Published: December 22, 2020
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring, Photos Courtesy Litchfield Auctions
LITCHFIELD, CONN. – Two days of sales, December 8-9, at Litchfield Auctions kicked off with nearly 450 lots from the Chestnut Hill, Mass., estate of Richard I. Johnson; it was followed with almost 475 lots of Twentieth Century Art, Design and Antiques. The Johnson sale totaled $609,908, while the modern and antiques sale brought in $237,926 for a combined total of 847,834, handily besting the combined low/high estimates of $399,980/642,060 as 91.5 percent of lots sold. Online bidding took place on both Invaluable and LiveAuctioneers, with the former registering nearly 5,800 bidders and 2,050 registered on the latter.
“I was delighted with the sales,” Litchfield Auctions’ president, Nicholas Thorn, said by phone a couple of days after the sale closed. “I wasn’t sure how the market would respond, but we had solid interest throughout the sales, just the way one would hope.”
Richard Johnson (1925-2020) had been a scholar and professor of Zoology and Conchology at Harvard University. He began his career as a research associate at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, having started as a volunteer while still in high school. He served in the United States Army in World War II, before returning to Massachusetts and graduating from Harvard in 1951. He published his first scientific article in 1941, at the age of 16, beginning his life as a gentleman scholar, an amateur with a worldwide reputation who produced more than 50 papers on the topic of malacology (the study of mollusks). His large Tudor-style house in Chestnut Hill, Mass., housed not only his library but a collection of Renaissance- and Baroque-themed antiques, fine art and stained glass.
The top lot from the Johnson collection, and indeed of both days of sales, however, was not a book on mollusks but a group of two Japanese woodblock prints that were nearly overlooked when the team from Litchfield Auctions were cataloging items for sale. Discovered tucked away in a manila folder in his library, the works – one a Ukiyo-e, the other by Hasui Kawase (1883-1957) -sold to a buyer in Washington state for $29,900 who was bidding on LiveAuctioneers.
A pair of 25-inch-tall marble garden urns, modeled after the Roman Warwick vase that Johnson had kept in his garden, realized the second highest price in the sale, bringing $18,850 from a trade buyer in New York. Thorn said the urns were tremendously heavy and they considered selling them in situ, but Litchfield Auctions’ team members located some landscapers working near the house who were able to help load the urns onto a flatbed.
In the course of six decades, Johnson had assembled one of the largest private collections of books and journals on mollusks in the world. The first part of his library collection was sold at Bonhams New York in October, 2020; Litchfield was offering the remaining contents of the library. “I was very happy with how the books did,” Thorn said. “There were not huge single-item prices, but there was interest across the board and the books made about $200,000.”
Tying the second highest price in the sale and leading book lots from Johnson’s library was a four-volume edition of the catalog of shells in the cabinet of John Clarkson Jay, an early conchologist whose vast collection of shells was given to the American Museum of Natural History, where it is known as the Jay Collection. The set, printed in 1835, was in its original cloth with gilt lettering to the spine and had provenance to the Lyceum of Natural History. The set brought $18,850.
A buyer in Texas, bidding on Invaluable, snapped up an 1839 copy of F.W. Beechey’s The Zoology of Captain Beechey’s Voyage … to the Pacific and Behring’s [sic.] Straits for $13,650, exceeding its $7/10,000 estimate. The quarto volume, which was bound in gray cloth with a red and brown leather title label on the spine, contained 44 hand-colored plates after Lear, Sowerby and others, two hand-colored engraved maps, and a folding hand colored engraved geological sectional profile.
Rounding out the highlights from Johnson’s library were Isaac Lea’s Observations on the Genus Unio, published in Philadelphia, in eight volumes in both quarto and folio sizes, along with 14 other works by Lea. A bidder from California prevailed, taking the lot for $11,050. An 11-volume set by L. Kiener and P. Fischer titled Species General et Iconographie des Coquilles Vivantes that had been printed in Paris sold to a buyer in the Netherlands, bidding on Invaluable, for $9,750.
Buyers at the Johnson sale were also looking at his collection of antiques. A Seventeenth Century Spanish Baroque vargueno on chest with an interior of fitted drawers with parcel gilt and bone inlays and traces of polychrome to the fall front, more than doubled its low estimate and sold for $10,725. An early Nineteenth Century diminutive Konya prayer rug, which measured approximately 3 by 4 feet, had exceptionally bright colors despite wear and fringe losses, and brought $9,100, several times its $400/600 estimate. Johnson’s Tudor-style house provided a great backdrop to his collection of stained glass that was sold in about a dozen lots and which realized a total of about $20,000.
Litchfield Auctions’ historically offers modern art and design as well as antiques and fine art, and this sale did not disappoint. A few local collections – namely one in West Hartford, Conn., that Thorn described as having an “eclectic mix,” – yielded some of the top prices for the second day of sales.
Leading the day was a 1953 valet chair designed by Hans Wegner and made by Johannes Hansen in Copenhagen, Denmark. The only item consigned from a Hartford County, Conn., home, the chair sold to a buyer in New York bidding on LiveAuctioneers, for $9,425. It was followed closely by a pair of Danish Modern “Pragh” lounge chairs by Madsen & Schubel from the West Hartford collection that sold to a dealer on the West Coast, bidding on LiveAuctioneers, who paid $7,150.
Exemplifying the eclecticism of the West Hartford collection, an Eighteenth Century Venetian painted secretary brought $5,070 from a buyer in the Southern United States, while a seasonally appropriate winter landscape by Robert Emmett Owen titled “Winter Day” finished at $4,290.
A modern collage by Nicholas Krushenick (American, 1929-1999) came from a collection in Kent, Conn., and was one of the lots featured in the promotion for the sale. Titled “The End of the Road,” the yellow and red acrylic work on paper had labels to both the Fisbach Gallery and Graham Gallery; it realized $5,200, more than twice its high estimate.
Bronze sculptures were on demand. A late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century Grand Tour bronze bust of Seneca that had probably been made in Naples stood 17½ inches tall. It came from a private collection in Manhattan and sold to a buyer in the Netherlands, bidding on LiveAuctioneers, for $4,290. Swooping in just behind that was a bronze sculpture of an owl in flight by Jules Moigniez (French, 1835-1894) with a chocolate brown patina that brought $4,030. It had come from a Fairfield, Conn., collection and sold to a buyer bidding on Invaluable.
A painting titled “Dog Converence, No Bossism Here” signed Pascori, London, was apparently by an unknown artist but that did not deter bidders, who took this to $5,590 from a $500/800 estimate. It came from an estate in Manhattan, N.Y., and sold to a buyer bidding on LiveAuctioneers.
Litchfield Auctions will conduct a Discovery sale in January and a Winter Antiques sale on February 17.
All prices quoted include buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. For information, www.litchfieldcountyauctions.com or 860-567-4661.
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