Freeman’s, America’s oldest auction house, began in Philadelphia on November 11, 1805, when Tristram Bampfylde Freeman—having been officially appointed to the office of auctioneer by Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean (1734-1817)—opened the doors to his shop at 177 Market Street. In honor of a two hundred year company history studded with landmark sales, Freeman’s celebrated its bicentennial in November 2005. With great fanfare, it hosted a “Beau Tie Bash” by its Chairman, Samuel M. (Beau) Freeman II, published a company history, The Vendue Masters: Tales From Within the Walls of America’s Oldest Auction House, and launched The Pennsylvania Sale. This inaugural sale, anchored by the important collection of Esther H. Ludwig, included a painted and decorated candlebox that sold for a record-setting $744,825, as well as the first publication, or public printing, of the U.S. Constitution, which achieved $207,225.
This November marks the tenth anniversary of Freeman’s Pennsylvania Sale, now an annual event, and a definite highlight of the auction calendar. The Pennsylvania Sale represents a collaboration between multiple specialist departments. Printed books, maps, manuscripts, fine furniture, folk art, decorative arts, and 20th century design will be presented conjointly, all working together to tell the greater story of the growth of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and of the development of craftsmanship within it. This forthcoming sale spans three centuries. It connects Pittsburgh with Philadelphia, showcases items made both by the major factories and individual artists, and embraces the formal, sophistication of the city, as well as the folk traditions of the outlying counties. It is a truly comprehensive celebration of the entire region—its history, people, and the art and objects they made, used, and cherished.
One of the most significant items being offered is Nicholas Scull’s 1759 map of Pennsylvania—both the first to depict the state in its entirety and the first as such to be printed in America. Based on Scull’s own surveys as Surveyor General of Pennsylvania, it is considered “the most ambitious cartographical work to come from an American source before the Revolution” (Wroth). It is extensively detailed to include accurate elevation, the location of Indian paths and towns, as well as meeting houses, inns, churches, mills, etc. It was printed in Philadelphia by James Turner, a silversmith and engraver, and was dedicated to the Penn brothers. This historically important map is quite rare—with less than a dozen extant institutional copies—and has had very few appearances at auction.
Other highlights, inclduing a birth certificate by Centre County fraktur artist, Daniel Otto (1770-c. 1822), and a carved and painted “Sunburst” whimsy by John Scholl (1827-1916), demonstrate how significant a contribution the Germanic immigrants who settled in Southeastern Pennsylvania made to American folk art. Depicting a central heart containing text, surmounted by a crown flanked by a pair of parrots and a pair of checkered, long necked birds—all hand-painted in a rich red, gold and green palette—Otto’s fraktur employs traditional Germanic motifs, techniques, and symbols, but is simultaneously imbued with his personal style. Renowned for his identifying flat tulips, Otto was referred to as the “Flat Tulip artist” before his name was identified. The tulip beloved by Otto was brought by European settlers to Pennsylvania where it subsequently took root in American soil. Similarly, artistic traditions from other cultures were, and continue to be, transplanted to America, adding variety and vibrancy to the country’s artistic landscape.
An innovative woodworker based in New Hope, Pennsylvania, George Nakashima (1905-1990 incorporated an architect’s sense of proportion and design with the traditional Japanese carpentry skills he learned while interned during the Second World War. Using Japanese hand tools, his work also brought to American furniture craft the influence of European Modernism, simplifying design to its most fundamental principles. The balance of Nakashima’s work, combined with the refinement of skill and selection of highlyfigured wood, has since influenced generations of craftspeople. Freeman’s is poised to offer over thirty works by George Nakashima in The Pennsylvania Sale, including multiple collections and a handful of rare and desirable forms. Of particular note is a special Triple Hanging Wall Case ($20,000-30,000) which incorporates pieces of glass into the recesses of the knots in the highly-figured, single-slab, walnut top. Acquired on a trip to India in the late 1960s, Nakashima used mirror glass as a special design element on only a handful of forms. This Wall Case is one of fewer than ten pieces made which integrate these glass elements, joining the list of rarities on offer that will enable the upcoming Pennsylvania Sale to be an enriching, educational, and exciting event.
In celebrating The Pennsylvania Sale and the development of craft, style, and taste within the Commonwealth, one can’t help but be reminded of Freeman’s importance within the cultural and artistic legacy of Pennsylvania and of America at large.
Images: Fraktur (detail): Record of birth and baptism for Catharina Homan, Daniel Otto (1779-1821), Haines Township, Centre County, PA. Estimate $10,000-15,000; Nicholas Scull, Engraved Map with Outline Color, "Map of the Improved Part of the Province of Pennsylvania."G Estimate $60,000-80,000; George Nakashima (1905-1990) Special Hanging Wall Case with Base, 1985, Estimate $20,000-30,000