There’s no shame in admitting that the Americana sale held by Garth’s on March 19 in Delaware, Ohio, wasn’t the company’s best offering. Good material, yes. Solid antiques, absolutely. Best stuff ever? Not so much.
Amelia Jeffers, president of Garth’s, put it in perspective. “I’m a collector. Every piece in my house is not a ten,” she said. “That was this auction.”
Although it wasn’t slap-your-head great, the sale provided a reliable yardstick for measuring the marketplace. Indeed, it did measure up, with a few unlikely surprises along the way.
The top lot of the day was a folk art bust of a woman, carved and painted by Shields Landon “S.L.” Jones of West Virginia (1901-1997), that sold for $7500 (includes buyer’s premium). Circa 1983, the unsigned piece was 12" high.
Jones began carving in 1967, filling a void following the death of his first wife and his retirement from the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. According to the online West Virginia Encyclopedia Jones was discovered in 1972 by nationally renowned folk art collector Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. At that time Jones transitioned from small whittled animals to human figures, including portrait-size heads. “His sculpture is smoothly contoured, complemented by flat colors applied to facial features, hair, and clothing,” according to Fawn Valentine, who wrote the entry in the encyclopedia. “Jones attached carved accents, notably crisp bow ties for men and hemispheric breasts for women, with some of his figures carrying musical instruments, tools, or other objects.”
As his health failed, he switched from carving to drawing and painting. All forms of his work are collectible. Examples are included in notable permanent collections such as the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and American Folk Art Museum.
Having handled the artist’s work in the past, the staff at Garth’s knew what they had when the carved bust came through the door. “We had been familiar with his work,” said Jeffers. “It was a good-looking, fresh-to-the-market kind of thing. It doesn’t get more simple than that. It’s not too complicated.”
What to expect from a good piece of folk art can be easy to figure out. However, the market for brown furniture hasn’t proven so comprehensible. Prices go up. Prices go down. There remains neither rhyme nor reason to the what, when, and why of it all.
“Sometimes even in the same auction I’ll scratch my head and say, ‘Why that one and not that one?’” Jeffers noted. “Particularly, I continue to be astonished at reproductions. That Eldred Wheeler did well. I scratch my head and try to understand the market and know what the story is.”
The Wheeler piece is significant, but that’s getting one step ahead of things.
The best of the brown furniture was a walnut North Carolina server, 1820-40, in a simple form consisting of a rectangular one-board top, a small drawer, and daintily turned legs. It sold for $5640.
“Southern furniture definitely has some traction in the market,” said Jeffers. There’s also some pretty solid footing for the buying habits of collectors interested in that furniture, with Garth’s getting a regular supply of material that passed through the auction house years ago. “There weren’t a lot of great sources for American furniture for those people, and a lot of times they were buying out of Garth’s. We are retrieving things we sold out of collections.”
The history behind some of the traditional antiques coming and going at Garth’s is offset by some of the contemporary pieces that have surged to the forefront of the market, grabbing attention and second looks. Enter Eldred Wheeler.
A Queen Anne-style secretary by Wheeler, a Massachusetts cabinetmaker active during the second half of the 20th century, realized the third-highest price of the day, selling for $4800. It didn’t hurt that the server was in curly maple with good figure. Even so, that’s a bunch of money for something not too terribly old. What’s more, this wasn’t an isolated case of bidding run amuck.
In January a Chippendale-style stepback cupboard in cherry, made by David T. Smith of Morrow, Ohio, late 20th century, sold for $4680 at Garth’s. Following that auction, Jeffers noted that high-quality reproduction furniture has staying power. The Wheeler secretary validated that theory.
For the most part, buyers at Garth’s are still looking for the company’s bread-and-butter offerings: desirable folk art, early furniture, and original paint. Landing in the middle of that mix was an American miniature chest of drawers in pine and flame-grain mahogany, dating to the first half of the 19th century, 24" high x 18" wide, that sold for $4080.
Jeffers expressed no surprise, even though the piece utterly blew past its $700/900 estimate. “Consistently we see miniatures at auction. If you look at Garth’s Americana, it’s going to be rare to not find one. What is rare is to find great miniatures in great proportions and form. When they have that, like their full-size counterparts, they take off, and it did. There is something to be said right now for portable. And, small sells.”
Not that there weren’t some surprises along the way. An Ohio sampler dated 1847, the work of 14-year-old Mary Knott, born in Coshocton County, sold for $3360. The piece was rather basic, having alphabets above a design that included a house, dog, and trees. The sampler was estimated at $200/400.
There was a bit of a story behind the sampler. The catalog noted that Mary Knott’s father was in the 77th Regiment of the Ohio Infantry during the Civil War. When someone questioned whether that was possible, suggesting that Mr. Knott would have been past 50 years of age and thus an unlikely recruit, Jeffers pointed to records available on the Internet.
“I love this intersection of social and business that happens for all of us in this business,” said Jeffers. Online databases continue to prove helpful to those in the antiques trade. In this case, the crossroads brought together a young girl’s sampler, a historical event, an older Civil War veteran, and genealogy records that connected all the dots.
Two rope beds also brought strong prices. Granted, rope beds aren’t known as big sellers. Not at Garth’s. Not anywhere. And yet bidders found a couple they liked and were willing to take to four-figure prices. Both were American and from the mid-19th century. A curly maple rope bed sold for $1140, while one in pine with original flame-grain paint brought $1080.
Jeffers had a simple explanation. “I just think they’re screamers,” she said. She was auctioneering when the paint-decorated bed crossed the block. “You could see it on my face when I sold it. You just don’t see that kind of enthusiasm for the rope bed form at all.”
Paint played a major role in another surprising lot, a pine box in red with polka dots. It was originally cataloged as a kindling box but later identified as possibly a wall shelf or wall box. It didn’t really matter what use it served in an earlier life, though. More important for bidders was what it was now—a folky piece with utilitarian possibilities. Boxes are still useful—everyone’s got stuff that has to be put somewhere. This box just happened to have a funky look, like something a child decorated. Bidders ignored the $150/350 estimate, taking the price to $720.
“There is a whimsy in the marketplace right now,” Jeffers explained. Forget any talk about antiques being stuffy. The decorated box proved the point. “It speaks to what keeps the spirit going in the toughest of times.” She added of the original owners, “It speaks to the little extra things they did for themselves.”
A bit of attitude was also seen in a number of trade signs offered during the day. Not everything was high dollar, but interest remained steady. The best was a tobacconist’s sign in the form of a carved and painted pipe, 38" long, that brought $2760.
Jeffers recalled a recent conversation with a buyer unable to find trade signs in his area. “I have to say, we get so spoiled handling the number of good trade signs we handle. I make the assumption that it’s that easy for everybody.”
Another intriguing piece was a tabletop dough box in an unusual size, being only 19" wide. In original red paint further accented by a chip-carved base, it brought $1050.
At the end of the day, Jeffers readily admitted this wasn’t a landmark auction. And yet, the sale proved where the market stands in 2016. Good stuff is still bringing good prices. Absolutely, there’s nothing shameful about that.
For more information, contact Garth’s at (740) 362-4771 or visit the website (www.garths.com).
Originally published in the July 2016 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2016 Maine Antique Digest - - See more at: http://www.maineantiquedigest.com/stories/americana-auction/5797#sthash.puYByNh8.dpuf