We were wondering, as we looked at the partially full decanters of liquor in a handsome wooden box, if there might be a mixture that kept Elinor Gordon alive, or did her in. The box is arranged with about a hundred other items belonging to the late, prominent collector and dealer in Chinese Export Porcelain at Pook & Pook in Downingtown, Pa.
Much of what’s at Pook & Pook is Gordon’s collections of American Furniture. Her Chinese porcelains went to Sotheby’s in New York. Perhaps to a collector like Gordon, furniture was just a surface to display porcelain, but have no doubt nothing here needs a table cover to look attractive.
One of the tables (lot 32) was posbbly made in Rhode Island. A Queen Anne mahogany card table made circa 1765 has pointed slipper feet. The cabriole legs, with less curvature spring up tall and elegant. The mahogany wood is first rate and in great condition. Mrs. Gordon probably used this table near the window because the left side of the top surface fades much more than the right. The table is estimated between $5000 to $10000.
Another table (lot 39), also from Gordon’s estate, looks much more masculine. The Chippendale tilt-top tea table, made of walnut, has a birdcage that enables table top rotation. The suppressed ball feet showcase the excellent craftsmanship: the wide-spread claws are in such great tensions that the balls look in danger of being crushed at any moment. Such designs were common among Philadelphia makers, but the presence of walnut lead to a more general “Pennsylvania” attribution.
There are not many works of art, but the painting by John Joseph Enneking, a mature work out of his Impressionist style, shines out not only because of its superb quality on the quintessential picturesque beauty of New England Fall, but also because of its special relationship to its previous owner: Elinor Gordon, who received the painting from her Husband Horace, as a surprise gift on their anniversary. The painting was exhibited in Vose Gallery in 1975. (Interestingly, Vose Gallery is having another monograph exhibition of John Joseph Enneking – The Moods of New England now. )
The item that actually brought us to the auction, however was a piano forte that wasn’t part of Gordon’s collection. (The trip from NYC to Downingtown, Pa involved subway, Chinatown bus, Septa train and 20 minutes walking in a winter day, not recommended for other New Yorkers without a car.) It was made by Alpheus Babcock in Philadelphia for John G. Klemm, a music publisher in Philadelphia active from 1818-1880. Early parlor pianos like this don’t surface in the market with any great frequency, and this one seems particularly rare, not only because it was made for a notable music publisher, but because it was made by Babcock in Philadelphia.
Babcock, who began his career in Boston around 1812, in 1830 relocated to Philadelphia, then the largest producers of pianos in the United States. Babcock returned to Boston in 1837 to work with Chickering and Mackays.
The piano is certainly attractive. Finding someone to work on these can be challenging. Sound is produced when most of the keys are played, however the keys on the higher notes don’t have much spring in them and several are missing their ivory. I also noticed some cracking, probably from being dry, on the wood inside the instrument. I’m not sure if this will impact the ability to tune it. Babcock in known for developing a metal piano frame, but apparently only a few models with metal frames exist, one of which is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Also offered is a painted Noah’s Ark (lot 445), something I’ve seen in a Brooklyn Museum period room and in the visible storage at the New York historical society. I spoke with a woman at the preview who remarked she had never seen a set with such a variety of animals, and an unusual number of human figures. They were made in Germany “and none are very old,” she said, meaning they date to Victorian times. She also noted that Colonial Williamsburg has a large collection of these carved animals. Unfortunately someone has glued these figures to the ramps. The lot includes nineteen human figures and approximately one hundred thirty-six animals. Estimated at $3000 to $5000, the woman mentioned some sets had gone for as much as $50,000.
There is an overall optimistic and jolly atmosphere in the preview. There are more than 1,000 lots offered in the two-day sale, enough for any seasoned collectors to spend the whole day. The hall was packed on Saturday afternoon with many dealers and collectors swamping in to hand-examine top-quality items. Anticipating the hustle-bustle Americana week in New York City, Pook & Pook offers a stunning hospitality to bidders who may stop at Downingtown, Pa before heading to NYC for the antiques week. The package include free hotels (and of course a free-ride from hotels to the auction house), free meals and wine on Friday evening and free admission to regional museums including Winterthur, Brandywine River Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art, and lastly a beautiful free catalog. All are offered as a rebate to customers who spend more than $1,000 (before premium and sale tax). It perhaps reflects both the confidence of the auction house that quality pieces ensures sensational sales and the general prospect of the economy which may turn around from this year.
In the end, I would like to include a picture of Elinor Gordon. The picture is actually for sale in the current auction. Stay tuned for our future report on the preview of her porcelain collection at Sotheby’s.