Published: September 21, 2010
Touted as a “Spectacular Maine Three-Day Auction,” the sale at James D. Julia Auctioneers lived up to all expectations, and some even went as far as to term the auction “historic.” Commencing on Wednesday, August 25, with a session comprising more than 725 paintings, the sale concluded two days later with the hammer falling after an additional 1,000-plus lots crossed the block.
The auction was historic in several ways, the least of which was auctioneer Jim Julia’s perceived record number of “funny” tales about “Wilbur,” and the most poignant was the sale of a highly important group of Maine items that were ultimately preserved and kept in the state after being claimed by a consortium of historical institutions from throughout the state.
Julia kicked off the sale right on time, after explaining the advantages of not only participating in one of his auctions, but actually attending, touching on everything from lots being sold undervalue (of which only those in attendance are able to take note) to the free gourmet food that is served at the sale and his offer on monies paid to buyers toward their lodging expenses.
The sale opened quickly with a couple of paintings by Maine artist George Hathaway. Lot one, two Maine costal scenes, sold between estimates at $1,380, while the following lot, two additional Maine coastal scenes including the Portland headlight, brought $1,150.
It was not long before the sparks would fly as a contemporary oil on canvas by Gerald Harvey Jones, “City Lights,” took off. A host of phone bidders were lined up for action. The painting depicted a Nineteenth Century Western nighttime scene with a stage coach, pulled by four horses, stopped in front of a hotel. Attractive, with lanterns on the coach and the buildings providing the work’s illumination, the lot hammered down at $46,000.
A monumental work by Seventeenth Century Dutch artist Jan Weenix The Younger depicted a young hunter in a red cape poised with his dog and an assortment of felled fowl. Believed to have been done in the 1670s, the painting was authenticated by Anke Van Wagenberg, PhD, who is currently working on a catalogue raisonné for the artist. Bidding on the lot was spirited, with several phone bidders getting in on the action before the hammer fell at $41,400.
A selection of Old Master paintings performed well, with two unsigned Eighteenth Century paintings from the Roman School far exceeding estimates. “Caesar Visiting the Tomb of Alexander,” estimated at $5/8,000, was the first to be offered, and numerous hands shot in the air as bidding began. A final price of $39,100 was realized for the lot. The following lot, “Family of Darius before Alexander,” carried a $3/5,000 estimate, yet it, too, was subjected to active bidding as it also realized $39,100.
Another Old Master work to do well was “Saint John the Baptist” by a “follower of Guercino” that had been consigned from a Boston area estate. Soaring past the $4/6,000 estimate, the painting was knocked down at $33,356.
An oil on wood panel by Serbian artist Paul Joanovitch attracted a great deal of attention. Depicting a Middle Eastern man seated on a bench and smoking a long pipe, the painting had a Plaza Art Galleries label on the verso. Bidding on this lot was quick paced, with it selling at $40,250.
A striking portrait of Major Robert McGregor by British artist Sir Henry Raeburn, painted after McGregor’s death in 1803, easily topped estimates, bringing $38,525.
Leading the traditional American fare of paintings by acknowledged artists was a oil on canvas by Haley Lever titled “Sailing at Marblehead.” The attractive Impressionist scene, recently discovered in central Maine, soared past the $8/12,000 estimate to bring $37,950.
A summer landscape by American artist Porfirio Salinas titled “Texas landscape with Coreopis and Prickly Poppy” was bid to $32,200, a Sydney Mortimer Laurence oil, “Mount McKinley from My Camp in Peter’s Hills, Alaska,” realized $29,500, and a Joseph Kleitsch oil titled “California Landscape with Eucalyptus Trees” brought $23,000.
Watercolors included a John Marin abstract landscape that sold for $9,200 and a George Grosz Manhattan skyline scene that brought $6,325.
An unusual naïve Maine coastal scene from 1965 executed by Maud Lewis topped estimates at $8,050.
Americana was offered during the second session of the sale, with a blue painted one-door cupboard starting things off on a positive note as it sold at $4,600.
A classical mahogany accordion-action extending dining table, circa 1800, either New York or Philadelphia, with acanthus carved legs ending in brass paw feet attracted a great deal of attention, with a telephone bidder claiming the lot at $10,350.
A Queen Anne cherry highboy that had descended in the Avery family of Groton, Conn., was an attractive lot. With the broken arch pediment top, the case piece sold for $18,400.
The highlight of the day came as a collection of 17 silk trade banners from the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association was offered. The hand painted banners were made by William Capen between 1820 and 1840, the front of each decorated with a scene from the trade and the reverse with a matching slogan. The banners are well documented and the collection comprises what appeared to be a complete set, as the group was publicly displayed in a parade in Portland in 1841 and each banner was described in a newspaper account of the day.
The catalog related that the first Charitable Mechanic Association was formed in Massachusetts in 1791 and serving as the president was patriot Paul Revere.
Shipbuilders, blacksmiths, printers, hatters, shoemakers, butchers and bakers were all represented on the banners, with colorfully painted scenes associated with the trade, such as a shoemakers’ banner decorated with two pair of boots and the slogan, “He that will not pay the shoe-maker is not worthy of a Sole.”
While Julia described the hand painted banners as “historic and extraordinary,” those adjectives would also later be used to describe the sale and the buyers.
In an extraordinary measure, and thinking outside the box, as many historical institutions are forced to do in this economic climate, 16 Maine museums, historical organizations and their supporters came together in an unprecedented collaboration to save this important collection of Maine artifacts.
Knowing the significance of these works and their value in keeping them in the public domain for future generations, Maine museums and historical organizations rallied together to raise funds to purchase them. The following organizations were involved: Maine Historical Society, Portland Museum of Art, Maine State Museum, Maine Maritime Museum, the Maine State Historian, Bates College Museum of Art, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and Colby College Museum of Art.
A group of three, Thomas Denenberg of the Portland Museum of Art, Laurie LeBar of the Maine State Museum and Richard D’Abate, executive director of the Maine Historical Society, were seated on the side of the auction gallery and they waited patiently for the lots to be offered. The trio represented the consortium of institutions.
As the first of the lots was offered, the shipbuilders’ banner decorated with a schooner under sail and “By Commerce We Live” emblazoned on the back, D’Abate raised his paddle to open the lot at $5,000 and was countered from the rear of the room. Bids bounced back and forth until he claimed the lot at $13,225.
The next banner to be offered depicted the pump and block makers, mast and spar makers of the shipping industry. Decorated with a detailed depiction of a ship in building dock and “We Lay the Foundation of Commercial Enterprise” on the verso, D’Abate once again set the lot into motion with his bid of $5,000. Stiff competition from the bidder in the rear of the room pushed the price to $31,050, once again going D’Abate’s way.
A butchers’ banner was up next, decorated with a large bull on the front and “Union is Strength” on the verso. Bidding on this lot was also brisk, with a buyer in the rear of the gallery again pushing D’Abate to a final bid of $11,500. The same price was realized for the shoemakers’ banner. A painters and brushmakers’ banner brought $20,700, and a carpenters’ banner realized $14,950.
“These banners are important symbols of community and it was key that we keep them together and in Maine,” said Denenberg.
Numerous corporate sponsors were involved in the procurement of the banners, most notably James D. Julia. Harry Rubenstein, chair of the Division of Political History from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, was also in attendance at the auction.
“The focus, hard work and unselfish generosity of the cooperating museums was unprecedented in my experience,” said D’Abate. “I think we owe that to our common recognition that the banners were one of the state’s true artistic and historical treasures. They had to be saved.”
The Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, located in downtown Portland, decided to sell them for financial reasons. The total for the 17 banners came to $125,925, inclusive of the buyer’s premium.
Other top lots from the sale included a Duncan McFarlane portrait of the ship H.H. Boody that was bid to $39,100 by a phone bidder, while a portrait of the ship Golden Rule under sail by William Gay Yorke went out at $21,850.
An early theorem depicting a basket of fruit in a paint decorated frame did well at $10,925, a large carved turkey by contemporary carver Frank Finney brought $6,900, and an Aaron Willard shelf clock sold for $13,800.
The final session of the sale saw some unusual items sold, including a large lot of buttons that had been found in a Maine estate. More than 80 cards filled with buttons were included, and they were made in a variety of materials ranging from brass to glass to plastic. Bidding on the lot opened quickly at the high estimate of $5,000 and went back and forth between several bidders, with the lot selling for $8,625.
A huge collection of marbles was offered next and several in the crowd were active. The opening lot consisted of 18 onionskin swirl marbles and they realized $2,070. Several boxes of swirls sold for $2,530, and a lot of game boards with marbles brought $1,725.
The surprise of the marble lots came as a group of new-old-stock marbles in the original packaging was offered. Some printed with Popeye on the packaging, others marked ten cents, as well as Marble King and Champion Agates, the approximately 50 packages realized $3,105.
A collection of Margaret Bourke White photographs that had descended through a single Maine family attracted attention. Of the ten White photos in the collection, “Dahlonega, Georgia †Family Portrait” did the best, selling at $13,800. A photo of a young man in a hat titled “Looking Ahead” also did well at $10,925.
Finally, a Bessie Potter Vonnoh bronze figural fountain, “Water Lilies,” depicting a young girl with a lily in her hand, sold at $23,000.
Prices include the buyer’s premium. For further information, www.jamesdjulia.com or 207-453-7125.
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