For almost half a century, Bernice Chrysler and Edgar William Garbisch, catalogs in hand, expert knowledge in head and money in pocket, were the high bidders at Americana auctions.
Yesterday, Sotheby Parke Bernet began the largest onsite auction ever in the United States at Pokety, the Garbishes' 480-acre estate on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It was hard to imagine the Chrysler heiress and West Point football hero were not there, at least in spirit, as their collection went up for sale.
Yesterday's sale netted $857,810 for the estate of the Garbishes, who died within hours of each other on Dec. 14. An earlier Garbisch auction in New York brought $16,485,675. The New York sale included French furniture, European porcelain and Impressionist and modern paintings from the couple's New York apartment, including a Picasso, "Saltimbanque Seated with Folded Arms," which sold for $3 million. Sale of the huge Garbisch collection at Pokety will continue for three more days.
Pre-sale estimates were that about $3 million would be paid for the Garbisch collection of porcelain and American furniture and decorative objects. But on the first day of the sale, the Chinese export and European porcelain went for almost double the high estimate.
Bidding frantically by phone yesterday, an American collector who wouldn't even allow his home state to be mentioned bought 13 lots of Dutch delft animals for a total of $143,600. For one pair of deflt horses alone he paid $28,000, though the pre-sale estimate of their worth was $6,000-$9,000.
A New York dealer named Fred Nadler paid $39,000 for a "fine and very rare Chinese export Rose Fitzhugh dinner service, circa 1810." The service had been expected to sell for no more than $25,000.
Some of the most interested observers were the Garbisch servants especially Eva and Nancy Chester, mother and daughter who cooked for the Garbisch family. One of the kitchen servents commented after the Fitzhugh service sold for $39,000, "When I was washing those plates I knew they were expensive, but not that expensive!"
A New York collector paid $25,000 for a Staffordshire historical dinner service with painting of Lafayette's landing. It was expected to fetch $15,000.
Some 1,500 people sat under the big Sotheby tent pitched between the Garbisches' Neo-Georgian house on the banks of LeCompte Bay and the Choptank River. They swatted mosquitoes carefully so as not to seem to be making bids.
John Marion, head of Sotheby's, said the crowd was twice what he would have expected at the New York auction house. One man flew in from Scotland for the occasion.
Three Dutch dealers were also enthusiastic bidders, especially for the Dutch porcelain. All the major New York dealers were there, including Bernard Levy and Cora Ginsberg, and from London came Earle D. Vandekar. bVandekar, the authority cited in the catalog on much of the porcelain, said the prices paid were "ridiculous. The quality and the condition is not that outstanding. People could buy better things at a third of the price at our London shop."
However, London dealers Graham and Oxley paid $19,000 for a "fine Chinese export 'Cape of Good Hope' bowl, circa 1750," and $12,000 for a "fine pair of Chinese export 'Cape of Good Hope' plates circa 1740." Original estimates were that they would go for $3,500 and $6,000, respectively.
Marion pointed out that though prices were surprising. "It was hard to make pre-sale estimates on the delft because such a collection hasn't been on the market for years. Mrs. Garbisch's collection was very well known. We may see surprising prices on the miniature furniture as well, again because her collection was so well thought of."
William Stahl, Sotheby's Americana expert who shared the auctioneer's box with Marion, said the crowds were particularly large for such a specialized sale.
Many people from Baltimore, Washington and the Virginia hunt country were present. Margot and Gilbert Hahn, Washington political and social figures, bought three lots of Staffordshire porcelain for their Eastern Shore cottage.
Not all the bids reached four and five figures. One saucer sold for $100 -- "a souvenier," said Marion.
After one particularly high bid, the familiar auction call for "Down it goes" brought the response, "You mean up it goes" from one of the Dutch dealers. Often, the bidders in the tent were competing against a barrage of telephone bids coming in on four phones installed by the auctioneers' box. Every so ofter an anxious-looking middleman (or woman) would dash out of the tent to the phones mounted on a large tulip popular to seek new instructions from their principals.
By sale time there were more than 8,000 bids already placed by phone, mail and prior visits. Ever since the Garbisches' death on last December, just a few weeks short of their 50th wedding anniversary, the big private collectors and dealers have been making pilgrimages to Pokety, for crabmeat lunches and private tours conducted by the Sotheby experts.
They walked through the Neo-Georgian house which served as the Garbisch's schatzkammer , or treasure house. In the Great Hall, they gaped at the great Cuban mohogany knee-hole desk which sold in 1972 to the Garbishes for $120,000. And they looked at reproductions of the American Naive paintings, now donations to the National Gallery of Art and other museums across the country.
Yesterday, the scene was more intense. The people who'd come just to look were gone, leaving serious buyers. The came, catalogs not only in hand, but marked with the prices they expected to bid. You could see them, hurriedly pushing for another look at the object they had their hearts set on. Then they settled down in folding chairs, holding their catalogs in such a way that their neighbors couldn't see what items they coveted.
The real collectors noted each sale price in their catalog, a valuable record for insurance purposes and future sales. There were audible sighs and perhaps hisses when some of the big prices were called.
Important Chinese export porcelain, European ceramics, small articles of value ("vertu") and silver were auctioned off yesterday, and more was to be sold this morning. This afternoon, American furniture and related decorative objects come under the hammer. The most important furniture and decorative pieces are expected to be sold at Saturday's auction. Sunday, the sale will be of furnishings from the household, the ordinary stuff even people like the Garbisches need -- television sets, quilts valuable chiefly for warmth, books and magazines. Even here, the magic name of Pokety is likely to run up the price. CAPTION: Picture 1, One of the $28,000 delft horses; by Harry Naltchayan; Picture 2, Bidders at yesterday's auction of the Garbisch estate; by Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post