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The Pride of Pennsylvania at Freeman’s Auction

Oct 21, 2020

by Taryn Clary

Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima, Jacob Maentel. These are just a few of the notable names to come out of Pennsylvania’s storied history of artistry and craftsmanship. On October 28, Freeman’s Auction will hold its signature Pennsylvania Sale, an annual event celebrating the state’s legacy with a range of fine art, furniture, manuscripts, and more. The sale has been a success since its inception in 2005, which coincided with the bicentennial of Freeman’s, America’s oldest auction house. This year’s edition hopes to achieve the same strong results but with a slightly different appearance, coming in the form of an online-only sale with an e-catalogue to meet current needs for social distancing. Lynda Cain (LC) and Tim Andreadis (TA), Vice Presidents and Department Heads of American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts and 20th Century Design, respectively, spoke with the Trust on continuing the Pennsylvania tradition in the— face of a pandemic, and what opportunities lie ahead for collectors of decorative arts and design.

Decorative Arts Trust: How has business at Freeman’s Auction changed in response to the COVID-19 crisis? 

TA: Like most businesses, we’ve made adjustments to our daily operations to ensure the health and safety of our clients and staff. We’re facilitating previews by appointment and welcoming bidders by phone and on the internet. For the most part, it’s business as usual—just now in masks!

DAT: How have Freeman’s clients responded?

LC: Without the benefit of the usual preview we are sending out an unprecedented number of images of objects and virtual calls with clients.

TA: They’ve been fully understanding of the safety measures and embraced “the new normal.” Whether online or in-person, the “thrill of the hunt” continues for Freeman’s clients.

DAT: How would you gauge interest in decorative arts and design at this time?

LC: Strong! This pandemic has brought about a new interest in the home. People have never spent so much time in their homes and want to improve their living spaces. They have time to devote to their passions and this has increased their engagement and participation in auctions. I get many requests, shopping lists really: “I am looking for a great Chippendale Camelback sofa, a Boston Federal easy chair, a Classical dining table, etc., etc.” People are upgrading, stuck at home and online. All of our sales have attracted new clients. The major antique shows are missed and people are hungry for great antiques!

TA: 20th century and contemporary design remains one of the strongest collecting markets, with a global audience for works by George Nakashima, for example, whose furniture Freeman’s has been selling for almost four decades now. A newly-released documentary on George Nakashima by his nephew has shed ever greater light on the woodworker’s influence, reflecting the artist’s representation in significant museum and private collections.

DAT: What collecting categories have generated the most interest from prospective buyers?

LC: I am happy to say we have experienced an uptick in American furniture. As always, great items with provenance are bringing great prices.

TA: Buyers have exhibited increased flexibility and interest in cross-category exploration. 2020 has probably expedited this trend, with both institutions and private collectors reflecting on their collections and their prioritization of various voices and viewpoints.

DAT: Freeman’s has recently added a number of themed auctions that bridge specialist departments. Do you see a lot of collecting crossover between the 20th Century Design and American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts departments?

LC: I see the crossover especially with Pennsylvania Folk items. A Jacob Maentel or an Amish Quilt looks fabulous above a Nakashima or Esherick table.

DAT: Freeman’s online only Design sale in April achieved $1.2 million, including the then highest price achieved at auction for a piece by George Nakashima in 2020. Did the shift to an online-only format augment relationships with existing clients or open the door to a new generation of collectors? 

TA: 20th century and contemporary design collectors have historically been very comfortable finding and purchasing works online. 2020 has accelerated that trend, and we saw several new collectors engage with our April sale.

DAT: Do you have a favorite piece in the upcoming American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts sale on November 10?

LC: My favorite item is a watercolor and ink pattern sketch for a Chinese Export porcelain service showing an American shield beneath a pair of love birds, within a draped medallion, from the Broughton family of Marblehead, MA. It is a rare survivor, illustrating American decorative choice from the early 19th century-patriotism within an established crest template.

DAT: What does the annual Pennsylvania Sale on October 28 mean to Freeman’s and the local community?

LC & TA: Philadelphia and the Main Line have always been home to some of the most important  collections of Pennsylvania material, born from the centuries of craftspeople and artistic movements that took root here. More 18th-century furniture was produced in this city than any other, and Freeman’s has offered Pennsylvania furniture and decorative arts longer than any other auction house, for a remarkable 215 years. We feel it’s important to continue that tradition.

DAT: The Pennsylvania Sale is headlined by a group of works by Pennsylvania-native Wharton Esherick from the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, PA. How influential was the theatre on his career development and design choices? 

TA: For Wharton Esherick there wasn’t much distinction between what he was creating in his studio on Diamond Rock Hill in Paoli and what the Hedgerow players were seeking to achieve in nearby Rose Valley. They shared an artistic spirit and life in the arts, and Wharton very much supported Hedgerow through active participation in things like set design, printmaking, and even the occasional appearance on stage. The entire Esherick family in fact was active with the theatre and Wharton would spend hours studying and drawing the actors on stage, serving as studies of human movement and how it conveys, for example, feeling and emotion. Some of these drawings served as inspiration for Wharton’s sculptures, perhaps none more famously than The Actress, an important Esherick sculpture modeled on his daughter Mary.

DAT: Do either of you collect? 

TA: I collect Chinese scholar’s objects, contemporary Japanese ceramics, and Asian works in the Literati tradition. I own a few works of 20th century design (of course!), including a rocking stool designed by Isamu Noguchi for Knoll, which I found at a house sale during my days as a Winterthur student!

LC: I have a small house and do not really collect. I consider myself the “guardian” of the property consigned to each sale and have the privilege of enjoying it all while in our possession.  But I am always ready and delighted to release the property to responsible buyers at the conclusion of each sale. And then the cycle begins again.

Join the live bidding for The Pennsylvania Sale on October 28 at 10:00 am ET!

Read more about antiques and the decorative arts field by browsing the Decorative Arts Trust blog, by signing up for the e-newsletter, and by following the Trust on Facebook and Instagram. The Decorative Arts Trust appreciates the support of members and donors to share stories like this one with interested readers.

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