Review by Madelia Hickman Ring, Photos Courtesy Brunk Auctions
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – A sell-through rate of 92 percent and a total of $5,411,718 denoted Brunk Auctions’ March 24-26 Emporium and Premier sales, in which 1,165 lots were offered. The numbers, however, don’t adequately convey the interest and excitement of the auction, which saw unusually rare and important works – many of them falling under the category of historical Americana – attract considerable interest that translated into strong prices.
Leading the sale with a result of $442,800 was the only known miniature of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, done circa 1785 after Peale’s 1779 sitting, to ever come to market. The “H. Patterson Harris” miniature was rendered in watercolor on ivory and housed in what was presumed to be its original 18K gold case; it was accompanied not only by an 18K gold locket that contained what was purported to be a lock of Washington’s hair but also Peale’s studio desk and its assorted contents. The desk had a small brass medallion on it that was inscribed “CH Peale/to/Coleman Sellers” and a small box inside the desk that had a monogrammed plaque “HP” included a handwritten note that read “This box belonged to Hannah Peale, and is presented in memory/many virtues, to Margaret Coleman by her friend C.W. Peale/1822.”
The miniature was a known entity having been published in Charles Coleman Seller’s Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale, which had been published in Philadelphia in 1968 by the American Philosophical Society. It was purchased by a private collector in the United States, bidding by phone, who prevailed over an American institution that was also bidding by phone.
Nan Zander, Brunk Auctions’ specialist in American Fine Art and one of the auctioneers during the sale said there were “fireworks” when a rare pictorial silk on linen needlework, worked by Hannah Ewell at the age of 16 sold to a private collector for $258,300. While the auction house was not able to confirm the precise identity of Ewell, she may have been the Hannah Ewell who was born to Gershom and Susanna Ewell in Marshfield, Mass., on April 13, 1769. Gershom was a yeoman farmer who, at his death in 1835, had an estate worth over $4,000. Featuring a bucolic scene with figures and animals, the style of the needlework is consistent with those made in the Boston area between 1750 and the 1790s that represented the epitome of a schoolgirl’s needlework skills. Zander said its rarity and condition helped drive interest in the piece from both private collectors and trade bidders alike.
Zander shared a company-wide tradition Brunk’s staff enjoys prior to the auctions, where specialists discuss their favorite pieces with their colleagues. One of Andrew Brunk’s favorite pieces was a Federal paint-decorated pier table, attributed to the Baltimore, Md., shop of John and Hugh Finley, circa 1810, that had provenance to a Southern cultural institution, a 1997 sale at Sotheby’s New York, and a private Charleston, S.C., collection. Featuring exquisite decoration that included a faux marble painted top and a frieze with an architectural landscape between anthemion, the table was considered to be in excellent condition. A private collector in the United States, underbid by a phone bidder, won the table for $196,800, nearly four times its low estimate.
There were other pieces of early American furniture that featured among the sale’s leaderboard. Topping expectations at $79,950 and selling to a private collector was a Philadelphia high chest with carving attributed to the “Garvan Carver,” so called because of its similarity to that on a high chest of drawers in the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection at Yale University. Among surviving examples of the form in Philadelphia, the high chest offered at Brunk Auctions stands among the most exuberant and fully developed known. Provenance on the piece included John Schenk of New Jersey and a 1983 sale at Sotheby’s New York, as well as having belonged to Rocky Mountain collectors.
A private collector, bidding on the phone, nearly doubled the high estimate of a Philadelphia Queen Anne walnut easy chair that made $73,800. Some of the upholstery had been removed to facilitate examination and the condition of the visible frame was considered excellent. While the chair was not fresh to the market, it had passed through several noteworthy hands, including Reginald Lewis of Easton, Md., Joe Kindig Jr of York, Penn., and Milly McGeehee, as well as Sotheby’s New York.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Century American art also saw strong interest and results throughout the auctions. Leading the category at $172,200 was “Still Life with Bottles and Pitchers,” a 1923 oil on canvas work by Marsden Hartley (American, 1877-1943), which sold to a buyer who came to Asheville to bid during the sale. The painting had been extensively exhibited and published and enjoyed a fully documented provenance; it is also included in the Marsden Hartley Legacy Project: Complete Paintings and Works on Paper at Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine.
“Boating on the Lake,” done in 1874 by Jasper Francis Cropsey (American, 1823-1900), floated to $159,900 and sold to a private collector bidding by phone, underbid by another private collector. Like the Hartley, it is in the Cropsey catalogue raisonné and had extensive provenance.
Brunk Auctions has a robust track record with works by Southern artists and this sale did not disappoint. According to Zander, “Southern buyers like their regional works,” and a painting titled “Francis Marion Crossing the Pee Dee,” a Nineteenth Century copy after William Tylee Ranney, attracted a lot of interest from Southern buyers. Ranney’s 1850 original work is in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the scene offers a glimpse of the spirit that drove the Southern effort against the British during the Revolutionary War. A buyer in the United States took it to 79,950, a considerable improvement over the $32,300 the seller paid for it when they purchased it from Brunk Auctions in 2007.
Charleston artist Alfred Heber Hutty (1857-1954) enjoys a large following at Brunk’s and his “Little Church on Edisto,” an oil on canvas that measured 16 by 20 inches and had provenance to a Charleston family that had acquired the work directly from the artist in the 1950s. A private collector in the United States, making their debut purchase at Brunk Auctions, paid $61,500 for it.
Big prices are often irresistible to sellers who may think, “I’ve got one of those, maybe I should sell it now.” Such was the response when Brunk Auctions sold a buffalo bronze by Henry Merwin Shrady (American, 1871-1922) for $196,800 on June 11, 2021. The firm was contacted by someone who owned a bronze titled “George Washington at Valley Forge;” the lifetime cast was signed on the top and bore the Roman Bronze Works foundry mark. Zander said the rest of the historical Americana in the sale -the Peale miniature, other images of Founding Fathers – created a good context for the Shrady bronze. It rode the wave of similarly themed material to $67,650 and topped expectations.
Brunk Auctions will sell Modern art on April 21 and Asian works of art on April 28. The next three-day Emporium and Premier auctions are scheduled for May 19-21.
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. For information, www.brunkauctions.com or 828-254-6846.