Published: May 23, 2017
Review and Onsite Photos by Andrea Valluzzo
BOONTON, N.J. – The brothers behind the eponymously named Millea Bros, Mark and Michael, have done it again. Known for scoring estates offering a wealth of choice pieces to attract collectors of all tastes, the Milleas knocked it out of the park with their spring auction May 11-13.
The three-day, 1,100-plus-lot sale featured several fine estates, but the star of the sale overall was unquestionably the Palmetto Hall estate.
“It was a good sale and what I like about the sale was it was a little bit of everything,” said Michael Millea.
In 1959, Jay and Nan Altmayer bought the grand antebellum property known as Palmetto Hall in Mobile, Ala., which had been built in 1846, and furnished the mansion with classical European furnishings, Southern art and quintessentially American paintings. Jay died in 1999 and Nan in 2016, and much of their estate was sold at Christie’s New York in January. For this latest group of items offered here, the bank handling the estate put it out for competitive bids and awarded the contract to Millea Bros.
The biggest story of the day, besides the Palmetto Hall lots (more on that in a bit), however, was a darkened and unassuming – to the untrained eye – Chinese scroll painting that crossed the block early on the sale’s final day. Cataloged as a Song dynasty painting in the manner of Mou Yi, having two alleged collector seals of Emperor Qianlong and depicting court ladies traveling in spring, the 67-inch-tall work was conservatively estimated at $1,5/2,500.
No less than 14 phone bidders jumped on the lot as soon as bidding opened and as the price kept climbing rapidly, phone bidders began dropping out. A buyer in the room tried to hit the lot at $90,000, during a brief lull as one phone bidder paused, but the phones hadn’t run down yet and by the time the auctioneer came back to the room bidder, the price was over his limit. After an exciting but long few minutes, only two phone bidders were in play at about the $200,000 mark and both seemed equally committed. At $440,000, the underbidder signaled defeat but then an online bidder jumped in out of nowhere, placing a last-minute bid of $450,000.
The unexpected move threw the auctioneers for a loop and they held the bidding open for another minute as they quickly tried to verify if the online bidder was legitimate. After a minute, Mark Millea announced he was not confident in the bidder.
Exercising “auctioneer’s discretion” for the first time, Michael announced at the podium that he was rejecting the online bid and the phone bidder won the lot with a $440,000 bid ($528,000 with the buyer’s premium) as the stunned audience, now recovered, burst into hearty applause. The sale achieved another first for Millea Bros as its first half-million-dollar lot and most expensive item sold to date. The previous company record was held by a Kangxi vase sold here ten years ago for just under $300,000.
Speaking a few days after the sale, Michael said he has since talked to all three of the highest bidders in play for the painting and all understood his decision. Given an upsurge in the last few years where many auctioneers have had winning online bidders renege on paying for lots they won, especially for Chinese property, the legitimacy of an unknown online bidder is a reasonable concern. The phone bidders had been vetted before the auction.
“It was a nail-biter… and a difficult decision. Some of our best buyers are online, but I just could not take the chance; I left it open long enough so that if it was someone who knew us they could call us at the gallery…,” he said. “I think we made the right decision. I have to protect my consignors at the end of the day,” he said.
The rest of the auction went smoothly and the Palmetto Hall estate was well worth the week the Milleas spent in Mobile, Ala., picking up the items and shipping them to New Jersey.
The few hundred lots of choice artwork, garden statuary, decorative arts and furniture from the mansion were led by Andrew John Henry Way’s oil on canvas “Baltimore Fruit Vendor,” which attained $50,400, well over its conservative $2/3,000 estimate.
Coming in a close second was a white marble bust of George Washington by Raimondo Trentanove, signed and dated 1824, which similarly bested a reasonable estimate to fetch $48,000. Trentanove apprenticed under Antonio Canova, during which he assisted Canova in making a life-size statue of Washington for the North Carolina State Capitol, which was the only piece Canova made for America but tragically was destroyed less than a decade later when a fire swept through the state house.
Among fine art performing well from the collection were a large oil on canvas painting by Johan Jacob Bennetter, “Arab Slaves Leading Cargo,” that brought $34,800 and Charles E. Weir’s oil on board, “Wood Chopper,” $46,800. Both went well over their high estimates.
Art from other collections also did well, and included Andy Warhol’s color screen print portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, 1965, that sold in the first session for $37,200. An Alexander Calder riveted copper stabile sculpture abstractly resembling an elephant earned $19,200. Both came from a private collection in New Jersey. From a major corporate art collection in New York City came an Ed Ruscha color screen print, “Sin,” 1970, pencil signed and numbered, $12,000.
The furniture category was led by a Regency brass inlaid calamander bagatelle table, early Nineteenth Century, England, attributed to George Oakley, at $9,600. Bringing $6,600 each were a French Louis XVI-style display cabinet, Nineteenth Century, having a marble top over a black lacquered case, and a Louis XV giltwood console, Eighteenth Century.
Rounding out the sale were a Fabergé presentation statuette, late Nineteenth Century, created for the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, at $15,600; an Eighteenth Century portable chess table box from Central Europe having a view of a castle on the interior that realized $18,000, from the estate of Rosamond Bernier, and highlighting Tiffany & Co. items were an extensive silver flatware service in the Hampton pattern that made $11,400 and a rare double sterling baby feeding tray, circa 1910, $9,600.
All prices reported include the 20 percent buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.milleabros.com or 973-377-1500.
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