An eclectic array of furniture, collectibles, decorative and fine arts from the estate of Marjorie Phillips, who died in Washington last June at the age of 91, was sold at auction here Saturday for a little over $350,000.
The star lot of the morning session at Phillips New York auction house (no relation) was a mahogany and curly maple veneered square sofa from the federal period that brought $46,000 in a fast and furious bidding war between two prestigious American furniture dealers. The striped sofa -- stained and ragged at the edges -- was estimated to bring between $6,000 and $9,000. At the end of the bidding, auctioneer Richard Madley quipped to the stunned audience, "Bring your sofas to Phillips."
Moments later, a federal cross-banded mahogany dressing table, attributed to John and Thomas Seymour of Boston, soared past its presale estimate and was hammered down at $18,000.
From a pair of George III silver goblets that sold for $1,000 to an art deco chromed metal and wood table lamp by Donald Deskey that brought $3,000, the nearly 500 lots attracted a mix-and-match weekend crowd dressed in everything from faded jeans and scuffed cowboy boots to tailored suits and polished wing tips. There appeared to be something for every taste, from a "miscellaneous box of gentleman's attire" bearing a wrinkled cutaway and top hat, which sold for $110, to a group of small and cuddly Steiff stuffedanimals, from Eric the bat to Possy the possum, that sold for $325.
Nearly all the furnishings and artworks came from the Phillipses' 38-room mansion, Dunmarlin, with the exception of a Victorian brass and wrought-iron billiard lamp that was once part of the lighting fixtures at the Phillipses' 21st Street residence before it was converted into an art museum.
The auction chugged along at close to 100 lots per hour, with each item displayed by a porter on the elevated stage at the front of the gallery. The casual crowd took advantage of the tagged-for-auction sofas that were scattered about the perimeter of the bidding floor for more comfortable seating. Even the Phillipses' George III-style dining table was pressed into service as a registration desk for bidders to pick up their blond bidding paddles. The table sold for $3,100.
A majority of Marjorie Phillips' paintings, mostly bucolic landscapes and flowery still lifes, did not reach their low-end estimates. While her Venini black, turquoise and yellow glass vase (circa 1950) realized $3,500 in impassioned bidding, Phillips' own oil painting of the vase, "Still Life of Roses," sold for a modest $140. Her 1925 oil "Before Supper" went for $2,200, the highest price of the 30 Phillips paintings offered.
"The Age of Steam," a work on paper by Reginald Marsh, sold for $4,600. A faded wood sculpture, "Soldier," by the famed American art dealer Betty Parsons, sold for $650. While an early still life by Max Weber was displayed on stage, the auctioneer informed the audience that the painting had been damaged during the last day of public viewing and would be sold "as is with the hole and abrasion mark." The injured Weber sold for $2,600.
A tough-looking soldier, "The Black Dough-Boy," in bronze with a black patina by sculptor Mahonri Young, nabbed the highest price for fine art in the sale at $18,000. The long strides of the soldier seemed unfazed by the heavy pack and cumbersome bayonet rifle he carried.
The lowest-priced item in the sale -- perhaps reflecting the temper of the times -- was a collection of tourist maps and guidebooks of England, France and Belgium that sold for a pedestrian $10.
Phillips, who studied at the Art Students League in New York before she married in 1921, was the niece of two well-known American impressionist painters, Reynolds and Gifford Beal. It was Gifford Beal who encouraged her to see Duncan Phillips' nascent collection at the private Century Club in New York in 1921, and that is where their romance began. After Duncan died in 1966, Marjorie Phillips took over the director's reins at the Phillips Collection until 1972, when her son Laughlin became director. Gifford Beal's "Gypsies by Moonlight" sold for $1,400 and Reynolds Beal's 1914 "South Rondout" sold for $4,200.
Even the tools of her painting trade were auctioned. A French traveling artist's easel with parasols and wood palettes sold for $250. A skeleton, complete with dislocated jaw, was brought out of its box to mug on stage before selling for $190. A surrealist object, a man-size artist's mannequin in a faded pink union suit topped with a tin crown, sold for $150.
At the end of the afternoon sale, Gene Watson, a partner in a Baltimore gallery specializing in 20th-century decorative arts, waited in line to pay for his purchases. Buyers lugged out their painted Venetian chairs and Continental silver-covered urns and sauce boats. Watson bought a pair of swivel-arm chrome floor lamps attributed to the American designer Kurt Versen for $1,350 and an art moderne walnut bedroom suite for $250. "I didn't know what the bedroom set would look like," said Watson. "I didn't get to see it during the preview." As a small caravan of faded Eero Saarinen "womb chairs" was carried out into the glare and bus traffic of East 79th Street, Watson said, "I just wish there had been more modern things here."