Published: May 17, 2011
When Tristram Bampfylde Freeman hammered down two bales of “superfine and common cloths” and other textile lots in a Philadelphia coffee house on November 26, 1805, the oldest auction house in America was born. Now in its third century, Freeman’s Auctioneers and Appraisers has relaunched itself in Boston, where it was a major presence for much of the first part of the Twentieth Century.
Freeman’s celebrated the reopening of its Boston office in style with a well-attended, invitation-only reception at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on April 21 that featured a private preview of the restoration of the State Dining Room from the vaunted Seventeenth Century Hamilton Palace, which was near present day Glasgow.
Ian Gow, chief curator of the National Trust for Scotland, and Thomas Michie, the MFA’s senior curator of European decorative arts and sculpture, discussed the lost treasure that was the Hamilton Palace.
The palace, begun in 1695 on the site of a Thirteenth Century tower house, was built for William, the third Duke of Hamilton. It was expanded by his descendents in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, particularly under the direction of the tenth duke, which saw the adaptation of older rooms, such as the oak paneled dining room, for other purposes.
By 1882, the house was prohibitively expensive and the 12th duke began selling off what was once the best private art collection in Scotland. The house was used as a naval hospital in World War I after which time the house was unsalvageable, the contents were sold, including 30 some paneled rooms, at least six of which were sold to William Randolph Hearst.
The High Dining Room was purchased for the MFA from French and Company in New York in 1924 and installed in 1927. It is the only room from the palace that survives intact and was dismantled during construction of the Art of the Americas Wing and reinstalled last summer. It is part of a suite of three renovated galleries of English art set to reopen in early spring 2013. Museum records describe Hamilton Palace as “the largest and grandest country house ever constructed in Scotland.” It was demolished in 1922.
It was in Boston that Freeman’s gained national prominence. During World War I, the US government commandeered the entire American wool clip for its cellulose that was used to make gunpowder. By 1919, however, wool was overabundant and Freeman’s was summoned to sell it. One sale alone reaped $17 million; other sales brought the overall total to $350 million for the year †a staggering accounting, then and now. The company sold four battleships in Philadelphia and Boston in 1924. It remained a presence in Boston until 1960 when Addison B. Freeman Jr died in an airplane crash and the office closed.
Boston is not the only relatively recent outpost for Freeman’s; the auction house has maintained an office in Charlottesville, Va., for the last three years.
Kelly Wright, the New England representative for Freeman’s, heads up the new location in Boston’s historic Old City Hall, where the auction house leases space from the National Trust for Scotland USA. The relationship is serendipitous: Freeman’s is partnered with Lyon & Turnbull, which is based in Scotland and maintains offices and galleries throughout the United Kingdom and is a supporter of the National Trust for Scotland. The new location is only a few blocks from the one occupied by Freeman’s in the 1920s.
Wright, who comes to Boston after some 16 years in New York City as an independent appraiser and dealer, explained that the event was planned originally as a small lecture for selected MFA patrons and National Trust for Scotland members.
Owing to Freeman’s affiliation with the Trust in Boston and the United Kingdom through Lyon & Turnbull, the auction house was able to host a larger event to celebrate the restored room and reintroduce itself to Boston. It was the result of a collaboration of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Freeman’s Auctioneers and Appraisers and the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA.
Wright was the host for the evening event, along with Chairman Beau Freeman (Samuel M. Freeman II), Vice Chairman Alasdair Nichol and Lynda Cain, vice president and head of American furniture and decorative arts at the auction house.
The Boston office at 45 School Street is open by appointment only. For further information, 617-367-3400 or www.freemansauction.com .
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