Historic Auction Shows It's Not Too Late to Invest in Antiques
An antique heirloom, or just about anything for that matter, owned or strongly connected to a famous person will usually fetch a premium price. Case in point, here are a few examples hammered out within the last decade: ten grand for Frank Sinatra's mailbox, five thousand for Andy Warlhol's ceramic cookie jars, and almost a quarter million for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's pearl necklace. Incidentally, Jackie's pearls weren't even real pearls!
Now, let's move on to real collectible value and historically important provenance - George Washington. Suppose you received a postcard in the mail describing the following upcoming sale. Think it might interest a collector or two?
"At Public Auction by the Order of Emily Custis Lewis Stevens Tully and other heirs; direct descendents of Martha Washington. Featuring: Philadelphia Chippendale chair with shell carvings presented by Washington, Claw & Ball foot chest used by Washington, Mt. Vernon Duncan Phyfe table made for George & Martha's grand daughter, Nelly Custis and used in Mt. Vernon, etc …"
That estate clearance really did take place, "Saturday, October 10th, 1964, at 12 noon." It wasn't even promoted as a big event in those days. The auction catalog was discovered tucked away in a hope chest at a residence where I've recently been hired to appraise the contents. It's a flimsy 10 page paperback flyer. The husband and wife who picked it up some 38 years ago both graduated Magna Cum Lade. Two big incomes, few encumbrances, yet the Attorney and his doctor wife successfully bid only three items descending in the family of the most popular hero in American history. For the next twenty or so years, the happy couple would go on to expend a small fortune on Franklin Mint and other such "sure to go way up in value" expenditures. Looking back, it seems even brilliant people can spend money imprudently. Or, fail to spend it wisely when happenstance presents itself.
Here is a sprinkling of the 400+ items posted in that 1964 catalog and prices fetched, as penciled-in by the attending couple. As an appraiser interested in history and an antique dealer who believes that people should work hard to find integral antiques, I wish there were more than three "we got it" circles on that list.
- Blue and white Chinese large platter and other Canton and Nanking dishes named in Mrs. Washington's will as "the ware in common use" and later as "the china in general use over the longest period at Mount Vernon:" $22 average per item.
- 4 drawer cherry ball & claw chest of drawers-by family tradition said to have been used by George Washington in the Morris House in Philadelphia: $1,300
- Mahogany 2 drawer drop leaf table owned by Nelly Custis and made by Duncan Phyfe to her order: $475
- Framed Needlework picture (sampler) of a Hessian Soldier on a Horse, made by Nelly Custis: $190
- Framed Currier & Ives Print of Yacht "America." A Presentation copy by C & I to Commodore J. C. Stevens, founder of NY Yacht Club: $80
- Pair of Sevres Figurines of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette presented by Lafayette to Martha Washington on first visit to Mount Vernon: $110
- Box containing campaign ribbons and buttons: $17
- Four needlework sampler pictures by Nelly Custis: $120
- Needlework seat done by Martha Washington: $45
- Framed Piece Martha Washington reception dress: $42
- Mahogany Claw & Ball foot side chair presented by George Washington to George Thatcher-a delegate to the Continental Congress from Maine: $700
- Mahogany 2 Tier Dumbwaiter stand: this piece used in Mount Vernon: $150
- Broadside comparison of Free and Slave states, 1861: $10
Interestingly, lot number 208 in the catalog: "4 Rhinestone Buttons worn by George Washington-previously on Loan to Museum of the City of New York" brought an amazing (at that time) $300 at the sale. Imagine what my couple and all the other people were saying in '64: "Boy prices are really crazy these days! We should have been buying antiques years ago. Before it was too late!"
The moral to this story is, it wasn't too late to invest in and, more importantly, enjoy quality antiques back in 1964. It still isn't today. Time is 'tiquing away, so happy hunting!