Published: November 28, 2016
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Catalog Photos Courtesy John McInnis Auctioneers
NEWBURYPORT, MASS. – The 1807 house had been owned by only two families and when the last owner bought it in the 1960s, the sale included the contents. That second owner might be described as a hoarder and accumulated much more stuff. He worked for the Towle Silver Co. in Newburyport for 40 years and quantities of material related to Towle were in the sale.
When Dan Meader, gallery director at John McInnis Auctioneers, started to prepare the material for the November 11 sale, he said that it took several days just to make pathways through the rooms. There were dozens of paintings and prints, dozens of pieces of fireplace equipment, hundreds of pieces of pewter and brass candlesticks, thousands of books, hundreds of photographs, hundreds of weapons and military items, plus furniture and tons of “stuff.” The house was also to be sold and it was. Not including the house, the sale grossed $300,000.
The three-story house, known as the Bass-Whitney house, was built in 1807 by Edward Bass and then passed to a cousin, Thomas Whitney and stayed in the Whitney family until the 1960s, when it was purchased, with contents, by Frank Miller, whose son, also named Frank, died in 2014 at the age of 90. The house was completely original, never having been remodeled, with the exception of adding plumbing and electricity. It was in a neighborhood of fine homes of the same period, and was just a few blocks from the Merrimack River waterfront. McInnis informed prospective buyers that removal of lead paint would be an issue that would have to be dealt with. Bidding opened at $300,000 and ended at $500,000. Representatives of the sellers, on the site, approved the price, and McInnis declared it “sold.”
John McInnis organized the onsite sale into three segments. The military items and the furniture, along with many of the paintings and better miscellaneous items, were organized into two separate portions, each with internet and phone bidding. The majority of the contents of the house were left in place and sold from the tent, without internet or phone bidding. The lots were huge – the theory must have been “put it all in one lot.” For example, 300 beer steins were sold in one lot. Hundreds of brass candlesticks, filling several shelves in a large closet, were sold in lots of two or three shelves at a time. Books were sold by the bookcase full. Some rooms were sold “contents of the room.”
The contents of the cellar, hundreds of items (maybe thousands) was sold as one lot. McInnis’s staff came up with a creative way to allow bidders in the tent to know what they were bidding on. They used a live video camera in the house to display images of the lot being sold on a large screen in the tent and they also had large photographs that were held up so that bidders could see what was being offered. The “discovery” sale of the contents of the house began at 9:30 am. McInnis decided to start the preview before most auctioneers get up for breakfast at 6:30 am. When asked about that a few days before the sale, he said, “I’ve never done that before – let’s see what happens.” When asked about the early start on the day of the sale, he laughed and said, “When I got here this morning, there was already a line waiting to get into the house.” Between 200 and 300 people remained for the sale.
The ads for the sale indicated that the internet portion of the sale included some items that were not original to the house but of particular interest. Drawing spirited bidding was a group of fraktur and folky watercolors that came out of a home in Rhode Island. Included in this consignment was a watercolor still life, attributed to Joseph H. Davis (1811-1865), which, realizing $22,800, was the highest priced item in the sale.
Also drawing several bidders was a colorful Berks County fraktur dated 1827. It depicted brick houses, a bird, trees and flowers, surrounding the manuscript text. It fetched $4,500. Another somewhat different fraktur, signed and dated 1793, was done in a gridlike fashion, with each grid containing a bible verse, with brightly colored borders and tulips. It finished at $3,300. An elaborately worked fraktur with angels, a bird and an alphabet border, by or for George Matz of Brunswick, Penn., dated 1819, sold for $4,200.
A West Newbury dealer bought several lots, including some of the nicest pieces of furniture in the sale. Among the purchases were a small Eighteenth Century butterfly table with splayed legs and an old surface, which brought $5,400 and a matched pair of Hepplewhite card tables, inlaid with tiger maple veneer and floral marquetry, which realized $4,800.
A dealer from Connecticut came with the hope of buying one particular early chair. It was an Eighteenth Century William and Mary side chair with ring turned legs and double stretchers. He thought the fact that the chair was missing its carved crest, and had other condition problems, would keep the price down, but it did not. The chair went for $2,280 and the dealer, an underbidder, left immediately afterward.
A one-of-a-kind make-do Eighteenth Century easy chair rocker reached $$600. It was a sausage-turned ladder back armchair to which someone had added an easy chair frame with wings and rockers. It was upholstered with quilted linsey-woolsey and a cushion of the same fabric rested on the early rush seat.
There were numerous bargains to be had. A circa 1840 red, white and blue overshot coverlet sold for just $60, three Nineteenth Century silk gowns sold between $25 and $100 each, an Anglo-Indian sewing box with engraved and polychromed bone earned only $60. Several pieces of Empire furniture, which were original to the house, sold inexpensively. A sofa went for $12, a nicely turned rope bed brought the same amount and a chest of drawers, with two drawers over three, achieved only $96. McInnis said that all the Empire furniture had been bought by the Bass family in about 1820.
Most of the items from the house, sold in large lots, were good buys for the people who had examined the material. The lot of 300-plus beer steins mentioned above sold for $420. Some bookcases full of books sold for $12. A third floor room full of furniture, listed as including two rockers, a fainting sofa, a music cabinet, a Victrola, a three-piece set of Thonet bentwood furniture, and more sold for $72. A large lot of typewriters went for $60, a bathtub full of decanters and glass beer mugs brought $54 and a large lot of early photographs and albums of Europe and the Middle East attained $960. A “closet lot” of books and paper went for $60. You get the idea.
Frank Miller, the last owner of the house, was involved with Revolutionary War reenactments and his collecting interests included World War II material, where he served from 1942 to 1946. The sale included about 350 lots of military items, Eighteenth-Nineteenth Century firearms, swords, medals, posters, clothing, flags, photos, ephemera and powder horns. As with the contents of the house, there were several large lots. The top-selling item was a flintlock musket, Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century century, which sold for $1,800.
A Tower flintlock musket, with an 1884 bayonet brought $780. “Tower” refers to muskets that were assembled in the Tower of London. Contractors made the various parts and delivered them to the Tower, where they were assembled, and marked, as needed. This example was clearly engraved with the word “Tower” and the royal cipher “GR” on the lock. A very complete reproduction Revolutionary War uniform, probably used by Miller in reenactments, earned $330 and a group of uniform accessories earned another $360. A reproduction Colt single action Army .38, with a patent date of 1975, went for $1,200. A lot of about 25 holsters and 12 belts reached just $240.
A few days after the sale, McInnis said it went well. “We really did four auctions in the one day. The ‘discovery’ stuff in the house could have been a sale by itself, and then there was the decorative arts stuff, then the military, and then the house itself. It was a pretty good day’s work and the staff really did a great job. I’m glad the house sold and now it’s empty – all the stuff is out. That’s quite an accomplishment. The guy who bought the house is a local guy and I know people are hoping that it will be restored and remain as a single-family home. I don’t think that decision has been made yet.”
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.mcinnisauctions.com or 800-822-1417.
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