You couldn’t make this stuff up if you wanted to.
During the 54th annual Thanksgiving Americana sale, held by Garth’s Auctioneers on November 28, 2014, at Delaware, Ohio, one of the more intriguing lots didn’t even make it into the printed catalog.
The item was a landscape painting attributed to Marcus Mote (1817-1898), from Ohio and Indiana, depicting a bird’s-eye view of the Mather farm near Lebanon, Ohio, with family members in the foreground. Oil on canvas, the unsigned work measured 30" x 40", plus it had its original frame.
It came to Garth’s during a monthly appraisal day. Amelia Jeffers, president of the auction house, thought the piece looked familiar from the start.
The owner said there was a story behind the painting—the location was known, it was a family farm, copies were made for the children in the family, and it was painted by a traveling artist. There was even a printout about the supposed painter—an African-American itinerant artist.
Jeffers knew the family’s attribution wasn’t right, so she looked for help. “We have this ten-minute exchange, and I’m calling some folks from Garth’s over to take a look at it,” she said. “I call Jeff out; he’s in his office.”
Jeff Jeffers, CEO of Garth’s, didn’t need to hear the story behind the landscape. All he had to do was see it. “He takes one look at it and says, ‘It’s the same farm as the Mote a few years ago,’” Amelia Jeffers recalled.
In May 2008, Garth’s sold a Mote landscape of a farm in Warren County, near Lebanon, Ohio. It was the same farm depicted in the painting at the appraisal event. The two works of art could have been twins.
What’s the chance of that happening?
Not that there was any question about the similarity between the paintings, because the Mote sold in 2008 was still hanging in Amelia Jeffers’s office.
“As luck would have it, the purchaser of the [first] Marcus Mote paid for it but had it in storage with us,” she recalled. “It’s hanging in my office over the fireplace. I look at it every day.”
No wonder that second painting looked familiar to her. “Again, I say my humility speaks,” she continued. “It hangs in my office, and I don’t recognize the one that walks in.”
The Mote that sold in May 2008 for $12,925 (with buyer’s premium) was signed “Marcus Mote 7 mo. 4 1881. after a Sketch by Lillie Mather 1871.” The catalog description noted that the scene showed the Mather family homestead at Little Miami Mills in Washington Township, Warren County, Ohio. Richard Mather (1783-1875) and his wife, Elizabeth Longstreth, moved west from Pennsylvania in 1815 and settled on the property at Little Miami Mills (renamed Mather Mills), located five miles east of Lebanon, Ohio. After Elizabeth’s death in 1845, Richard moved again, leaving the farm to his eldest son, David, who remained there with his family until 1871, when the property was sold. David moved to Fountain City in Wayne County, Indiana. By that time, little Lillie Mather (born June 2, 1866), the daughter of David’s younger brother Benjamin, was living with her family near Waynesville, Ohio.
Garth’s noted, “Based on Mote’s inscription, five-year-old Lillie Mather made a sketch of the family farm just prior to its sale. Ten years later, nostalgia may have prompted her father, Benjamin, to commission Mote to paint a view of Mather Mills, where he was born and raised. Mote, then living in Richmond, Indiana, based his painting on Lillie’s sketch, and surely included far more detail than was present in the child’s drawing.”
It’s hard to imagine a five-year-old drawing a scene accurate enough for Mote to have used as the basis for his landscape. Nonetheless, the catalog description from the 2008 sale gave credence to much of the provenance provided at the appraisal event. When the two paintings were placed side by side, the scenes were nearly identical.
Suddenly everyone was happy. “This lady is thrilled because we just connected all these dots for her, and we’re thrilled because she just connected the dots for ours.”
When the second Mote was offered at Garth’s, it didn’t make the printed catalog, but it was included in an addendum and was fully described in the on-line catalog. The painting sold for $12,500 (with buyer’s premium).
Jeffers said the free appraisal days don’t generate a huge amount of business at Garth’s, but they do pay off, grossing about $150,000 in sales per year from those items consigned by people who bring material to the event.
The Mote wasn’t the only unlikely story of the weekend. How about brown furniture as the top lot of the sale?
Of Pennsylvania origin, a Chippendale blanket chest in walnut, inlaid with the date 1818, as well as tulips, stars, and fylfots, having three lower drawers and bracket feet, sold for $25,200.
“Nobody in the Midwest is selling as much American furniture as Garth’s,” Jeffers noted. This time around, however, quantity wasn’t of prime importance. There are plenty of blanket chests that don’t bring anywhere near that kind of money. This was a matter of quality, and even then the bidding was surprising. The chest was estimated at $4000/8000.
Not that paint was overlooked during the sale. Of all the furniture Garth’s gets, much of it is painted. This time around, drawing prime attention was a pine mule chest with two drawers, all in old red paint. From New England and dating to the late 18th or early 19th century, the piece sold for $16,800 against an estimate of $400/800.
“Explain that to me,” Jeffers said after the sale. “I want to be able to re-create it for everybody who has a red mule chest.” Her final assessment was this: “Two people had to have it on the same day. That’s all it was.”
That was certainly enough.
Even so, Garth’s continued to do well with painted furniture and smalls. “We can sell paint all day long. It’s funny. Who knows where the heck the prices are coming from,” said Jeffers.
Smalls that did well included a Bible box in curly maple, of Pennsylvania origin and dating to the mid- to late 18th century. It sold for $9600. A paint-decorated schoolgirl box in curly maple, made in New England during the second quarter of the 19th century, realized $3360. Items such as these are popular because of their size and functionality. For that, collectors are sometimes willing to hold their bid paddles in the air a bit longer. “The larger the potential pool, the higher the price,” said Jeffers. “Who can’t use a good small box, particularly something that’s tabletop?”
Stoneware and redware also had a good showing. A salt-glazed stoneware crock with the freehand script “Somerfield, Penna.” and tulips, from the mid-19th century, 12½" high, sold for $9900 against an estimate of $150/300. Likewise, a redware pie plate with green and yellow slipware tulips, impressed “J.L. Blaney, Cookstown, Pa.,” mid-19th century, realized $4800 against an estimate of $300/600. A redware flask incised “By John Flack” on one side, “Uniontown July 22nd 1809” on the other, 4¼" high, split in half and glued, brought $5500 against an estimate of $1000/2000.
One potential buyer told Jeffers the estimates were “silly.” Bidding seemed to prove the point.
“Western Pennsylvania people were out, and they had a lot of money to spend, and they weren’t stopping,” said Jeffers.
There was one more thing. “A lot of that stoneware and redware, it was Mickey Gallis,” Jeffers said of the former owner.
A regular buyer at Garth’s, Michael “Mick” Gallis (d. 2014)was from southwestern Pennsylvania, where he was a genealogist by hobby and a founding member of the historical society in Fayette County. Jeffers described him as “phenomenal and phenomenally passionate.” He amassed a collection that drew a considerable reaction from Jeffers on her first visit to the modest country home where Gallis lived.
“You walk in, and you’re just blown away. Here’s a fine inlaid chest, and that blanket chest that was on the cover—that was Mickey’s. And a wonderful clock that has not come over yet, and all that stoneware and redware. What was more phenomenal was the sheer volume of historical documents and books. He was a hard-core researcher,” she said.
“When you have that combination of good things bought over time, slowly and carefully, and passionate collectors, everybody wants a piece of that. That’s the magical formula. Even if it’s brown furniture.”
Other factors also affected bidding throughout the day—a single day, it should be noted. Last year Garth’s changed from a two-day format on Thanksgiving weekend to a one-day sale. This second go-round proved the Friday-only auction works well.
“We were jammed,” Jeffers said of the standing-room-only crowd the day after Thanksgiving. “You’re wedging people in.”
Also affecting the sale was the influence of bidders on eBay, since its return to live auctions in November. Jeffers said Garth’s is one of five premier auction houses serving as the poster children for eBay’s live sales.
“eBay has created some challenges, but it also had tremendous underbidding volume,” she noted. Underbidders drove prices up at Garth’s. “I would say it was a pretty significant factor,” Jeffers added.
For more information, phone Garth’s at (740) 362-4771 or visit (www.Garths.com).
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2015 Maine Antique Digest