Published: March 7, 2023
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring, Photos Courtesy Bonhams Skinner
MARLBOROUGH, MASS. – Earning nearly $100,000, Bonhams Skinner offered “American History in Wood: The Levine Folk Art Collection” in an online-only sale that closed to bidding on February 22. Offering a few lots short of 400, the sale was the bulk of the collection of Anne and Robert Levine after the couple donated more than 100 objects to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, in 2020. Decades in the making, the Levine’s collection of exclusively wood carved objects had a broad date span and depicted historical figures and events that ranged from Leif Erikson’s arrival in Newfoundland to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Many of the lots had been illustrated in the Levine’s 2017 self-published collection catalog, American History in Wood: The Levine Folk Art Collection.
In the auction catalog’s foreword, Robert Levine explained his collecting strategy: “In my younger days, I was a wood sculptor and have about 50 pieces that I did, mainly primitive and abstract. No formal training so it fits into the category of folk art. My experience with wood sculpting spawned an interest in collecting wooden folk art after we were married. We wanted to collect something we enjoyed together. My background in history had us focus on historical events and persons in wood.”
When Stephen Fletcher and Chris Fox checked in after the sale, they said items with a historical nature got the most attention.
Eagles are a ubiquitous motif of the United States, and their iconography was present in nearly 30 lots, including the sale’s top one: a late Nineteenth Century Masonic relief plaque featuring a spread-wing eagle with symmetrical swags of drapery, cannon, arms and stylized foliage, on a base that looked like an inverted Masonic square or compass. Preservationist Bill Powell of Franklin, Tenn., was listed in the provenance for the work, which sold for $5,100, well above expectations.
Another high-selling eagle-centric lot was an early Twentieth Century carved version of the seal of the United States that nearly doubled its high estimate when it achieved $3,750.
A 37-inch-tall wooden ship’s figurehead of US Navy Admiral David Farragut (1801-1870) that dated to circa 1875 attracted a lot of attention, according to Fletcher and Fox. Earning the sale’s second highest result of $4,463, it had provenance to a sale at Northeast Auctions. Achieving $3,188 was a mid-Nineteenth Century monolithic wood panel carved for display on the gangplank of a revenue cutter that had provenance to York, Penn., dealer Jeff Bridgman.
Polychrome decoration provided some visual relief among the wooden lots, notably a panel carved to depict the figures of Algonquin native Pocahontas (circa 1596-1617) and British colonist Captain John Smith (circa 1580-1631) within a wooded scene, which more than doubled expectations and realized $4,080, the sale’s third highest result. The provenance for the plaque was not mentioned in the catalog, which drew parallels to decorative plaques from tobacconist shops and wooden carousels.
Though many of the works in the auction were not attributed to individual carvers, some that were did well. Among these was an 11-inch-tall figure of a shirtless forester that had provenance to Sherry Pardee, Iowa City, Iowa, and was signed “D.W. Camp, Aiken, South Carolina, 1945”; it nearly tripled its high estimate when it realized $3,188. Of similar size was a carved mahogany bust of George Washington, attributed to Patterson, N.Y., carver Paul Rudin (1904-1992) that had been with Loy Harrell of Hinesburg, Vt., which closed out at $2,040.
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. For information, Bonhams Skinner is at www.bonhams.com or 617-350-5400.
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