Published: July 17, 2007
“The collections of and accumulations by the Backofens” is how Bill Smith of William A. Smith, Inc, Auctioneers and Appraisers, described the contents of his June 29 on-site sale in the firm’s attractive, full-color catalog. And that’s just what it was, a mixture of things one would expect longtime collectors and dealers to have in a farm house.
There were some exceptional things, some really nice things that caught the attention of many of the bidders, some ordinary things and some things that did not make the catalog, but still found an audience at the end of the auction.
And it was an “auction perfect” day in New Hampshire. The sun was bright, warming the cool morning air, people were there early for a last minute inspection of the 320 lots to be offered, and the coffee and donut man was doing a brisk business.
By 10 am all of the seats under the tent were occupied, and the overflow bidders had taken spots on the sloping land behind the tent, well in view of the auctioneer.
Prior to the start of the sale, Libby Backofen stood before the crowd, welcomed everyone to her beautiful spot in the country, and said jokingly, “Glad to see you here and I want your money.” She went on to say that the proceeds from the sale were going to Simmons College in memory of her late husband, Walter.
“Many people have come by Hill Farm to have a look at the things being sold, some by special arrangement and most during the preview yesterday. I spoke to many of you, and to my surprise nobody mentioned my wonderful view,” she told the crowd. And indeed she did have a view, a vista of mountains in the distance, fields for farming and a small pond within a strong stone’s throw from the auction tents.
“This is the largest single-owner, on-site sale we have had, no reserves, no additions, and only a ten percent buyer’s premium,” Bill Smith said as he began the sale at 10 am. “Enjoy the day” he said as he offered the first lot, a Queen Anne brass candlestick on a scalloped base, circa 1760, 7½ inches tall, that went out at $385. All prices quoted in this review and under the pictures include the buyer’s premium.
The most talked-about lot in the sale was featured on two pages of the catalog, as well as on the back page and in a room-setting photo. George Washington, a folk art carving dating to the early Nineteenth Century, in the original red, buff and blue paint, stood 65 inches tall. According to text in the catalog written by Walter Backofen, George “entered Marblehead as a trophy of an antiquing expedition of the kind that Mrs Crowningshield (of Peach Point) enjoyed over summer months in the early Twentieth Century in the company of her faithful chauffeur, Max. I grew friendly with Max in his retirement years when he lived in a house at the top of Redstone Lane and a daily bike ride took me over this wonderfully scenic hill. Max owned George then, as he seemed to tell me, because he liked him more than Mrs Crowningshield did when they first discovered him someplace within an easy day’s ride north of Marblehead, and she simple turned George over to Max. When Max died, circa 1965, George went to an heir’s house in downtown Marblehead, where I caught up with him and became his next owner.”
There was a great deal of hype about this folk art figure when the sale was first announced, “but all the hype seemed to hold it down and all the serious players at first were not there at the end,” Bill Smith said. In fact, there were some reports in the antiques trade that George would easily push close to the $1 million mark. The bidding opened at $100,000 and moved slowly between two bidders, both toward the front of the tent, ending on Jim Norman, a retired auctioneer from Alabama, at $220,000 including the buyer’s premium. After the sale Mr Norman said, “When I first saw the figure I was thinking $200,000; however, I believed I would have to go higher. I am real pleased with my purchase, it is better than money in the bank.”
The first piece of furniture in the sale was lot 4, a Federal one-drawer stand with delicate carved legs, original red paint, in cherrywood. It was from the Hartland/Windsor area of Vermont and sold for $2,090. Another Federal one-drawer stand followed closely, strong tiger maple with tapered legs, circa 1800, original bail pull and lock, that went for $9,900.
“I love that mirror, it is really wonderful,” Barbara Pollack said as one of the runners went past her carrying a choice Queen Anne mirror into the auction tent to put it in line for bidding. She proved her interest in the Connecticut piece with undisturbed surface, Mather family provenance, circa 1740, by chasing it to $35,200. Lot 20 was a Queen Anne maple slant lid desk, New Hampshire school on bandy legs, Bartlett circle with ankle hock, old and probably original finish. It sold for $15,400.
One of the signs in the sale, oval in shape, advertised F.J. Williams, Bathroom Shaving & Hair Dressing. It was double sided, measured 38 by 24 inches, and sold for $4,675. A set of six birdcage Windsor side chairs, “right out of the kitchen,” retained the original salmon-red paint, circa 1810, and were sold by the piece, going for $4,175 each. Several lots later a naïve watercolor of two young girls flanking an American eagle, with the verse, “Wide is the ring that has no end, so is my love to you my friend,” signed M.S. and dated 1845, sold for $7,150. It measured 8 by 10 inches and was in a period frame.
An important Queen Anne tall chest of the Federal period, six graduated drawers on bandy leg base, maple and signed on the stretcher by Peter Bartlett of Salisbury, N.H. (maker), 1805‱810, 35½ inches wide, went for $25,300.
One of the important pieces of furniture in the sale was lot 70, a tall chest and wardrobe combination measuring 72 by 66 by 20 inches. In the original grain painted surface, red overall with yellow and orange sponge decoration, cutout bracket base and molded top, five graduated drawers flanked by wardrobe spaces, it dated circa 1830. The piece was from Center Harbor, N.H., probably Canterbury Shaker, and sold to “bidder 158 seated up on the hill” for $30,250. Records show that the piece was purchased in 1983 for $9,000.
After 100 lots, the auctioneering duties were turned over to Ken Labon, who started with a fire bucket, Concord Bank, Concord, N.H., original yellow ground with red and black decoration, circa 1810, that sold to a New Hampshire dealer for $3,080. Several lots later, a folky carved lion with front feet on a ball, red and yellow paint, first half of the Nineteenth Century, 7 by 7 inches, sold for $4,950. “We had lots of calls on that lot,” Ken said.
The variety at this sale was emphasized frequently, for instance with lot 113, a rare Keyed bugle, 10½ inches long, copper with brass trim, circa 1837‱843 and signed J. Keat for Graves & Co., Winchester, N.H. It sold for $4,950. A Queen Anne side chair in curly maple with cabriole legs, original slip seat, Newport, R.I., circa 1750‱760, went to a Fairfield County, Conn., dealer for $3,300, while a Federal New Hampshire candlestand, maple and cherrywood, top with shaped corners, Dunlap School stem, circa 1800, 26 inches high, brought $4,840.
A final bid of $5,940 took lot 133, a panbone busk, inscribed on both sides, port scene with colored American flags and “Go Tell The World America Is Free, July 4, 1776.” It is from Marblehead, Mass., circa 1800, and measures 14 inches long. Two lots later, a Queen Anne mirror, two-part glass, the upper with cut design, crest pierced and gilded, original condition, circa 1740‶0, sold after lots of interest for $11,000.
Walter Backofen wrote about lots 145-146, saying, “The two chests were made together and, although differ in height by essentially one drawer, they are technically ‘en suite’ and both came from the same house in Bradford, N.H.” The first chest simulating six drawers in curly maple, the top drawer simulating five drawers with a fan carving, bracket feet and attributed to Moss Hazen, circa 1800, went for $7,150. The second chest of five drawers on bracket base, circa 1800, same attribution, went for $1,980 to the same buyer. A pair of reverse paintings on glass, Washington and Lafayette, 9½ by 7¼ inches sight, in period black painted frames, early Nineteenth Century, went for $2,750.
Dealer Joe Martin was successful on a good number of lots, his favorite an Eighteenth Century tavern table with oval top (32 by 23 inches), large overhang on splayed base and box stretcher, original red paint, that went for $22,000. It was from Hartland, Vt., the Marvin Hatch estate, but probably was originally from Connecticut. “This is a really great table and I thought I would have to pay more for it,” Joe said as he loaded it into the back of his SUV.
Quite a lot of interest was shown in a tin four-branch chandelier, with Hillary Nolan coming out the winner at $7,480. It measured 12 by 15 inches with reflectors. A phone bidder bought the second Queen Anne mirror with pine-shaped crest, original glass and painted finish. It had a horse and rider motif on the crest, dated circa 1770, and was from Weare, N.H. Measuring 9½ by 15 inches, it sold for $3,740. Another phone bidder took lot 175, a Queen Anne walnut highboy, flat top with cabriole legs, old finish, original brasses, fan carving in lower central drawer, from the Stanley family of Marblehead, circa 1760. Measuring 70 inches high, it went for $20,900.
A selection of firearms was in the sale, including a Hilliard under hammer buggy rifle, Cornish, N.H., 35 inches long, for $2,200; a New Hampshire buggy pistol, under hammer, 12-inch barrel, for $2,530; and a Colt pistol, cap and ball, “49-er,” accompanied by a small copper powder flask, for $1,650.
One of the best buys of the day was a six-piece bedroom set, cottage pine, dating from the late Nineteenth Century, cream colored with floral decorated panels, for $930. It consisted of a high-back bed, drop center chest with mirror, commode, bedside stand, pair of chairs and a rocker.
Toward the end of the sale, as the crowd thinned out a bit, a stereo viewer with 30 cards went for $1,980; 25 decorative English polychrome delft tiles brought $1,430; a set of gold band china made it to $137; and two tin candle molds, 12 holes and 4 holes, went out for a single bid of $110.
The sale, with the buyer’s premium, totaled just over $1 million. “We average about eight on-site sales per year, and they are generally a good time. This sale was an exception †we had a ball,” Bill Smith said.
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