Published: March 2, 2004
Provenance and pedigree contributed to sales of $2,017,902 at Skinner’s recent auction of American furniture and decorative arts. Fresh to the block was a well-known collection of Currier & Ives lithographs, assembled by Dr Arthur Localio of Deerfield, Mass., over three decades with the help of several highly regarded prints dealers. Choice Massachusetts furniture and folk painting, consigned by descendants of their original owners, were another draw.
The Sunday morning sale attracted buyers from Maine to Pennsylvania to the fashionable Park Plaza salesroom that Skinner’s executive vice president Stephen L. Fletcher says is slowly but surely developing a strong retail following.
Currier & Ives
In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, Harry Shaw Newman of The Old Print Shop in New York and Harry T. Peters, author of the pioneering two-volume work Currier & Ives: Printmaker to The American People (Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1929-1931) invited seven colleagues to join them at a dinner party at Peter’s apartment. The purpose of the gathering was to pick the 50 Currier & Ives large-folio lithographs out of approximately 200. The compilation, known ever after as “The Best 50” and more recently updated as “The New Best 50,” published by the American Historical Print Collectors Society in the late 1980s, has guided collectors of these beloved American views for seven decades.
Among those intent on owning the best of “The Best” was Dr Arthur Localio, a New York neurosurgeon who was a client of The Old Print Shop and Kennedy Galleries from the 1950s on. By the time of his death in 2000, Localio had acquired 48 out of 50 of the large-folio works. Only the Museum of the City of New York had a more extensive collection, says Harry Shaw Newman’s grandson, Robert.
On February 22, Skinner auctioned Localio’s Currier & Ives prints (furniture from the doctor’s historic home in Deerfield, Mass., will be sold by the Boston firm in June.) The liquidation, the most important Currier & Ives sale since Skinner featured the Malcolm Burroughs collection in 2000, tallied an impressive $568,230 on 64 lots and achieved what is believed to be a new record auction price paid at auction.
The event attracted major dealers and seasoned collectors of the mid-Nineteenth Century views, published by Nathaniel Currier from the 1830s and, after 1856, in association with his brother-in-law James M. Ives. It also drew newcomers to the genre. Bill Mayer, a Greenwich, Conn., collector who frequents the major New York and New England salesrooms but had never purchased a Currier & Ives, left with a handful of examples.
The record bid, $76,375 ($8/12,000), was for “The American National Game of Baseball, Grand Match for the Championship at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, N.J.,” a popular but uncommon print of 1866. Bidding on behalf of a client, the buyer was Robert Newman.
As Newman explained, “The title says it all, as Currier & Ives titles often do. They were among the first to recognize baseball as our national sport. This is one of the great early baseball prints. There are only two or three others from this period. This one comes up at auction only once every eight or ten years, though a record price is likely to bring more out of the woodwork.”
Localio had pursued both “The American National Game of Baseball” and “The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix” for most of his life. He was offered “A Tight Fix” in the late 1950s for a few thousand dollars, but didn’t have the money to buy it. It cost him many multiples more when he was finally able to acquired it years later.
Localio’s “Tight Fix” fetched $44,063 ($15/25,000) from a phone bidder, less than the record $63,000 paid for a different copy of the same image at Sotheby’s in 1993. The buyer of Lacalio’s “Tight Fix” also claimed “American Forest Scene. Maple Sugaring,” 1856, $19,975; “The Rocky Mountains. Emigrants Crossing the Plains,” 1866, $21,150; and “The Great Fire at Chicago, Oct. 8th 1871,” 1871, $22,325.
Meted out to other bidders were “The ‘Lightening Express’ Train,” 1863, $25,850; “The Road – Winter,” 1853, $28,850; “Husking,” 1861, $16,450; “Winter In The Country: Getting Ice,” 1864, $17,625; and “Central-Park, Winter. The Skating Pond,” 1862, $21,150.
Furniture and paintings from the descendants of original owners struck a responsive chord with bidders. Leading sales was a carved mahogany wing chair notable for the emphatic serpentine crest of its back and its claw feet, raking back legs and turned stretchers. The chair, which Fletcher first saw in a summer home in Maine, was made for Boston merchant Theodore Lyman, whose Waltham, Mass., house, The Vale, became a Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities property in 1951.
Bidding on the chair, estimated at $40/60,000, opened at $35,000 and proceeded among Northport, Maine, dealer Seth Thayer, a phone caller and Essex, Mass., dealer Clark Pearce. The volley stopped at $149,000 when the chair sold to Pearce on behalf of the SPNEA.
“It’s a nice example of a Boston Chippendale wing chair and it has great provenance, along with wonderful stance, serpentine back and an accretion of old surfaces,” said Pearce, pleased with his purchase.
Pearce also acquired a set of five Chippendale walnut side chairs with serpentine crest rails, acanthus carved knees and claw feet for $55,813 ($30/50,000). The chairs came “right out of a house in eastern Massachusetts,” said Fletcher, who, with colleague Karen Keane, picked up the set on Christmas Eve in his Volvo.
“My guess is that the chairs were made in Essex County, Mass.,” said Pearce, who admired their unusual raking stance and flared rear feet, a feature more often found on English chairs.
Among other avidly contested pieces was a circa 1725-35 painted and joined-paneled maple and pine chest-over-drawer from the Hatfield/Hadley area. It sold to a phone bidder for $31,725 ($4/6,000).
A Hampden, Mass., Queen Anne maple carved high chest brought $29,375 ($20/25,000) and a North Shore reverse-serpentine mahogany desk-and-bookcase went for $27,025 ($15/25,000.) Good buys included a Massachusetts glazed desk and bookcase of about 1825 for $3,819, and an attributed Emmons and Archibald Classical sideboard, an astute pick at $6,463. Of the more than a half dozen tall-case clocks for sale, the best was a circa 1800 Aaron Willard of Boston timepiece. An absentee bidder acquired it for $31,725 ($20/30,000).
Massachusetts folk art was another highlight. The rarest offering was a 15 7/8 by 60 7/8 inch pine overmantel painting on pine that is thought to have been removed from a house in Framingham, Mass., in 1840 by Austin Bacon. Appraised by Charles D. Childs of Goodspeed’s Book Shop in Boston for $150 in 1932, the panel, which is decorated with leaping stags reminiscent of those found on Boston Fishing Lady needleworks, was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1952 and illustrated by Nina Fletcher Little in American Decorative Wall Painting, 1700-1850, published by the early scholar and collector in 1972.
“The drawing is wonderfully elegant and has a lot of motion, yet there is a real simplicity to it,” said Massachusetts dealer David Wheatcroft, who bid the work to $82,250 against competition from the phone. “The oral history is that the panel was covered by wallpaper. The tiny holes in the surface are heavily oxidized and the back side shows vertical pit-saw marks, so the physical evidence dovetails quite well with the history.”
“It was a good day for me. I got everything I wanted,” added Wheatcroft, who recently opened a shop in Westborough, Mass., and left Skinner with three oil on academy board Prior-Hamblen school paintings. The best, an arresting 22 by 171/2 inch portrait of a girl in a red dress with a doll and a landscape in the background, cost him $88,125 ($15/25,000). Two smaller por-traits of a boy and a girl, the girl signed “Wm M. Prior Boston,” fetched $11,163 and $19,975.
“All three came out of one family so there is every reason to think that they were painted by the same person,” said Wheatcroft, enumerating the stylistic details that convinced him that the portrait was by Prior, not William Kennedy, as others believed. Whoever painted it, the charming portrait was exceptionally attractive and in excellent condition.
Rounding out the sale was a small selection of mocha, including a slip-slashed quart mug, Jonathan Rickard, $2,115; a tea caddy with a repaired rim, $1,645; and a circa 1830 chamber pot, $1,410. The sparse textiles offering featured a Philadelphia house sampler made by Elizabeth Marshall in 1813, $9,400 and a circa 1850 Baltimore album quilt with three signed blocks, $11,750. Both sold to phone bidders.
For the average shopper simply looking to furnish a home with beautiful antiques, there was much to choose from in the $1,000 to $5,000 price range, though little slips went by unnoticed in this educated audience.
“Even in the middle market there are little gems that bring pretty good money,” said Fletcher, who hoped to win a demilune card table with tapered legs and scrubbed pine top for himself. “I left a pretty good bid, but it brought almost $3,500,” he sighed.
A Note from the SPNEA
“The acquisition of the Chippendale carved chair continues SPNEA’s commitment to building collections that relate the stories of New England’s architectural and decorative arts heritage. The chair highlights the multilayered history of SPNEA’s connection with the Lyman family, which helps explain its importance. According to family history, this chair belonged to Theodore Lyman, the first owner of the Lyman Estate, which was donated to SPNEA by his descendants in 1951. SPNEA’s library and archives contain a Nineteenth Century photograph that shows the chair in Lyman’s grandson’s home at 16 Mount Vernon Street, Boston. The chair was conserved by SPNEA in its conservation labs in 1993, for the private owner, and careful study at that time identified its all-original construction.
SPNEA President and CEO Carl R. Nold stated that in addition to being an excellent example of an Eighteenth Century easy chair, “The acquisition demonstrates SPNEA’s continued commitment to collecting and exhibiting extraordinary examples of New England decorative arts. Our collection of houses, landscapes, photographs, archival materials and museum objects is the basis for all of the scholarship, educational programs, tours and exhibits that we share with the public.”
This Boston Chippendale easy chair has a serpentine crest with shaped wings over outward curving arms. The upholstered frame is supported on carved cabriole front legs with ball and claw feet, joined by block and turned stretchers to maple chamfered raking rear legs. The chair retains its original under-upholstery on the wings and the back. The red wool damask upholstery is a modern reproduction based on fiber samples found under the original rose head nails. The chair will be displayed beginning this summer in the soon-to-be installed Nathan Tracey bedchamber at SPNEA’s Little Farm in Newbury, Mass. The chamber reflects the lifestyle of a man who had been one of New England’s wealthiest residents, but lost his money during the Revolutionary War and retired to Newbury.
Acquisition of the chair was made possible by generous contributions from six anonymous donors.”
For more information visit SPNEA online at www.SPNEA.org.
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