Published: March 15, 2022
Review & Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Catalog Photos Courtesy Skinner Inc
MARLBOROUGH, MASS – Skinner titled its sale of the Axtell collection, “Smitty’s Eye” and it was an apt title. Richard “Smitty” Axtell, Deposit, N.Y., was a dealer well known to fans of unusual, early Americana objects. As it turned out, the reference to his “eye” was a clue as to what the sale included. Many of the objects were one-of-a-kind and many were quite small, requiring close examination by the eye of today’s dealers and collectors. Some items were homemade, such as a wooden toy gun made from an iron door latch and a padlock. Some items were so small as to almost need a magnifying glass to appreciate the details, as with a group of tiny, framed watercolor drawings and tokens of esteem. There was a wide selection of country cupboards in old paint, toys, paintings, lighting devices – including some you may not have seen before; a wide selection of burl items, again including some you probably haven’t seen before, and still more. Smitty’s distinctive “eye” was apparent. There were iron fireplace accessories, large lots of wooden tools, Staffordshire, and many one-of-a-kind items that you knew instantly would sell for prices far in excess of the conservative estimates.
Smitty, who died in 2021, did business under the name Axtell Antiques. He lived in a large, rambling house in Deposit. It was on the banks of the Delaware River, the oldest house in the town, once a tavern for those using the river, once a tourist home and more recently, his home and shop. And Stephen Fletcher, director of the Americana department who removed the contents for Skinner, called it “packed.” This was the type of sale in which bidders who were able to preview the offerings had an advantage. Many of the lots, especially wooden and tin lots, had multiple pieces, often with unexpected treasures that might have been overlooked in the online photos. The same was true of some of the small watercolors. It was also the type of merchandise that made accurate estimates difficult, with many lots selling well above the estimates.
That difficulty was apparent with the two highest priced items of the collection. Leading the day was an unsigned American school winter landscape titled “Winter in a Country Town.” The scene included a horse-drawn sleigh, a wooden bridge, several houses, snow covered trees and wooden fencing. Its final price was $10,000, far above the estimate. The same difficulty applied to the second highest item in the sale. It was a small Nineteenth Century American school oil painting on walnut board, depicting a cat seated in a basket, in front of a window, pawing at the curtains. At first glance, it might have been a dog, as it was certainly an unusually shaped cat. The unsigned painting, in a molded giltwood frame, sold for $8,750.
There were about a dozen lots of burl items, several with three or more pieces, and all drew strong competitive bidding. One of the outstanding objects was a small, cylindrical, handled mug, just 2½ inches tall. In discussing the sale with Fletcher during the preview, he picked up the mug and said, “I’ve never seen one like it.” Bidders apparently agreed with that assessment as it sold for $1,875, far over the estimate. Another small burl piece, a turned compote on a stepped base, 3¾ inches tall, earned $688. A two-handled oval bowl, more than 22 inches long, showing heavy wear and with a piece of one handle missing, realized $2,500. There was more and it all did well.
Sometimes, uniqueness did not mean high prices. Both Chris Fox, the department’s associate deputy director, and Fletcher selected the same object as their favorite item in the sale. This was a wooden make-do toy gun with a stock made from a piece of ash branch. A discarded wrought iron door latch was contrived as the trigger and trigger guard. The lock was just that: an old iron padlock with the hasp serving as the percussion hammer. It was made in such a way that the “trigger” in the door latch activated the “hammer,” perhaps striking a percussion cap. The ash branch was bored to approximately .50 caliber and the end of the barrel was rifled. It will probably be some time before another like this turns up but $563 took it home. A very unusual grain-painted countertop cupboard with 16 drawers and a central case with a hinged door went out for $594. It was more than 6½ feet long, on a bracket base, probably having been made for a country store. It was much larger in “real life” than it appeared to be in the catalog.
If you expected that there would be a wide selection of painted furniture, boxes and hanging shelves, you would have been right. Cupboards were available in a variety of colors, almost all with old surfaces. A blue-grey stepback cupboard (with an original mouse hole in addition to early paint) sold for $2,750. A blue pine stepback cupboard, possibly from New York or Pennsylvania, dating to the late Eighteenth or early Nineteenth Century, sold for $2,125. The blue surface was over earlier red paint, and it had an arched panel above its shaped shelves. An early Nineteenth Century blue-painted hanging shelf earned $1,063. The blue paint was over an earlier grey with traces of an underlying red. There were many more pieces and nearly all did well.
Textiles were also well received. A large velvet theorem, executed in a variety of colors, with a large central urn, seashells and a wide assortment of flowers, realized $2,875. A pieced and applique cotton pineapple variant quilt, reportedly made in Hawaii during the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century, earned $3,250. It had been worked in green and gray fabric. A very colorful, circa 1900 sampler depicted numerous scenes of farm life. There were farm animals, a horse pulling a cart, a shepherd, an early automobile, trees, flowers, etc. It was worked on a dark brown cloth and included the words “Joseph” and “Grandma.” The colorful piece sold for $2,250. Other samplers and quilts sold in the $300/400 range.
Watercolor drawings were another well-received category with an Ipswich, N.H., family record in the form of a fruiting tree selling for $3,375. It detailed the names and vital statistics of the family of Josiah Davis and Abigail Hubbard Davis. It was obvious from many of the watercolors, and other items in the sale, that Smitty had a particular interest in insects. A group of nine small watercolors depicting a scorpion, beetles and other insects reached $1,440. Another group with six watercolors of grasshoppers, moths and butterflies, sold for $1,063. Six framed works relating to butterflies earned $1,750. The largest, 16 by 12 inches, had illustrations of 17 different types of butterflies.
The lighting devices in the sale included some items rarely seen and that stretched the definition of “lighting device.” Selling for $938 was a carved and painted wooden faux hog-scraper candlestick. It was 11 inches tall and was painted black, with a yellow “candle.” There was a smaller pair in one of the lots of lighting items. More traditionally, an oak threefold “zig-zag” candlestand, 33 inches tall, realized $2,750, and another floor model, the same size, with a chip-carved and turned candle holder on a three-legged circular base realized $2,500. A wooden candle lantern with four glass panes and carved crests on each of the four sides finished at $1,375. There were numerous lots comprising several hog scrapers: a lot of ten brought $875, a group of 17 tin miniature candleholders brought $625, a group of six Betty lamps and accessories brought $813 and a group of nine miniature lamps and “make-do” candleholders brought $375.
The Axtell collection grossed just under $280,000 with very few lots passed. After the sale, Fletcher said, “it was really a unique collection. I don’t think we’ll see another collection like it for quite a while. Smitty had a lot of friends and we had interest from all over the country and foreign countries as well.” The internet truly reaches a world-wide market. Kerry Shriver, Skinner’s senior vice-president, confirmed that in 2021 Skinner made sales to customers in 53 different countries and all 50 states. She said that there were website visitors from 230 countries and territories, including places like the Wallis and Futuna islands in Polynesia.
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house.
Skinner will sell American furniture and decorative arts on March 30.
For additional information, www.skinnerinc.com or 508-970-3211.
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