Published: September 8, 2020
Review by Rick Russack, Photos Courtesy of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries
THOMASTON, MAINE – A few days before the August 29-30 sale, Kaja Veilleux, owner of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries, said, “This could be one of our best sales ever.” Looking through the catalog, it was not hard to see why he was optimistic. The selection of American paintings included examples by some of the most respected Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century painters: N.C. Wyeth, Alfred Thompson Bricher, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Severin Roesen, Harrison Bird Brown, George Inness and others. There was an outstanding selection of jewelry, all with GIA appraisals, works by Maine artists, numerous cased ship models and a well-documented collection of early Chinese and other Asian artifacts. Due to COVID restrictions, there was no in-house bidding, but the sale was live-streamed on three platforms, there were numerous absentee bids and active phone lines. Creative marketing helped draw eyes to the website, online descriptions were thorough, and the company stands behind its descriptions of authenticity. The sale grossed $2.25 million, and more than 35 items sold for more than $10,000.
N.C. Wyeth was working on “First Farmer of The Land” depicting George Washington on horseback, just hours before his accidental death in 1945. The large 48-by-41-inch unfinished charcoal drawing showing Washington overseeing his plantation, was used as the cover of the February 1946 issue of Country Gentleman magazine and it sold for $108,000, the highest price of the sale. The finished painting is owned by the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Penn., and this drawing is in their catalogue raisonné.
Most of the high grossing sales were paintings. Selling for $60,000 was a Harlem renaissance work by Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), signed and numbered on the stretcher, “Listen Lord.” It was an illustration for James Weldon Johnson’s book God’s Trombones, Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, published by Viking Press in 1927. Douglas was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement and was well-known for murals and illustrations relating to social issues and segregation. His works are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery and other institutions.
At the other end of the time spectrum, and also selling for $60,000, was a Dutch Old Master still life on panel dating to the late Seventeenth or early Eighteenth Century. It was initialed JHD-M in the lower left corner, but the artist could not be identified.
American paintings that did well included a large, detailed and colorful still life by Severin Roesen (1815-1872). The painting depicted a tabletop with a large white porcelain compote and fruits of all kinds: grapes, peaches, apples, raspberries and more. It realized $50,000. Roesen fled Germany in 1848, settling in Philadelphia. The list of museums holding his work is long. This painting was one of the works included in the video gallery tours released by the auction house prior to the sale. Antonio Jacobsen’s (1850-1921) portrait of the side-wheel steamer Larchmont realized $19,200. The steamer had a sad history. On February 11, 1907, in one of New England’s worst maritime tragedies, the 1,600-ton, 252-foot steamer sank in icy waters off Watch Hill, Westerly, R.I., after a collision with the three-masted schooner Harry Knowlton, losing all but 19 of the 153 on board. The ship had been built in Maine at the Bath Iron Works, and the painting was consigned from a Maine collection. Jacobsen is believed to have painted about 6,000 ship portraits, and the Griswold Inn, Essex, Conn., has the largest privately held collection of his work. An autumn scene by George Inness (1825-1894) may have been a bargain, selling for $19,200, slightly above one half its low estimate. The painting had been displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
It’s not often that an auctioneer gets to sell artwork created by his wife. Thomaston Place sales usually offer a wide selection of recent paintings by Maine artists, and this sale included more than 40. Kaja Veilleux has said in the past that he believes in supporting the regional arts community. This sale included an oil on canvas painted by his wife Cali. A “Moonlight Inlet” along the Maine coast sold for $9,000, well over the estimate. Her work is well-known in the area, and in 2015 she had a successful solo show at a local gallery. Veilleux has said that he met his wife as a result of a house call, in which her mother was seeking advice on selling a highboy owned by the family. “The highboy was okay, but the lady’s daughter was fantastic,” he said.
The sale included a selection of cased ship models, the largest of which was more than 8 feet long. That was a circa 1900 model of the Royal Mail Packet ship Aragon built in Belfast. The model was fully rigged with complete deck features. The ship sailed between England and South American ports and was used as a troop ship in World War I, ending its career when it was sunk by a German submarine in 1917. The model sold for $18,000, and as Veilleux was selling it, he commented that it had originally cost its owner $235,000. Another cased model, also about 8 feet long, was of the SS Belfast, built in Bath, Maine, and sailing between Bangor and Boston. It realized $3,300. Of historical interest was a wooden model of The Star of The West, the first ship fired on by Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War. It was made circa 1860 by the ship’s carpenter. The ship was later captured by the Confederate navy and finally scuttled in 1863 in defense of Vicksburg. Cased and more than 18 inches long, it earned $5,700. Finishing far over its estimate was a Napoleonic War prisoner of war model of a 116-gun first rate ship. Fully rigged, without sails and showing a great deal of detail, the 18-inch model realized $18,000.
The highest priced item sold on the first day was a carved and painted figure of Guanyin, 1450-1495, made of bai and camphor wood with layers of polychrome lacquer and pigment. It had glass, onyx and pearl detailing. The figure, more than 30 inches tall, had 26 arms, with each hand holding a different symbol or attribute. It had an impressive exhibition record, including the Palace Museum in Shanghai. With strong presale interest, it realized $84,000. From the same estate, a family with connections to Vanderbilts and Astors, came a large three-part Ming dynasty garden pagoda dating to about 1575-1600. It was a memorial to members of the Gaungzhou family with Kanji calligraphy on the base. It had been exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum’s Astor Chinese Garden Court in the mid-1990s as part of a special exhibit honoring Brooke Astor’s collection and sold for $27,000. A pair of blue and white Chinese porcelain lidded jars dating to the Eighteenth Century brought $6,000.
Thomaston Place utilized an innovative marketing feature for this and its last sale. For each day of the sale, the firm uploaded to its website one-hour video tours of the gallery, set up as though for a live sale. In each video, Veilleux walked around the gallery, pointing out items of particular interest and the video showed closeup views of the items he was talking about. The videos provided an interesting presentation of the highlights. He later said, “This is something I’ve wanted to do for years and we’re getting good feedback.” A few days before the sale, more than 1,000 people had viewed the videos.
A few days after the sale, Veilleux commented, “The video gallery tours were commented on by a bunch of people, so we’re going to stay with that. We have a few more ideas for incorporating audio and video into our presale marketing. We had more than 1,000 bidders registered just on our website, plus thousands on the other platforms. There were bidders from at least 12 foreign countries. With the COVID restrictions, we have to keep finding new ways to get our material in front of people. And we’re planning on opening an office in New York City. My daughter is an art history major and she’ll be in charge. We get a lot of calls from the city, so being able to respond quickly will be a big help.”
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.thomastonauction.com or 207-354-8141.
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