American furniture collectors from all compass points converged on Sotheby's New York this last Saturday, Jan. 19, 2002, for a marathon five-hour auction of the "Copeland collection" -- otherwise known as the Americana Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland. The 368 lots sold for a total of $12,563,920 -- a new record for an Americana auction -- with 98 percent of the items finding buyers.
The furniture, which includes important examples of Philadelphia Chippendale and Queen Anne along with a smattering of Chinese export porcelain and silver, had furnished Mount Cuba, the Copeland's estate in Wilmington, Del. Sale proceeds will benefit the Mount Cuba Center for the Study of Piedmont Flora, a foundation that Mrs. Copeland established to preserve plantings native to the Piedmont region that bloom seasonally in the lavish gardens surrounding the estate. Mrs. Copeland died in 2001 at the age of 96.
The Copeland collection has legendary status among the American furniture crowd. The Copelands bought in the 1930s, '40s and '50s when prices were cheap. With seriously deep pockets and the added expertise of curators from the nearby Winterthur Museum (founded by family member Henry Francis du Pont), the Copelands stocked their Georgian mansion with enough brown wood to impress even the most exacting scholars.
Sotheby's took the unusual step of starting the pre-sale preview -- and buzz -- while Mount Cuba was still intact. Twenty-five potential bidders were invited to view the collection in Wilmington, before it was packed and shipped to York Avenue. The preview for the general public -- attracting 3,100 sets of wide eyeballs -- lasted 10 days. It was a glimpse into an American lifestyle rivaling Robert Altman's Gosford Park. Gucci loafers shuffled past rows of glass cases, while T. Anthony totes were slung over arms weighed down by the hardcover auction catalogue.
On auction day, John Hays, director of Christie's American art department, was nearly incognito in his baby blue fleece ski hat. He arrived at Sotheby's seventh-floor salesroom just after 10:15 a.m. Important clients were seated up front on folding chairs designated with coded reservation messages. "H & R" did not claim their seats, but about 450 other bidders showed up, and 100 more lined the walls. The main salesroom was full.
Prices started soaring early -- this bow-tie crowd didn't mess around. Lots 31 and 32, extremely rare 18th-century candle stands, estimated to sell for about $7,000-$9,000 each, went for $75,500 and $87,000, respectively. Much of the furniture sold at or above estimate. The star of the sale was a 1750 Philadelphia Queen Anne desk and bookcase with carving by Samuel Harding (est. $400,000-$600,000), which sold to the Chipstone Foundation for $1,105,750 (all sales prices include premium).
A Chippendale Pembroke table with a rich brown patina, attributed to John Townsend of Newport, R.I. (est. $400,000-$600,000), sold for $632,750 to Luke Beckerdite, a Virginia dealer who was most likely bidding on behalf of a client. Most of the day's bidding was executed by dealers for their clients. Highly acquisitive American furniture collectors include Ned Johnson, Ted Alfond, Deno Papageorge and Tony Wang.
Marilyn and John Keane of Boston sat in the second row beside dealer Leigh Keno, who advised them as they bid for lot 112, a 1765 Chippendale mahogany marble-top sideboard table (est. $400,000-$600,000). With extravagant purple veining and carving attributed to Nicholas Bernard and Martin Jugiez, the table set the Keanes back a cool $401,000. Considering that Mr. Keane is the founder of a billion-dollar software company, the table was a relative bargain. And the Mount Cuba Center will certainly be able to stock up on all the Hamamelis virdiniana (Eastern North American Witch Hazels) it needs.
Leigh Keno's paddle was in overdrive for much of the sale, but one lot he lost out on was Mrs. Copeland's bed, lot 164, a federal carved bedstead, probably Baltimore ca. 1800 (est. $20,000-$30,000) that sold for $98,500. The victorious buyer, who swept down from her private viewing box to bid on the sales floor, was Lynne Hastings, curator of Historic Hampton in Towson, Md. The bed had originally belonged to the Ridgley family, who build Hampton Mansion in 1783. By the 20th century, the Ridgley fortune was gone and the bed was sold to Joe Kindig, a dealer from York, Pa., who flipped it to the Copelands in 1957.
"We are over the moon," said Stiles Cowill, the Baltimore interior designer and antiques consultant who heads up Hampton's furnishings committee. "The house has been open to the public for 50 years and this is the first piece of major furniture we have been able to buy," Cowill said. Since Keno, who bid against Historic Hampton for the bed, effectively drove up the final hammer price, Cowill promised that the first fundraising letter will be addressed to Keno at his new $4-million townhouse gallery on East 69th Street.
Martha Stewart, American's favorite homemaker, was perched on high -- two viewing boxes over from the happy Hampton's crew. The Queen of Kmart appeared to be using her cell phone to bid via one of 23 client services staffers handling phone bids. Sources report that Stewart recently acquired yet another country home -- perhaps explaining her appearance at both the Copeland sale and the opening night party of the Winter Antiques Show. Shall we look for future features on mahogany maintenance in upcoming issues of Martha Stewart Living?
Philip H. Bradley, a dealer from Downingtown, Pa., was enlisted to wave the paddle by another cagey collector. Bradley successfully won a Philadelphia Queen Anne upholstered walnut easy chair, ca. 1750 (est. $250,000-$350,000), for $583,250 and a Boston Queen Anne marble table (est. $200,000-$300,000) for $302,750. Bradley, outfitted in a butterscotch blazer, tried to outsmart the press. "I am a private, just private," he said when asked if he was a dealer. Well, don't try to confuse this reporter -- after, all my coat check number wasn't 007 for nothing!
Not all the property was as sought after as Bradley's easy chair. The first item that failed to sell was a bed with far less auspicious provenance than the one headed for Historic Hampton. A turned maple bedstead from the early 19th century where the Copeland family nanny took her slumber (est. $1,500-$2,500) drew no bids. A bigger disaster was the Philadelphia Potts Family Chippendale desk and bookcase, ca. 1780 (est. $500,000-$800,000), surmounted by a finial bust of John Locke. Session two auctioneer Carlton Rochelle opened the bidding optimistically at $100,000. The room was dead quiet. Leigh Keno threw up his paddle, seeking a bargain at $120,000. Another bottom-fishing bidder came in for $130,000. Sold. (The total with premium is $148,750.) "Obviously," a gentleman with a long white beard whispered, "something is very wrong with it." But at that price, how bad can it be?
A Philadelphia Chippendale high chest, ca. 1760 (est. $500,000-$700,000), with major condition issues also faced stalled bidding. The bidding started and stopped at $250,000. One bid was made for $260,000 ($313,750 with premium). Rochelle called out "fair warning" to a crowd that didn't care, and brought down the gavel.
By 4:20 p.m. the crowd had thinned out. Only the most devoted collectors and dealers remained in the warm salesroom. Stifled yawns peppered the hall. The Copeland cache had drawn unprecedented prices for many objects. As the first snowfall of the season fluttered down outside, an era of du Pont collecting came to a gentle close.
LINDSAY POLLOCK is a freelance writer based in New York City.