Published: August 14, 2001
Erratic Prices Suggest a Still-Booming but Nervous Market at Northeast
By Laura Beach
MANCHESTER, N.H. – Antiques Weekend in New Hampshire, Northeast Auction’s prelude to the week-long festival of shows in the area, brought contradictory tidings for Americana buyers. Auctioneer Ron Bourgeault remains a master at getting the most for his consignors, particularly when goods are bundled into single-owner sales. But even amidst the spate of record and near-record prices there were reverberations from the weakened general economy.
Northeast’s combined take for its August 4-5 auctions in Manchester was $5.7 million, down from $6.8 million a year ago. Part of the difference can be explained away by two single-owner sales, both brilliantly successful. Last year, the Virginia Cave Collection, all folk art, fetched $2.45 million. This year, the Audrey and Tom Monahan Collection, mostly Eighteenth Century New England furniture and needlework, made $1.9 million. But the various owners’ sale declined from last year to this, too, from $4.3 million to $3.8 million.
“There’s no lack of retail interest. The only difference I saw was that dealers weren’t inventorying. There wasn’t a frenzy of buying for the Antiques Week shows,” said Bourgeault. “That’s fine with me. Bargains keep buyers coming back.”
Still, evidence of the weak economy came in the form of reserved lots that were bought in and privately negotiated after the sale by buyers looking for leverage. Bourgeault has never been a fan of reserves and for good reason. He believes that objects, left unreserved, often bring more money.
For example, a group of 11 bow back Windsor chairs, including one arm and ten sides, ex-collections of Zeke Liverant and Betty Sterling, passed at $28,000 but was later privately negotiated. “They would have brought $30,000 had they not been reserved,” Bourgeault noted of the chairs. Five Massachusetts Chippendale shell-carved side chairs with ball- and-claw feet were bought in at $45,000 (est $50/75,000). A dealer had a hold on the set soon after the auction.
Two major lots brought far less than even the most experienced professionals expected. Condition was blamed in both cases. The irony is that condition problems were shrugged off on other lots, when dealers had clients who were keen on goods, warts and all.
It is safe to say that the very best always commands a premium. In a class by themselves were a New London County blanket chest, $170,000 plus premium, and a carved and initialed tape loom, $37,000, both from the Monahan Collection; and a Massachusetts tuckaway table, $105,000, from the various owners’ sale on Sunday. The blanket chest and the tape loom needed no apologies. They were undamaged, artistically excellent, and museum-worthy.
The tuckaway table was close to untouched. “It is one of the best preserved William and Mary objects,” buyer Leigh Keno explained. “It was probably made in Boston in the early Eighteenth Century. It has its original wash. The color underneath is wonderful. Approximately 50 years ago someone took of its original leather hinges and put on plate hinges. The top was cleaned at the same time. Fortunately, the underside was left alone so that the history was preserved. The top has never been off. It has its original pins. We’re going to do some homework. The light shine on the top is a little off-putting. We’ll have a conservator lightly clean off the added varnish.”
The downturn in the general economy has made buyers skittish and unpredictable, particularly when it comes to condition. Condition concerns scared potential buyers off one of the sale’s most important lots, a Federal carved mahogany armchair made by Samuel McIntire for the Peirce-Nichols House in Salem in 1801. Graceful, distinguished both by its clean architectural lines and carved detail, the chair was a fine example of McIntire’s work and his most fully-realized execution of a design by Thomas Sheraton.
Well-known and well published, the chair belongs to a set of 12 whose mates either remain in the family or are in major public collections, thus assuring few future buying opportunities for collectors. Estimated at $40/60,000, the piece aroused no interest in the room, selling over the phone for $40,000 plus premium.
“I think a lot of people missed a great chair,” said Robert Fileti. The highly respected New Jersey conservator studied it thoroughly, taking care to inspect others from the set. He noted a nine-inch repair to the chair’s right arm and said there were minor finish issues. “I went to two institutions to see what these arms looked like. I did find that breaks and repairs in the arms are an inherent problem. Having done that, I was able to get a base line of what a good arm looks like. I was satisfied with how this chair stacks up against others from the set. I was amazed at the price. The buyer got great value on a piece of real pedigree. He’s thrilled.”
A day earlier, in the Monahan sale, a Rhode Island Chippendale slant-lid desk with an old surface and a beautiful, shell-carved interior slipped through the sale in precisely the same way. Dealer Marguerite Riordan of Stonington, Conn., said she had two clients interested, but, given that the desk has repairs to its feet and lid, she couldn’t recommend it at the price she thought it would bring. When she saw the desk was about to sell for barely more than low estimate, she jumped in, claiming it for $30,000. On both the chair and the desk, clear but limited condition problems scared off potential buyers.
Idiosyncratic, the antiques market is tough to read. Despite a decline in the stock market and poor corporate earnings reports, real estate remains healthy in much of the country. Indeed, several of Northeast’s biggest trade buyers acknowledged that they are helping customers furnish homes. “We’re working on three houses right now,” said Amherst, N.H., dealer Mark Allen, who bought a lovely Rhode Island secretary desk, a shell-carved Rhode Island clock, and several other major lots.
“The really good things sold well. Those things that might be considered general stock were quite mixed. But I don’t think that a single sale defines a trend,” argued Leo Arons, a Princeton, N.J., dealer who purchased an Essex County, Mass., great chair for $85,000 plus premium and a small New York Queen Anne walnut table for $29,000, on behalf of a New Jersey collector putting together a fine and highly varied collection for a newly renovated farmhouse. The table, which had previously belonged to Sam Herrup and David Wheatcroft, is novel in that is has a drop-leaf that opens into a circular top that revolves on the skirt, a precursor to the mechanism found on Nineteenth Century card tables.
Getting into the spirit of Antiques Week, Bourgeault gathered an assortment of New Hampshire furniture, the most coveted example of which was a Dunlap Family maple highboy, which sold for $75,000 to an absentee bidder.
In support of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities’ current exhibition, “Boxes, Open & Shut,” he offered up a good part of his personal collection of boxes, selling them without reserve. A paint-decorated bride’s box, owned by the auctioneer for nearly 40 years, fetched $2,300.
A Boston box decorated with Hancock House on Beacon Street, made $2,800; a schoolgirl-decorated work box went to Jonathan Fairbanks for $4,200; and an oval three-fingered box with ochre and red graining sold to collector Eric Maffei for $10,500.
Rounding off this charming sequence was a primitive portrait of a woman with her sewing box, $4,250; three Nineteenth Century mahogany paint boxes with labels, $5,000, and an English watercolor drawing depicting an artist’s box, ex-collection of Nina and Bert Little, $6,500, sold to Bill Samaha.
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