Fairfield, Maine, February 4-5, 2010. For over 40 years, the auction firm of James D. Julia, Inc. has presented an astonishing number of collections, estates, and individual items to an eager antique buying public. The most exciting lots, however, have been those with historical significance and certainly the recent extraordinary cache of historical items from the Decatur/Armsden family offered at the Julia February 5th sale was, in Julia’s own words, “the most incredible lot of goods [he’d] ever handled”. The Decatur-Armsden Collection was a historical trove that had descended through a number of important historical families, the most notable of which included Colonel Tobias Lear, General George Washington’s Aide de Camp and one of his personal best friends and the historical Commodore Stephen Decatur. Over the years Julia’s had previously done business with one of the other branches of the Decatur-Lear family and thus familiar with their historic connections. It was therefore with great enthusiasm that he traveled to Kittery Point earlier this year to examine the estate of Alice and Douglas Armsden. A good portion of the land on Kittery Point had been in the hands of Decatur-Lear descendants since the late 17th/early 18th Century. Sometime in the very early 1970s a barn on that property was sold to one of the family members. At the time a number of antique trunks filled with historical artifacts had to be removed. The goods at the time were evaluated and divided into three approximately equal lots of value and significance, going to each of the three branches of the family. One item discovered in the barn, a Dunlap version of the Declaration of Independence, at the time proved to be too valuable to divide and subsequently had to be sold for the enormous sum of $175,000 (a Dunlap version today will bring in excess of $10 million). That portion which had gone to Alice Decatur Armsden had been maintained pretty much in its entirety until her and her husband’s estate was settled this past year. Because of the size, diversity and historical significance of the grouping, the family decided it would be best to sell the collection on the open market where the things would be acquired by the appropriate institutions and advanced collectors who could properly store and preserve these special treasures. “Before going to examine the safe deposit box, I had learned of the map of the siege of the Battle of Yorktown. From the moment I heard about it I was extremely excited,” James D. Julia stated prior to the auction. “The siege of Yorktown of course was the most significant military encounters in the history of our country. The defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown resulted in the eventual surrender of the British and thus our American independence. The map, hand done at the direction of Jean Baptiste Gouvion (who actually took part in the siege) was done a matter of days after the battle took place. A considerable amount of research revealed that one other version of this map already existed; it was done in exactly the same hand but a much larger version signed and dated by Gouvion and is currently in the National Archives. This larger map, in poorer condition, is also listed as part of the papers of the Continental Congress. Thus Julia concluded that the much larger and more detailed map in the National Archives must have been produced at Washington’s request to be sent to the Continental Congress shortly after the battle so that they might have a detailed knowledge of the battle and how it progressed. Julia reasoned this smaller version had to have been that of General George Washington’s himself. After all, it is a known fact that Tobias Lear handled Washington’s papers after Washington’s death. In addition, a number of the books offered in this particular auction had come from Washington’s own personal library and were detailed on an inventory sheet in Lear’s hand. “Since most of Washington’s papers and books were handled by Lear and since its highly unlikely that a map of this significance would have been made and presented to an Aide de Camp, it only stands to reason that Gouvion gave this map to Washington and it was simply part of his papers at the time Lear took control of them.” From the very beginning, Jim Julia said he had great anticipations and confidence about the map. However, research conducted by both Julia and the cataloger Marvin Sadik resulted in plenty of Yorktown map examples but none of which were this early and none of which brought any appreciable amount of money. Consequently, despite his speculations and anticipations, Julia estimated the map very conservatively at $5,000-$50,000+. By the time the auction was about to begin, it was obvious that the map indeed was as important and as exciting as Julia had thought all along. With approximately 25 clients set up on the phones to bid and some present in the audience, the battle began and rapidly escalated. At around $300,000 it was moving at $25,000 advances when a phone bidder jumped the bid substantially. By around $400,000 there was only one live bidder in the room bidding against the phones. At about a half million the battle narrowed down to the bidder in the audience and one phone. The phone bidder continually jumped the bid by significant amounts until the bidding reached $1 million. At that point the in-house bidder stopped and the phone won the lot for $1.15 million (inclusive of the 15% buyer’s premium). The price was not only a record for the Julia firm, but also the most expensive antique item ever sold at auction in Maine. It was also a world auction record for any map ever sold at auction. Applause erupted at the fall of the hammer and after the auction, Julia reiterated that this was indeed the most exciting piece he’d ever handled, not simply because of the monetary value that it realized, but because of the historical significance of its former owner and the event it depicted. Julia and his firm were not the only happy actors in this play, but for the three sisters, heirs of the Decatur/Armsden estate it was a bittersweet event. The prices and the tremendous enthusiasm displayed by collectors, institutions and corporations all over the world were a great satisfaction but the sale also represented a certain closure to what had been for generations a trove of historic material that had captured and reflected their family’s significant and historic past.
But the map wasn’t the only thing to sell; the auction continued to perform far beyond expectations. One couldn’t help to be awestruck by the various offerings. Another of the more fascinating lots was a four page letter written by George Washington in his own hand to his nephew George Augustine Washington in which he speaks of family issues, offers marital advice, and promises the latter’s eventual inheritance of a parcel of land. Well surpassing a presale estimate of $40,000-60,000, it sold for $120,750. It was followed by a letter written by General Washington pertaining to his purchase of property adjacent to hallowed Mount Vernon. The letter detailed the transaction in which 90 acres were to be exchanged for 30 pounds of Virginian currency, 130 pounds of tobacco, and dismissal of a lawsuit brought against the landowner by Washington. The historical document found a buyer who was willing to pay $46,000 against an estimate of $25,000-40,000. A poignant draft of a letter from Martha Washington (written for her by Tobias Lear) to president John Adams reluctantly agrees to a request by Congress to have her late husband interred in the capital building, estimated $1,500-$2,500 sold for $24,150.
Other letters included a full page account by Thomas Jefferson to Tobias Lear stating the necessity of a navy, encouraging Lear’s son to study for the bar in Maryland, and detailing the importance of a good education. It sold many times above its $5,000-10,000 estimate for $57,500. A copy of Commodore Edward Preble’s letter and also one of Stephen Decatur’s detailing the historic burning of the Philadelphia was estimated at $2,000-$3,000 and sold for $29,900. An assortment of letters from Commodore William Bainbridge in 1804 to Tobias Lear describing his captivity and a vivid description of the battle also offered important information regarding the strengths and vulnerabilities of his captors. A marvelous trove, it sold for $51,175 against expectations of $3,000-5,000.
A selection of Barbary Wars items included a petition to the Dey of Algiers, Tobias Lear (consul to Algiers for the U.S.) and various European dignitaries for the protection of consuls and their families. Affixed with their wax seals this fascinating and important document sold for $46,000 against an estimate of $3,500-5,000. A copy of the first treaty between the United States and the Bey of Tripoli written both in English and Arabic was an extraordinary manuscript seldom encountered outside State Department archives. It sold for $74,750 versus a $5,000-10,000 estimate. And a lot of four account books once belonging to Tobias Lear detailing purchases and shipments during a three year period in the early 1800s brought 17,825, above a $5,000-10,000 estimate.
Books from the Lear-Decatur-Storer collection that have been passed down through the family included a grouping of books once housed in George Washington’s personal library. These books were acquired by Colonel Tobias Lear from Washington’s own library. A selection of leather bound encyclopedias (from an original set of 21) dated from 1798 began the offering and helped set the tone for what was to come. The set brought $12,650 against an estimate of $5,000-10,000. Another lot of seven from the same set (consigned by another branch of the family) brought $23,000. In 2008, Julia’s sold a very rare American Pilot sea chart book by William Norman consisting of maps detailing the eastern coast of North America from Nova Scotia to Maryland. This time up for bid was the European version by the same maker and at one time belonged to Ichabod Goodwin (governor of New Hampshire during the mid-1800s). It brought a phenomenal $86,250 versus an estimate of $5,000-15,000. An exceedingly rare book, “Code Henry” pertaining to the Revolution and the establishment of the United States as well as the slave rebellion in Haiti and the Dominican Republic brought $17,250, more than four times its $4,000-8,000 presale estimate.
The trove continued with a score of period military flags. Of the twenty or so examples offered, highlights included a 16-star American flag identified to one of several U.S. ships carrying the name Scorpion. Precious few of these early flags with this star count are known today in any collections. This example exhibited evidence of considerable use and wear having been used during wartime; it sold within its estimate of $5,000-50,000 for $21,850. This was followed by a mid-19th Century 34-star flag formerly owned and used by Commodore Stephen Decatur. It sold for $14,950, far beyond its $1,000-2,000 estimate.
Other period militaria from the collection included an outstanding pre-Civil War naval dress uniform of Captain George Washington Storer, nephew to Tobias Lear. Storer eventually attained the rank of Rear Admiral in 1862. The uniform from two decades prior shows little use and was in very nice original condition. It sold above its $2,500-3,500 estimate for $8,625. Another member of the Storer clan, Lieutenant Colonel John Storer (who accompanied William Pepperell in 1795 on the expedition to capture Fort Louisburg, in Nova Scotia from the French) was represented by an early 18th Century silver hilted small sword. Inscribed with his name, it sold for $13,800 against expectations of $3,000-5,000. Storer’s personal diary kept on that same Louisburg expedition was estimated at $3,000-$5,000 and topped out at $15,525.
The once in a lifetime opportunities continued with two extremely rare silver medals both featuring a bust profile strike of Stephen Decatur. Awarded to naval officers who took part in a battle with the HMS Macedonian, fewer than 50 were made and only a handful of these medals have survived, most of which are held by institutions. Remarkably there were two in this auction, having descended through different branches of the Lear-Decatur family. The first from the Decatur-Armsden branch of the family sold for $19,550 while the second, which descended through the Lear-Decatur family, sold for $28,750, each at the upper end of their respective estimates.
The Lear-Decatur branch of the family upon learning of the other offshoot’s inclusion in the Julia auction decided to include a selection of their own, complementing the offering perfectly. An interesting porcelain bird given as a gift by George and Martha Washington to Tobias Lear and his wife when the Washington’s visited the Lears in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the late 18th Century found a buyer at $6,325, more than tripling its estimate of $2,000-4,000. The figure was mentioned in two books of early New Hampshire history; one book dated in the 1850s.
Aside from the celebrated Decatur offerings were other historically noteworthy objects such as the Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln Presidential dinner china ordered by Mrs. Lincoln in 1865 for use in the White House. The delivery of this set did not take place until two months prior to the assassination of President Lincoln and therefore saw little use. It is purported that the Johnsons did not like the set and opted to replenish the traditional Solferino china set for his term. The 88 pieces in this original historic dinner service included a soup tureen, covered dishes, serving bowls, plates, cups, etc. and sold for $28,750. An original WWI recruiting poster with the classic James Montgomery Flagg image of Uncle Sam in the “I Want You” pose was in outstanding original condition. It sold for $9,775 against a $3,000-5,000 estimate.
Day One of this spectacular sale started things off with approximately 400 works of art including American, European, and Russian artists in a variety of genres. Of the European variety, English artist Sir John Hoppner’s “Portrait of Lady Charlotte Percy, Countess of Ashburnham” depicted an elegant young woman seated in front of an open window. Considered by many to be the artist’s crowning achievement, Hoppner had (according to a book on the genre) “the reputation of investing his sitters with an ideal grace and beauty without losing likeness or character.” Truly a gifted hand, Hoppner’s portrait finished up at a jaw dropping $189,750, ignoring an estimate of $15,000-20,000. Henry Boddington’s oil on canvas summer landscape showing a shepherd taking a rest alongside a young girl by a fallen tree demonstrated realism that just pops off the canvas and draws the viewer in. It sold at the upper end of its $12,000-18,000 estimate for $17,250.
Other European art consigned from other refined collections included Dutch artist Karel Frans Pilippeau’s oil on wood panel scene of a troubadour serenading a gathering of citizens by a palatial manor house. Masterfully executed, it exceeded a presale estimate of $8,000-12,000 to land at $18,400. French artist Emile Michel’s large panoramic view of Monaco across the Mediterranean through old growth trees. Underneath, a young woman is seen reading a book. This work brought $11,500 within an estimate of $10,000-20,000.
Jean Dufy’s oil on canvas Paris scene gave a stylized bird’s eye view of the city in brilliant colors. It sold for $46,575 above expectations of $25,000-35,000. Other American art included a rustic oil on canvas scene by Hermann Herzog entitled “Road by the Farm” depicting a horse drawn wagon whose riders are taking a leisurely ride down a country path. Estimated for $15,000-25,000, it went out at $17,250.
Rockport artist William Lester Stevens’ “The Back Road Conway, Mass” depicts a snow lined dirt road with a mountain in the distance. This oil on masonite work came fresh from a private Massachusetts collection with an estimate of $8,000-12,000 and went out at $8,050. Fellow New England artists included Emile Gruppe. Of the several works offered by this Northeast favorite was his “March Thaw”, a quaint rural setting picturing a lone man walking toward the viewer through the melting snow. Completed by a covered bridge and various dwellings along the way, the piece sold for $9,775. His “Return from Fishing Trip” was a traditional misty harbor scene with a worker securing a boat, which sold for $8,625 within expectations of $7,000-9,000. Other seaside scenes included Frederick Waugh’s dusky “Mist Moon” showing waves crashing over Maine’s rocky coast that changed hands at $12,075 (est. $6,000-9,000). And Fern Isabel Coppedge’s delightful harbor scene depicting two schooners moored to a large wooden dock sold for $8,625 against a presale estimate of $3,000-5,000.
A few other surprises came in the portrait and still life categories. Robert Henri’s oil on board portrait of a young boy seemed to capture the essence of him and the image spoke to more than one bidder. It ultimately hit $17,825, well above expectations of $8,000-12,000. Henry Faulkner’s “Sicilian Flowers” in the bold painting and signature style of Bernard Buffet shows a large bouquet of colorful flowers on a ladder back chair. This piece sold for $10,350, more than three times its $3,000-5,000 estimate.
A selection of Frishmuth bronzes proved to be popular. One depicting a nude woman leaning backwards while holding a grape laden vine behind her sold above its presale estimate of $5,000-8,000 for $9,200. And her bronze entitled “The Star” depicting a nude woman standing, reaching longingly for the heavens with her arm stretched aloft sold for $8,050 against a $6,000-9,000 estimate.
The auction continued with a fine selection of folk art including various tobacconist figures. A traditional carved wooden Native American chief with full headdress and cuffed tunic attributed to the famed shop of Samuel Robb sold for $17,250 within an estimate of $14,000-20,000. An exceedingly rare carved and painted figure of a Turk or Moor who wears a turban and tunic and holds a sheaf of tobacco in his outstretched hand failed to find a buyer.
These items were joined by a fabulous large collection of nearly 30 Lawrence Irvine carved wood fish plaques that performed well across the board. The offering represented the largest collection of Irvine carvings to ever come to auction. The late Lawrence Irvine lived in central Maine and carved, painted, and sold examples of Maine game fish. Highlights included an enormous and rare 37” striped bass that sold for $10,350, a brook trout that brought $3,105, and a brown trout that reeled in $2,300. In addition to Irvine’s fish was a carved salmon trophy mount by another artisan that exceeded an estimate of $800-1,200 to finish up at $4,600.
Other highlights included an exceptional black forest carved bear hall stand. It featured a mother bear communicating with her cub that appears to have gotten stuck at the top of the tree. Beautifully carved, this piece exceeded its $4,000-5,000 estimate to bring $10,062. An American tole painted birdcage in the form of a 3-story Victorian home with bay windows and balconies was rather striking. Appealing particularly to a couple in attendance who purchased it for $4,887 versus an $800-1,200 estimate. An American carved stern board from the early 20th Century depicting a spread eagle on a rocky outcropping flew above its $2,000-3,000 to bring $7,245.
Helping to round out the sale was a selection of Russian enamel consigned by an East Coast institution of higher learning. Highlights included a large enameled kovsh. Highly decorated in scrolling polychrome vinery and beaded borders, the wide body with inverted rim and applied handle with conforming enamel work surpassed expectations of $8,000-12,000 to bring $31,625. From the same collection was a fine Russian enamel tea cup holder. Densely decorated with polychrome scrolling vinery and flowers, it found a buyer at $15,525 against a $2,000-3,000 estimate.
Julia’s upcoming auctions include their phenomenal firearms and military memorabilia auction that will be held in March. Their next toy & doll auction as well as their rare lamp & glass auction will follow in June. Julia’s next antiques & fine art auction will take place in August. They are currently accepting consignments for these and other upcoming auctions. Call immediately for inclusion in these exciting sales. For more information or to place offers on unsold items, contact their offices at 207-453-7125. James D. Julia, Inc., P.O. Box 830, Dept. PR, Fairfield, ME 04937. E-mail: email@example.com.