Published: August 6, 2002
By Laura Beach
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Lot 257, a carved and painted mechanical pull toy, possesses the quirky charm and guileless simplicity that characterizes almost everything owned by Harvey and Isobel Kahn, legendary New Jersey collectors who offered the first part of their 52-year assemblage at the Center of New Hampshire on Saturday, August 3. But even Ron Bourgeault, a master at mustering high prices, was not able to coax a bid on the pull toy, which passed at $32,000. “So much for reserves,” muttered the auctioneer, moving onto the next lot.
High reserves hurt the Kahn sale. Only 20 or so pieces carried hefty estimates – Northeast’s sign to potential buyers that the object is reserved — but they were big lots. Perhaps it is universally true that reserves discourage bidding. Perhaps, in the current economy, buyers are bargain-minded. Either way,
The Kahns are charter members of the American Folk Art Museum and founding members, along with some other luminaries, of the American Folk Art Society. They have collected with taste, insight and discipline. Their dedication, and the encouragement they have offered to kindred spirits, has helped make them “insiders.” The Kahn provenance is familiar from most of the major volumes on folk sculpture produced in the past 30 years. Additionally, the well-designed Northeast Auction catalog read like a Who’s Who of the American folk art world, the legacy stretching from Elie Nadelman, Joe Kindig and C.W. Lyon, to Robert Bishop, Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr, James Kronen, Bernard Barenholtz, Paul Weld and even Tim Hill and America Hurrah.
This acclaim should have worked in the Kahns’ favor. Instead, when lot 163, an 11-inch-tall stoneware crock that transcends traditional craft in its brilliant decoration (it is illustrated with a dove pulling a two-story house on wheels), came up at $150/250,000, it was passed. “It’s a masterpiece, no question. But if it had sold for that price it would have been a record. I could see it bringing $100,000, if it had been estimated at $65/75,000,” said a noted folk art dealer in the room.
Other failures included lot 205, a painted tin and iron weathervane in the form of a four-wheel hand-drawn hose and reel fire carriage, passed at $40,000; lot 216, a J. Reiley & Co., Lansingburgh, N.Y., three-gallon stoneware crock with cobalt decoration of a man on a large bird, passed at $32,500; lot 222, a carved and painted whirligig of a “Gandy Walker,” 191/2 inches tall, passed at its estimated $50/80,000; lot 232, a whirligig of a man in a bowler hat, passed at $45,000; and lot 254, a graceful carved and painted fragment of a horse weathervane, bought in at $38,000.
Several icons from the Kahn collection defied the bear market. The assemblage’s signature piece, lot 199, a 561/2-inch carving of an Indian maiden, was knocked down to Massachusetts dealer David Wheatcroft, underbid by Stephen Score, for $260,000 ($200/300,000.) “It’s going to a great, great private collector,” said Wheatcroft, who loves the sculpture’s “simplicity of form. The piece is mysterious and beautiful.” Probably a shop figure, the carving is related to two Indian Trapper figures from the Hemphill Collection (now at the National Museum of American Art).
Score, a Boston dealer, appeared to be the only bidder in the room on another prize, three Hessian soldier whirligigs that stand more than two feet tall. Illustrated in everything from Folk Sculpture USA to A Gallery of American Whirligigs and Weathervanes, the familiar sculptures went to Score for $150,000 ($150/250,000).
A New England two-sided painted and decorated oval trade sign inscribed T. Fuller and dated 1824 and 1828 on alternate sides sold to Tony Picadia, a dealer and collector from Pittsburgh, for $37,500 ($35/50,000). “A good buy? It was a steal,” said the delighted purchaser.
Striking from a distance, a carved and painted mechanical seeder ornamented with a black man in a yellow, black and white checkered costume sold in the room for $30,000 ($30/40,000). The large piece stands 35 inches tall.
Another visually arresting rdf_Description was a fireboard with pretty, cream-colored floral decoration against a black ground. Acquired from the late Southbury, Conn., dealers Priscilla and Howard Richmond, it fetched $40,400.
Another surprise was a carved and painted swan decoy whose soul seemed to be in its worn paint and cracked surface. The 22-inch-long sculpture, which came from the James Kronen Gallery, elicited a bid of $23,000 from a phone caller.
There were lots of buys in the $5,000 to $15,000 range, the sum total of which added nicely to the bottom line. Examples include a large and fanciful primitive painting of Horseshoe Lake with sailboats, $10,000; a high back writing arm Windsor chair in green and mustard paint, $10,000; and an anonymous portrait of a young man in a cutaway coat, seated in a rod back Windsor, $13,500.
The Kahns have lived with and loved their collection. If it was an ordeal watching it sell, no one would have known it. The couple, accompanied by their daughter and granddaughter, kept their grace and good humor. Asked afterwards what he thought about reserves, Harvey replied with a smile, “I don’t think much of them.” He added, “I’m glad we didn’t sell everything this year.” The Kahns are planning to take home the treasures that did not sell. “We still love these pieces and we don’t need the money. We’re happy to have them back.”
Total sales including buyer’s premium reached $1.26 million. Total for both days of sales was $7.4 million, a record for Northeast Auctions.
Connecticut Treasures Garner $1.6 Million with the Collection of Geoffrey Paul
Geoffrey Paul did it right. He bought with intelligence and passion, sought advice from experts, and he specialized. For his historic home in Essex, Conn., the Captain Henry Lay Champlin house, he acquired richly meaningful art and objects. Ideally, they were pieces associated with the Champlin family and its community.
Buyers expressed their approval on Sunday, August 4, when Northeast Auction sold the contents of the house for $1.6 million with premium. Though Connecticut-based, the collection turned out to have surprisingly broad appeal. Paul wisely kept reserves low, not an easy task given that his was a young collection, assembled mostly during the 1990s. The sale reached high estimate overall and Paul recouped his investment. “I set the estimates, Geoff reviewed them, then we hashed them over,” said Bourgeault. “Geoff gave me a lot of things that were reserved much lower than the low estimate.
“Geoff was a very easy consignor,” added the auctioneer. “The one thing that he wanted was a great catalog. He was willing to pay to have it done right. He brought customers from Nantucket for the onsite preview and put them up in the Griswold Inn in Essex, where we celebrated his birthday.”
An investment professional based in California, Paul sold his collection to make room for his brother and his family, who will be moving into the Champlin house. The Paul brothers own and manage the Griswold Inn. Geoff plans to keep and build on the inn’s collection of Connecticut art and artifacts.
“I’m happy with the results and pleased that a few of the objects are going to individuals and institutions that I like and admire,” Paul said after the sale. He characterized prices for the major casepiece furniture as “a little soft,” but laughingly noted that “chairs seem to be in vogue.”
He was referring most notably to a carved cherry wood side chair attributed to Aaron Chapin. The Hartford, Conn., craftsman embellished the formal Hepplewhite design of the shield back chair with his own, fanciful motif — a pierced heart in the chair’s splat. Bidding was vigorous on the piece, which sold to Stonington, Conn., dealer Marguerite Riordan for $60,000 plus premium.
Two lots later, Riordan acquired a Chapin armchair, also Hepplewhite in style with a pierced splat, for $29,000 plus premium. Underbidders included Kevin Tulimieri of Nathan Liverant & Son, Colchester, Conn., dealers who worked closely with Paul in building the collection.
Nathan Liverant & Son had better luck when it came to a spectacular set of six bird’s-eye and tiger maple chairs — five sides and one arm – with scrolled splats and stretchers, and diamond-carved crests. The group, which Paul acquired because rushed-seat chairs of this sort were described in Champlin’s inventory, left the room at $20,000.
Two rare Chippendale chest-on-chests fashioned by New London, Conn., cabinetmaker Richard Fosdick in the 1790s sold within estimate. The first, the Denison Family chest-on-chest, brought $70,000 from a phone bidder. The second, a block front example made for the McCurdy family of Old Lyme, left the room at $80,000, also selling to a phone bidder. The McCurdys were related to the Champlins by marriage.
Preauction talk centered on an important sideboard, a signed example by B.C. Gillett of Hartford, dated 1805, that is related to a card table and an easy chair in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The sideboard was knocked down to the phone for $50,000.
Other case furniture included a New Hampshire bow front chest of drawers with contrasting veneers, sold to Massachusetts dealer Clark Peirce for $42,000; a cherry wood oxbow chest of drawers signed by Amos Bradley of East Haven, dated 1788, sold to a phone bidder for $50,000; and a drop panel chest that is thought to be a Saco, Maine, example, $30,000. A Connecticut River blanket chest purchased by Paul a year ago for $6,000 at Northeast Auctions resold for $23,800.
One of the auctioneer’s favorite rdf_Descriptions was an assembled pair of inlaid cherry wood Pembroke tables of circa 1800. Acquired from Nathan Liverant & Son, they sold in the room for $66,000, more than double high estimate.
Built in 1818, the Champlin house originally contained a few stylish Classical pieces. The auction opened with a strikingly architectural Philadelphia secretaire a abattant made entirely of figured maple, $67,500. Two phones battled for a pair of Phyfe-style curule chairs, $30,000. Three more Phyfe-type chairs with outset serpentine legs and brass paw feet went for $12,000, also to the phone.
Again guided by the 1859 inventory, Paul purchased a John Kearsing & Son, New York, circa 1810, piano forte, similar to one that once stood in the house’s front room. It elicited a bid of $43,000. A French alabaster clock, like the one that the Champlins purchased on one of their many trips to Paris, reached $6,500. A cherry wood tall-case clock by Dudley Emerson of Lyme, circa 1790, brought $35,000, selling to the phone.
Portraiture was another robust category. Isaac Sheffield’s compelling likenesses of the West family of Essex included the boy Frances Hodges West, sold to the phone for $67,500; and Captain and Mrs West, knocked down to Marguerite Riordan for $50,000. Daughter Eliza West was bought-in at $37,500. A set of four hauntingly realistic pastel portraits of the Noyes family of Lyme went to the phone for $25,000.
With the help of specialist Elle Shushan, Paul assembled a group of portrait miniatures on ivory by the noted Connecticut miniaturist Anson Dickinson. Portraits of Mrs and Mrs Reuben Webster of Litchfield, Conn., fetched $8,500; Stephen Ustick brought $3,500; Grandmother Mosier of Baltimore, $1,300; and Captain Jonathan Hall, $3,200, the later selling to Shushan.
Paul was a fan of Connecticut needlework, some of which he acquired from specialists Stephen and Carol Huber of Old Saybrook, Conn. A silk and watercolor-on-silk embroidery depicting Liberty, worked by Susan J. Winsor at the Misses Pattens’ School in Hartford, circa 1805, sold to a phone bidder for $42,500. The same buyer acquired Louisa Bellows’ allegorical depiction of Charity, also worked at the Misses Pattens’ School, for $40,000.
To Nathan Liverant & Son went a pair of schoolgirl watercolors depicting Hope and Charity, $3,250. Marguerite Riordan claimed a set of mezzotints depicting the four continents, $13,000, along with a pair of watercolor on paper miniature portraits of Captain and Mrs Huntington, circa 1790, for $22,000. The charming works are attributed to Mary Way.
“I have derived immense pleasure in amassing the collection and, as my nephew says, getting to know lots of ‘dead people.’ I hope the stories of these rdf_Descriptions and the people who made and used them delight their new owners as much as they have delighted me,” wrote Paul.
We are certain that they will.
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