A hot controversy between the White House and a private collector over a pair of decanters once owned by James Madison ended yesterday with each owning a decanter.
The White House Preservation Fund yesterday paid $35,000 (plus a 10 percent buyer's premium) at C.G. Sloan's auction house for one of a pair of the Madison decanters. Its mate sold in December at Sloan's for $1,100. The decanter sold yesterday, also at the Washington auction house, was in fine condition, with only a slight chip. The other decanter had been repaired in the last century with 19 rivets and had a large hunk chipped from its mouth.
Yesterday's hefty price in part resulted from a dispute between Set Momjian, who bought the matching decanter, and White House Curator Clement Conger. The White House bid $4,350 for the other one, but the bid was lost by Sloan's before the December auction. When it became clear what had happened, Momjian declined to give the decanter he bought to the White House. Conger declined to accept Momjian's offer to lend the decanter. Conger had vowed to buy the other decanter yesterday, "whatever it cost."
About five other prospective buyers -- including representatives of the Corning Glass Museum, who went to $31,000 -- began the bidding at $17,000. Although Donald Webster, head of Sloan's, held up bidding for the decanter for a half-hour, until 3 p.m., a Carnegie-Mellon Institute representative was too late to bid. An anonymous Washington collector was the underbidder at $32,500. The estimated maximum bid had been $25,000. Stephanie Kenyon Beehler was the auctioneer.
The White House Fund bought the decanter with money from the Lila Acheson Wallace Foundation and a gift from Silver Spring collectors Jeanne and Lloyd Raport. Jean George, of Pittsburgh, president of the White House Fund and the actual bidder, said she hoped to be able to present the decanter to Nancy Reagan at the next meeting of the fund's board on May 31. The decanter could then go on view at the White House.
On Friday Momjian, a Huntingdon Valley, Pa., collector, called Edward Stone, executive director of the White House Fund, and said he hoped the White House would get the second decanter.
The White House wanted the decanter so much because the pair, made in 1816, is decorated with the earliest known design in glass incorporating the Presidential Seal, an eagle and 18 stars for the then-18 states, as well as a shield with an engraved M (presumably for Madison). The oldest piece in the White House with the seal had been the 1817 Monroe dinner service.
The decanters have been traced to a letter to James Madison from Bakewell, Page and Bakewell, the Pittsburgh glass house, which says, "We take the liberty of sending you a pair of decanters made and cut at our manufactury and of which we request the favour of your acceptance."
The decanters most recently belonged to the son and widow of Theodore Douglas Robinson Jr., a collateral descendant of both Presidents James Monroe and Theodore Roosevelt. They apparently had been given by Madison to Monroe and were used for many years at Henderson House in upper New York State. The first decanter to be sold was owned by the son, Daniel Robinson, a Washington computer consultant. The one sold yesterday belonged to his mother, Micheline Geisen, of Carmel, Calif.
Also auctioned yesterday was the turn-of-the-century "Sunset at Cairo," by John Singer Sargent, which sold for $75,000 to an anonymous collector. Author and collector Joseph Alsop paid $1,000 for a portrait of his grandfather, Theodore Douglas Robinson Sr., by Ellen Emmet Rand, painted in 1903.