Published: January 14, 2020
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack
PLAINFIELD, N.H. – Bill Smith’s auctions have consistently leaned heavily towards Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century art, Americana and “brown” furniture. This one was a little different. The January 4 sale included numerous lots of Arts and Crafts furniture, along with several lots of mid-Twentieth Century furniture, high-quality custom-made furniture, much of which Smith said came from a Maine mountaintop “retreat,” and there were numerous Twentieth Century art works. In fact, the three top lots of the sale were Twentieth Century art works.
To be sure, there was also a wide selection of the material one expects in a Smith sale, almost all sold without reserve. Smith does not use internet bidding, so the salesroom was full – really full. The midcentury material drew some new faces, and prices were generally strong throughout. The sale included Nantucket baskets, Oriental rugs, English and American furniture, several paintings, Asian material, art pottery, Tiffany glass and bronze, and still more. When we say the salesroom was full, note that the seating area had 300 reserved seats plus more, unreserved, in the back of the room and along the walls. The sale grossed $467,000, with very few lots passed.
Talking about the quantity of midcentury material, Smith said, “When we see quality pieces, we’ll take it and probably put it aside until we have enough to attract the crowd that’s interested in Twentieth Century material. Our job is to focus on stuff that people are likely to want, so we want to offer as wide a variety as possible. But I don’t think we should just add a couple of midcentury pieces to a sale full of earlier things. That’s not doing justice to the later material. We also want each sale to be different from the one before. People need to see different things, sometimes displayed in different ways, so we try to set up the gallery for each sale to give people ideas on how they can combine different kinds of things for a “different” look. Presentation in the gallery is an important part of our job.”
Of the three highest priced items in the sale, two items each brought $19,500. One was a Brutalist bronze by Italian sculptor Pietro Consagra (1920-2005). It was an abstract piece mounted on a cement and steel base and was signed “Consagra ’61.” He was active in the artistic community in Sicily in the 1940s and a member of the Communist party. Peggy Guggenheim was a collector of his works, which today are in several museum collections, including the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art.
Selling for the same price, $19,500, was a colorful acrylic and charcoal on paper abstract composition by Cy Twombly (1928-2011). His works are in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and others, although one critic in 1994 wrote, “This is just scribbles – my kid could do it.” Twombly was of the generation of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and is said to have influenced younger artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The third Twentieth Century work finishing in the top three was titled on the stretcher “Barn With A White Roof” signed by Wolf Kahn (b 1927) and dated 1985. The scene depicted a barn behind several trees in a grassy landscape and it had been consigned by a Pomfret, Vt., family that had received it directly from the artist. It realized $18,400. Other interesting paintings included a watercolor of the “Prometheus” fountain in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza. It was signed James Montgomery Flagg and reached $518, while a painting of Stowe, Vt., at twilight by William Dorsey reached $1,380. There were numerous other paintings as well.
The selection of furniture was broad: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century American, English, Arts and Crafts, midcentury, including designer pieces that had been quite expensive when they were bought, and some Asian pieces. Bill Smith later commented on the current market for Asian furniture and other objects. “It’s more difficult to know what to expect these days,” he said. “It’s a different group of buyers than it was a few years ago and the recently imposed tariffs have affected the market so we don’t know what to expect.”
A Pennsylvania paint-decorated dower chest in red with black, green and white decoration earned $4,600. A simple cherry, two-part circa 1800 Federal period corner cupboard with a 12-light top door realized $1,380. It was accompanied by a 1988 appraisal valuing it at $12,000. A one-drawer blanket chest in old red earned $518; a Sheraton four-drawer maple chest with rope-turned corners and bird’s-eye maple inlay realized $633; a small Eighteenth Century Queen Anne mahogany dressing table with old brasses reached just $230; and a circa 1800 Chippendale tall chest with five graduated drawers went out for $575. An unusual Federal period hanging cabinet with two glass doors, probably from Virginia, could only make it to $173. The upswept crest might have been meant to remind one of a pair of birds.
Twentieth Century offerings included several Stickley pieces, along with some Scheier pottery. A Stickley round oak dining table with five leaves earned $2,990, and a set of six chairs that might have been used with it went out for $2,070. The two large armchairs in that set each had the red “Stickley” stamp under the arms. A Stickley Bros. Co. sideboard with backsplash, hand wrought hardware, three drawers and two doors realized $1,840.
The Twentieth Century offerings included several pieces by Vermont furniture maker Charles Shackleton, which was (and is) quite expensive. These pieces did quite well. A cherry set of eight chairs, including two armchairs, earned $6,325. The Shackleton website indicates that chairs similar to these are priced around $1,500, so Smith got pretty close to half of what they sold for new. A sideboard by the company sold for $4,370 – these are no longer listed on the website. As he was selling these pieces, Smith commented that the Shackleton and other custom furniture was bought when a couple was furnishing a new home in Maine. They had paid, he said, $110,000 for the furniture, which was never used as the wife died shortly after the furniture was delivered.
Some of this furniture did not do as well. A signed 66-inch table designed by Holly Hunt, whose furniture and accessories are also quite expensive, sold for $633. A credenza by the same designer, which originally sold for close to $10,000, went for $748. Scheier pottery offerings included a 10½-inch blue bowl with incised abstract decoration, which sold for $1,035, and another, about the same size but without the incised design, sold for $403.
A few days after the sale, Smith said, “It was the kind of sale I like. We still had about 200 people in the room at four in the afternoon, and both the buyers and my consignors were happy. I know that some auctioneers are disappointed with brown furniture, but I like selling it. The market is there for it and I’ll continue to sell it. Yes, it brings less than it used to, but it sells, and smart buyers are taking advantage of the opportunity to get really nice early pieces at very affordable prices. We’re being selective in what we’re accepting from consignors and that lets us present good, worthwhile stuff. And with the day totaling over $450,000, I’m quite pleased.”
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For more information, www.wsmithauction.com or 603-675-2549.
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