Published: May 15, 2018
Review and Onsite Photos by Madelia Hickman Ring
NEW YORK CITY – In the wee hours of May 11, a small group of Americana crossed the block at Christie’s, concluding a late-running session of Travel and Americana that was the last of five live sessions selling the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. The 54 lots all sold, for a cumulative total of $1,852,000.
David Rockefeller had inherited a love of American folk art from his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, whose passion for folk art lives on in the Colonial Williamsburg, Va., museum that bears her name. Though few, the Americana offerings were choice, and comprised two autographed letters from George Washington, an Indian weathervane, two pilothouse eagles, paintings by Antonio Jacobsen and Charles Willson Peale, an Audubon print of the Trumpeter Swan, a Pennsylvania German “Black Unicorn” chest from Berks County and 45 decoy lots. Rockefeller derived so much pleasure from the decoys that he had them arranged in a pavilion at Ringing Point – his Mount Desert Island, Maine estate – so that he could enjoy them in his final days.
John Hays, Christie’s deputy chairman of Christie’s Americas and the head of the American furniture and folk art department, mounted the podium at 12:30 am. He gave props to the “tenacity of the decoy guys,” who were gathered in a gaggle at the back of the saleroom. Given the late start, he cautioned that he would move through the lots quickly. It still took him nearly 90 minutes to sell everything.
Both Washington letters exceeded their estimates, with the second example, dated August 4, 1799, bringing $50,000, five times its estimate ($7/10,000).
The Massasoit Indian weathervane, which had provenance to the collection of Robert P. Marcus, had been acquired by the Rockefellers in 1989 at Sotheby’s. Estimated at $30/50,000, it went to a bidder in the room for $137,500, underbid by an absentee bidder.
A picture of the screw steamship Willkommen by Antonio Nicolo Gaspara Jacobsen nearly tripled its estimate ($7/10,000) to close at $27,500 from a bidder in the room, also underbid by an absentee bidder.
Hays said that one of his personal favorites was an engraving of a Trumpeter Swan by Robert Havell, after John James Audubon. It flew past its estimate $15/20,000 to land at $43,750, from an absentee bidder.
The highly anticipated Pennsylvania German Unicorn blanket chest did not disappoint. Estimated at $40/60,000, it received interest from all corners, finally going to Greenville, Del., dealer James M. Kilvington, who was in the room and bought it for a young client, for $300,000. After the sale, Hays commented that the strong price it brought – as well as the $280,600 achieved for a related example that sold at Pook & Pook on April 28 – indicated strength in the Pennsylvania German market.
The decoy lots followed immediately afterwards. The collection was influenced by carver and collector Donal C. O’Brien Jr, who Christie’s recognized as having advised Rockefeller in addition to being Chief Counsel to the Rockefeller family. O’Brien’s nephew, Stephen O’Brien Jr, a leading decoy specialist, said his uncle helped open David and Peggy’s eyes to the possibility of decoys as an art form and when the Rockefeller’s visited Katie and Donal’s home in Connecticut, they were taken by not only the depth of the collection but the way in which it was displayed. Like many collectors, the Rockefellers gravitated to species they loved, such as the eiders, mergansers, scoters and yellowlegs that populate the rocky Maine coast.
Many of the birds in the Rockefeller collection were ones he acquired through O’Brien from sales of the collection of William J. Mackey, which were conducted by Richard A. Bourne Co. in 1973 and 1974. Mackey, like O’Brien, had been part of the group of early decoy collectors that included Adele Ernest, Stewart E. Gregory, Joseph French, Malcolm Fleming and Dr George Ross Starr, among others. The early decoy collecting traditions were, according to Stephen O’Brien Jr, very social, where collectors would visit with one another and trade decoys back and forth, a tradition that continues to this day.
The top lot of the decoys was a rare whistling swan decoy made by John Haynes Williams of Cedar Island, Va. Williams was a specialist in swan decoys. The decoy had been in the Mackey collection, and the swan was one which Donal O’Brien Jr had considered the rarest decoy in their collection. Hays opened the bidding at $30,000 against a estimate of $100/150,000. Hays took bids for nearly five minutes before a client, who was bidding on the phone with Cara Zimmerman, Christie’s Outsider art specialist, won it for $348,500 against a bidder in the room. With that price, not only was a record set for a swan decoy but a record was also set for any decoy made by Williams. After the sale, Hays acknowledged that the winning bidder was new to Christie’s.
Another of Hays’ favorites was an early red-breasted merganser hen with horsehair cresting he called a “mohawk.” After taking absentee bids to $9,000, Hays entertained online bids from Oregon before selling it to a bidder in the room, for $15,000.
One of the discoveries in the sale was the identity of the maker of an eider drake decoy that had sat on a ledge above David Rockefeller’s desk in Maine. The initials “EWE” on the underside of the decoy support an attribution to Eben Weed Eaton, a fisherman, lobsterman and ship’s carpenter from Deer Isle, Maine. After taking competing bids from an online bidder from Texas, Hays brought the gavel down on the $68,750 winning bid, from a phone bidder.
A pair of hollow red-breasted mergansers from New Jersey were dubbed by Hays as “one of the magical lots in the sale.” Rockefeller had acquired the pair from the Mackey collection and had loved them so much they had a place of honor on the dining room sideboard at Ringing Point. O’Brien had also considered them among the best of Rockefeller’s decoys. All of this contributed to competitive bidding and Hays had absentee bids to $85,000. He continued to take bids in the room until selling it to a bidder in the room, for $212,500.
Rockefeller’s collection featured a few birds by noted carver, A. Elmer Crowell. The best of the Crowell lots was a pair of lesser yellowlegs that Hays called “spectacular” and noted had been on a shelf at Ringing Point. Interest from absentee bidders pushed the lot well past its estimate ($30/50,000) and the pair finally closed to a bidder in the room for $93,750.
Speaking after the sale, Hays gave credit to decoy experts Frank Schmidt and John Deeter for their help with the decoys in the collection. Hays said the collection had been a tremendous honor, great fun and reminded him of “the spirit of a house sale from the old days, with all departments across the company involved.”
Prices, with buyer’s premium, as reported by the auction house.
Christie’s is at 20 Rockefeller Plaza. For information, 212-636-2000 or www.christies.com.
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