognized it for it what it was. It may have been a record for the artist as a Yosemite scene brought a little less than this one.” Many of Key’s paintings were published as chromolithographs by Louis Prang in the 1870s. More than 100 of his works were shown at the Boston Athenaeum in 1877. Key was a grandson of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and was best known for his Western landscapes. Key also painted numerous views of the White Mountains.
Paintings by Vermont artists of Vermont scenes were popular, with one setting a new record for the artist. Selling for $16,100, a scene of Heath Hill from Barton, Vt., by Francis Colburn (1909-1984), was according to Merrill, a world’s record for the artist. Colburn established the art department at the University of Vermont and was one of the few Vermont artists to participate in Works Progress Administration programs. His works were the subject of an exhibition at the Fleming Art Museum at the University of Vermont.
Other works by native artists also drew interest from multiple bidders. A scene of Mount Mansfield, “Fresh Snow in the Valley,” by Eric Tobin (1872-1945) earned $1,150, while an oil on board of a maple sugaring scene in Vermont by James King Bonnar (1883-1961) earned $2,875. It depicted a sugar shack, a horse-drawn wagon and men at work. Not all paintings were of Vermont. A scene of a cabin in the South with a black family on the porch and children at play by William Aiken Walker (1838-1921) went for $9,200.
Jewelry was led by a lady’s platinum and emerald cut 2.35-carat diamond ring, which achieved $21,850. Set on the shoulders were double taper baguette cut diamonds totaling about 4 carats. A white gold and diamond engagement ring with a 1.45-carat round cut stone reached $4,025.
Selling to a determined phone bidder was a stainless steel Rolex, cataloged as a “Steve McQueen Explorer” and it sold slightly over estimate, $13,800. It was a model 1655, Oyster perpetual date watch and the price was consistent with other examples of that model on the internet. There may be a little more to the story of this watch though. According to a 2001 online article by Jake Ehrlich, editor and publisher of Jake’s Rolex World, although these watches are referred to as “Steve McQueen,” he never owned this particular model. The myth, Ehrlich says, began when, “Many years ago, an Italian auction house started referring to the Rolex Explorer Orange hand [Reference 1655] as the Steve McQueen Explorer.” Whether or not that opinion is correct, the watch did well.
The second day started with about 100 lots of Wedgwood, including Fairyland Lustre, Butterfly lustre and Dragon lustre. Heavily contested was a 7-1/2 inch pair of Fairyland lustre Candlemas Malfrey pots designed by Daisy Makeig Jones. The pair sold for $4,888. A Fairyland footed tray, in the Garden of Paradise pattern, by the same designer, earned $2,875. A Butterfly lustre footed trumpet vase, 8-1/2″ inches tall, finished at $690. Much of the remaining 90 or so lots of Wedgwood were sold in groups, some quite inexpensively, probably depending on color. Three jasperware covered urns, in various colors, went for $690, two cobalt blue jasperware Trojan pitchers went for only $46, three jasperware cased clocks went for $104 and a seven-piece caneware tea set earned $288.
There were several other interesting lots. A colorful Vermont needlework family record, done by Alzina Bump, Wallingford, 1838, reached $1,725. A truly spectacular, oversized patchwork quilt seemed reasonable, selling for $690. It was 101 by 106 inches with a large red, yellow, blue and green, eight-point star in the center, surrounded by red and green floral panels and a colorful border.
A circa 1820 mirror, in a giltwood and gesso frame, with a reverse painted tablet with a scene of a seacoast with ships in the background, went for $1,093. It had a label on the back indicating that it had been made by John Elliot and Sons, 60 South Front Street, Philadelphia. John Elliot’s father, also named John, also a cabinetmaker arrived from London in Philadelphia in 1753. His sons and grandsons continued in the business. A footed sterling silver bowl made by the Barbour Silver Co, designed by Finnish architect and designer Eliel Saarinen, realized $10,925, more than ten times the estimate. He was the father of Eero Saarinen.
After the sale, Ethan Merrill said, “It was a strong sale across the board. We generally get a good crowd at our winter sales with a lot of retail customers, as well as local dealers. And the crowd took home about half the lots. Dad and I were quite pleased with the results.”
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.merrillsauction.com or 802-878-2625.
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