Folk Art and Americana: The Brandegee Collection
A single-owner sale of Americana and folk art that ranged from a William and Mary one-drawer stand to a Howard Finster metal sign brought a strong response at Garth’s Auctions March 18, indicating there’s no lack of interest in fresh goods with the right look. The event was held live at Garth’s home, the Municipal Light Plant in Columbus, Ohio.
Featuring more than 575 lots, the auction offered a portion of the lifetime collection of Ada and Robert Brandegee of Pittsburgh. The couple were said to be nearly inseparable from their wedding day in 1963 until Robert’s death last September. They owned Brandegee, Inc., a communications consulting company. “Rob and Ada were a formidable entrepreneurial team that successfully navigated the company through growth and challenges for almost four decades,” his obituary noted.
In 2000 they sold the business, and Robert founded Logjam, where as an artist and furniture designer he crafted whimsical but functional furniture and sculptures made of logs salvaged from early American cabins.
Despite their passion, the Brandegees collected quietly, according to Jeff Jeffers, CEO and principal auctioneer of Garth’s. “They were a little bit under the radar,” he said. The items filling the couple’s Pittsburgh condominium, however, had an unmistakable flair. “With their sense of creativity and eye for design, they were always drawn to objects and color and folksiness in a very serious way.”
That could be seen with the top lot of the sale, an anonymous panoramic riverscape found in Maine and thought to have been created by a folk artist there around 1915-20. In oil on sailcloth, it depicted sailing ships with houses and a church in the background. What gave the work extra panache was the size: 21¾" high x 87" wide. It sold for $15,625 (including buyer’s premium) against an estimate of $800/1200.
By the same hand and in a matching frame of the same size, a riverscape featuring a World War I-era battleship and a masted ship, with buildings and a lighthouse accenting the work, was of less interest to buyers. It brought $2750 (est. $600/1200).
“They were done at the same time. They were a pair,” said Jeffers, who noted that the battleship was clearly the key element when it came to bidding. “That’s not going to have the same kind of visceral impact as the sailboat.” On the plus side for both works was the unconventional format; Jeffers described the paintings as “quite interesting and desirable with the length.”
“Like we enjoy from time to time in this endeavor, you find objects that, based on their shape, size, and scale, become what I call ‘decorating opportunities.’ The length of this does that. It fills an area that 99.9 percent of objects don’t on a wall.”
The best of the furniture was a burl and root table from Great Camp Sagamore, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Built by William West Durant as a private residence in the 1890s, the lodge and surrounding camp were sold to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt in 1901. He expanded the lodge as a private recreational and entertainment retreat. After Vanderbilt’s death on the Lusitania in 1915, his widow continued improvements. In 1954 she gifted the camp to Syracuse University, which used the location as a conference center and wilderness classroom. A lack of upkeep left the property in such disrepair that by the mid-1970s the university sold it to the state of New York, which planned to demolish the buildings. Lobbying from the newly formed Preservation League of New York State saved the camp from destruction, and the nonprofit Sagamore Institute of the Adirondacks stepped in to facilitate use of the property.
From the recreation building at Great Camp Sagamore, the folky table had a polished top made of a large birch burl knot, set on a base consisting of a stump with roots. Standing 29" high x 46" wide x 38" deep, it sold for $11,100 (est. $1500/3000). Great form and provenance combined to boost interest in the piece. “It’s a cool item. Forget that we know that it came out of quintessentially the place where these things were born,” said Jeffers. Adding to the story, the buyer returned the table to Great Camp Sagamore.
Mixed throughout the sale, a variety of items related to the black community brought considerable interest. Quilts were among the most visible, their size and color making a statement irrespective of any provenance. A crazy quilt sold for $4920 (est. $400/800). From the late 19th or early 20th century, it had blasts of color in geometric motifs, with a blue-patterned back.
The diversity of the African American material included furniture. A paint-decorated cupboard, possibly from Georgia and dating to about 1900, 75" high x 38½" wide, sold for $4375 (est. $1500/3000). The primitive piece was pine with two tall glass doors over two small plank doors, each inset with a round pane of glass. The horizontal planking on the sides was painted brick red, while the front was red and green with white accents. The lower doors featured a red star on a white ground behind the circular glass.
The commonality among the African American material was a certain creativity. “The Brandegees were very drawn to this notion of self-taught,” said Jeffers. “Along with that comes the term ‘Outsider.’ When we’re talking about self-taught, the black or African American category quickly enters the picture, and the Brandegees, I think, probably were drawn first to textiles, and from there understood that there could be some wonderful self-taught objects in furniture as well. They were fierce supporters of the artists…. They really enjoyed the creativity and kind of the societally unbridled execution that came from this group.”
The couple looked beyond what the marketplace fancied at any given time. “They didn’t collect only those things that would have traction to the traditional folk art collection. They liked all mediums and really were drawn first and foremost to the artists. They maintained a lot of relationships with these artists. Many were friends. I don’t for a second think it was about acquiring works.”
Carvings were another focus of the collection. The best of those items included a life-size wood carving of a brown bear, possibly made in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the late 19th or early 20th century, in hardwood with its original dark brown stain. Standing 35" high x 75" wide x 24" deep, with dark purple paint on the nose and on some chips, and with a couple of teeth missing, it sold slightly under estimate for $3625 (est. $4000/8000). A limestone head carved by Noble Stuart (1882-1976) of Hinckley, Ohio, the round shape and stylized features possibly representing the moon, 16" high x 13" diameter x 4" deep, brought $3375 (est. $2000/4000). In the 1940s Stuart created carvings on natural sandstone formations that can still be viewed at Worden’s Ledges in the Cleveland Metroparks system.
“Being the creative guy all his life, I think [Robert] really wanted to surround himself with this creativity and this whimsy. The scale of their condo was large, thus the scale of some of the objects. His creativity and his brain matched that of some of these artists. He understood them in a way that others might not,” said Jeffers.
The Municipal Light Plant served as a fitting showcase for the collection. “The gallery was over the top in terms of how it looked. People came in and were mesmerized by how this collection came together, sitting side by side by side. It was really a fun, fun auction to preview and go through.”
For more information, phone Garth’s at (740) 362-4771 or visit (www.garths.com).
Originally published in the June 2023 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2023 Maine Antique Digest -