The distinctive smell of tobacco occasionally drifted in through the Mebane Antique Auction hall much like the history of the South still overlays the present day, invisible but still strong. Most of the antiques in the December 8 auction came with provenance of local families in Alamance, Caswell, Stokes, Chatham and other North Carolina counties, as well as other Southern states. The sale also had some fine British and Continental items.
Top lots included a formal Southern Pembroke table that brought $19,000, a pair of English tazzas by Hunt Roskell late Storr & Mortimer that achieved $42,500; a Maggie Bessie doll that went to $13,500, a pair of English George III Gainsborough chairs that sold for $11,500; a Cesare Lapini marble sculpture that brought $16,000 and an assortment of Thomas Day furniture that brought a total of $25,000.
There were excellent examples of North Carolina pottery, an array of Southern textiles, historic slave documents, Ward goose ($3,500) and black duck ($2,900) decoys, and American art pottery and glass. The bread and butter pieces of the sale were the many examples Southern furniture including more than 20 chests, half a dozen beautiful corner cupboards, tables, chairs and blanket chests.
At 1 pm, auctioneer and owner Jon Lambert instructed those still standing to feel free to take any empty seats, whether they were reserved or not. The first two hours of the sale cleared the center aisle of nice but lesser antiques. The highlights lined the perimeter of the skating-rink-turned-auction-hall. By 3 pm the sale had settled down and the crowd intensified. Auction staff added about 100 more chairs, closing up what had been the center aisle. With standing room only, Lambert launched into the scheduled part of the sale, beginning with some tea caddies that brought between $200 and $475.
The sale was punctuated with highlights that were allotted specific sales times up to 9:30 pm and Lambert stuck as close as possible to the schedule. Phone bidders played an important role, however, Lambert remarked on sale day that he had “already turned down 100 phone bids this morning,” because he requires bidders to inspect lots before bidding. The auction house does not allow Internet bidding, and collectors relying solely on website photos missed the surprise late additions that this un-cataloged sale provided. At Mebane Antique Auction, it is best to be there in person, arrange early for phone bidding, or have a proxy bidding from the room if you want to take away the top lots. There is no buyer’s premium, there are no reserves, and the action is quick.
A Maggie Bessie doll, made by North Carolina sisters Margaret Gertrude and Caroline Elizabeth Pfohl between 1880 and 1930, had her original calling card inside her pocketbook. The knee-length peach dress matched the Mary-Jane-style shoes and the flushed cheeks of the doll’s engaging cloth face were surrounded by her lace-trimmed white sun bonnet. The doll went to a North Carolina doll collection for $13,500.
Beautiful antique North Carolina river cane baskets made by Cherokee Indians sold between $175 and $1,200. “Buy it and take it North,” Lambert advised when the mocha ware came up. Mocha pitchers went for $1,900, $1,600, $900; a large mug with worm design brought $1,000; two smaller mugs $900 each; mocha seaweed pepper pot $900; cat’s eye footed salt $900; two banded pitchers sold together for $400.
North Carolina pottery had spirited bidding. An Elmer Fox jug brought $5,500; a Wm. N. Craven double ring jug with a beautiful grip brought $4,000; a Solomon Lloyd signed three-gallon jar sold for $2,500. A monumental covered jar made by J.D. Craven, circa 1870–1890; Craven gave it to another potter, Jacon BeWitt Cole. The jar came from the estate of Cole’s daughter, Nell Cole Graves, the first woman art potter in North Carolina. It started at $3,000 and quickly went to $4,100. Many lots went for under $1,000. Deep-sided redware “dirt dishes” sold in the hundreds.
Silver included some Virginia coin silver ladles that sold for $900 and $700 to limber up the crowd for the tazzas. The 15½-inch tazzas represented agriculture and industry, were made by British silversmiths Hunt Roskell late Storr & Mortimer and had perfect crystal inserts. Weighing 170 troy ounces, they brought $42,500 — the top lot of the sale. They were last sold at auction in 1924 for a sum of $800. Bidders came from England, but the tazzas ended up going to the Pinehurst, N.C., area. They started at $15,000 and there was $20,000 offered in three places in the room. According to Lambert, the English bidders bowed out at $30,000.
More silver followed. An “18-pound 12-ounce” coffee and tea service with a sterling tray that was 340 troy ounces brought $3,500; a lovely 88-piece Charleston coin silver flatware set in a handsome storage chest came to the sale unadvertised and brought $1,200.
A phone bidder from England prevailed at $11,500, acquiring the great-looking pair of Georgian Gainsborough chairs, circa 1740 with needlepoint and petit point upholstery. A World War II flight jacket decorated on the back with the pilot’s nickname “Ice Cold Katy,” and a blizzard of falling bombs flew to $1,800 and came with a book showing the pilot wearing the jacket and two of his medals.
Before the sale Lambert said that “the big boys” had contacted him about the Southern, formal Pembroke table with untouched surfaces. The circa 1815 table was mahogany with Southern yellow pine as a secondary wood and string inlay on the top. Lambert placed the table from either Norfolk, Virginia or Charleston, S.C. It was fresh from the estate of Mary Kerr Motz and ended up selling to a picker in the room for $19,000.
Counting his money before, during and after the auction, “The Young Economist” sculpted in 1893 in marble by Cesare Lapini (Italian, 1848–1893) had charming detail, especially in his lifelike face, hands and feet. The sculpture was bought from the artist in 1895 and has remained in the same family up to the present day. New owners Kim and Joe Tyler of North Carolina won the bidding at $16,000.
The oldest town in North Carolina, Bath, was Blackbeard territory. It yielded up a game table with inlay that brought $1,600. Slave documents dating back 165 years to Caswell County’s Dr George Roberson and his wife Sarah Allen Robertson of Yanceyville Township were studied, transcribed and digitally recorded by historian Karen Avants of the Caswell County Historical Society, Yanceyville, N.C., before they sold at this auction for $9,000.
Avants stated, “Dr Robertson owned a tobacco warehouse and prizery. Caswell County had the second highest slave population in the state. So many African Americans are searching for records of their ancestors, and this kind of information is very helpful. The Robertson ledger lists first and last names of slaves who were bought and sold — the last names of the plantation owners were given to the slaves.” Avants explained that Robertson speculated in the slave trade, recording $21,192 received for a “Winter Trip South 1844/1845.”
Sold separately for just $1,000 was Dr. Robertson’s daughter Sallie’s bible. “With thoughts pinned at different times for no eyes but my own I hope no one will intrude upon the silent musings of a heart ever too sad for a glad favor” wrote Sallie A. Robertson in the inside front cover of the bible, given to her by friend Harriet Graves June 1, 1860. Sallie went on to record her thoughts and important events for the next 50 years, including the death of her brother Willie in 1862 as he carried the Confederate flag on the battlefield at Gain’s Mill, Virginia. “He was twenty years old & a better boy never lived, He read his Bible daily Never kept bad company & was remarkably kind to the poor Oh! He was a noble boy. He was kind to the slaves.”
Thomas Day, an educated, free African American furniture maker who lived in Milton, N.C., Caswell County, was able to prosper during the time of slavery, and his large manufactory created church pews, newel posts and furniture for area churches and plantations. Three or four New York City dealers were bidding by phone on each lot but only one of them was able to win — buying the four Thomas Day chairs for $9,000. The Thomas Day bed sold for $6,500 and the documented rocker and footstool for $9,500. Both of those lots went to the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.
Textile highlights included a needlepoint mourning sampler from eastern Virginia that sold for $3,250 and an 1827 sampler by Eliza Ann Stockton that was photographed and documented by the Museum of Early Southern and Decorative Arts; $5,500. Other samplers sold for $550, $300, $400 and $450. There were good buys in coverlets, hooked rugs, Oriental carpets and quilts.
Other auction highlights included one of eight known 9-inch Fenton carnival glass souvenir plates of J.N. Ledford Company, Cooleemee, N.C. It started at $2,000 and sold at $8,000 to a buyer in the room. A William Keith (1838-1911) oil painting on canvas measuring 29 by 19 inches sold for $9,000. A diminutive North Carolilna-made basket with good old patina brought $4,900. After about 900 lots representing 160 different consignors, bidding finally concluded at 1:05 am on December 9.
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