Country Americana and Decorative Arts
May was different at Garth’s Auctions. That’s not how Jeff Jeffers, CEO and principal auctioneer, would have wanted it, but with Ohio restricting businesses and gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s the way things were. The trouble was, May is always a big deal at Garth’s. One of the highlights of the year is the Ohio Valley session in May, included as part of a two-day auction traditionally strong on country antiques and Americana. And this would be the first Ohio Valley auction at Garth’s new home, the Municipal Light Plant in Columbus.
Jeffers made the call. Garth’s would have a one-day sale of country Americana and decorative arts on May 16, but Ohio Valley would wait. “We put it on the back burner, with everything in the world that was happening. We decided to not conduct an Ohio Valley session,” Jeffers said. “We didn’t know what May would look like.”
In a “hindsight is 20/20” kind of way, here’s what he got. Coronavirus in the month of May? Ohio rode a roller coaster of new cases, the numbers not as high as in April, but far from a steady downturn. Garth’s country Americana sale in the month of May? It was no Ohio Valley auction, but it certainly was a day punctuated with some exclamation marks, including an $8100 pie safe. (All prices include the buyer’s premium.)
Items having a bold look got serious consideration from bidders. “Very good folk art, painted things, esoteric things,” said Jeffers. “Circus banners did well, things with high graphic value.”
Things like the pie safe. From the Civil War era, the pie safe had 12 tins punched in patriotic and military designs, including eagles, banners, powder flasks, percussion pistols, and Colt Army revolvers. The case was pine with old green paint and had two lower drawers, a scalloped skirt, and square legs. The tins were painted light orange. Damage and repairs were minor. Bidding was major, as shown by the $8100 paid for the piece, estimated at $3000/5000.
“The price didn’t surprise me. I knew it would be really pursued. There would be some energy in the bidding,” Jeffers said.
“What I liked about it was the tins were not symmetrical. Like a kind of appliquéd Pennsylvania quilt with folksy figures on it, you get a different feeling when you look at it,” he added. “Then you stir in the elements that were punched, guns and things, and it makes it really interesting.”
Throughout the auction, looks were everything. A miniature decorated blanket chest in pine with original vinegar sponging, first half of the 19th century, sold for $7800 (est. $1000/1250). The piece had faux panels in green—two on the front, one on the top, and one on each side—all contrasted by an orange ground. Three lower drawers in green were set against black paint on the lower part of the front of the case. On black bracket feet, the chest measured 8½" high x 14" wide. A miniature Chippendale blanket chest in pine with original red and black grain paint, having waist molding over two lower drawers, with black paint on the trim and ogee bracket feet, late 18th century, 10½" high x 14½" wide, topped at $5100 (est. $900/1250).
Beyond appearance, size came into play. Adding a miniature blanket chest to the décor of even the most crowded home usually doesn’t entail sending something to the attic or garage. And the pieces are functional. “They love storage,” Jeffers said of today’s buyers.
Aesthetics worked its magic when it came to other items. A Sheraton inlaid chest of drawers attributed to Kentucky, second quarter of the 19th century, sold for $7200 (est. $2000/4000). In walnut with mahogany veneer, it had an inlaid flower urn on the apron and trailing vines on the stiles. Jeffers said the chest had been in a collection for more than 40 years.
There was also strong interest in a Sheraton tall-case clock by George Strepey of Salem, Indiana. Dating to the 1820s, the clock had a cherry case with an inlaid flame-grained mahogany panel. The face was painted with a nautical scene and flowers, and it had the maker’s name and a moon-phase dial, all under a broken-arch pediment. Standing 95" high, the clock sold for $7500 (est. $900/1200). Jeffers explained the exuberant bidding simply: “It was just a super nice case and two regional buyers,” he said.
The auction wasn’t all Americana all the time. A fair selection of English goods brought reasonable results. A folky portrait of Welsh satirical character Shon-Ap-Morgan, also known as Poor Taff, shown riding his goat to London, English school, 19th century, oil on canvas, unsigned, 28¾" x 35", sold for $3720 (est. $600/900). The best of the pictorial samplers was an English example signed “Christian Robertson 1830,” cotton on linen, depicting a brick house with figures, animals, and birds, all within a tulip border, 20¾" x 16", that realized $2000 (est. $300/600).
“The primary collection of English material included in the auction was country. That really was the tie that we worked with,” said Jeffers. The items fit in nicely with the Americana theme.
Among the English landscapes was a 19th-century signed oil on canvas depicting a Georgian three-story brick house with a sign lettered “J. Ridgway” above the door, outbuildings, cattle, figures, and an arched stone bridge leading to other homes in the distance, 40½" x 49", that sold for $2160 (est. $800/1200).
“When looking at that painting, I was taken back to the Meeker house, where Garth [Oberlander] lived, and Tom and Carolyn [Porter], and Amelia and I for a while. It would go with any aesthetic, European or American,” Jeffers said.
The May auction might not have been what Jeffers expected going into the year, but it turned out fine, even with a closed gallery that pushed bidding to the Internet and phones.
“What’s interesting to me about the COVID times has been the isolated two or three or four items in an auction that, on their face, aren’t super rare, super scarce. They’re not a decorated sugar box, but yet they’re bringing two and three times what you might expect,” Jeffers said.
That’s why the May auction worked, even without the Ohio Valley session.
For more information, phone Garth’s at (740) 362-4771 or visit (www.garths.com).
Originally published in the August 2020 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2020 Maine Antique Digest -