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Fraktur birth certificate fetches record $145,000


What makes a benchmark sale? How are records made? The story of the sale of a Pennsylvania German fraktur for a record $145,000 an Ephrata, Pa., auction on May 11 is a good example.

First, the fraktur taufschein, or birth certificate, is rare, possibly unique. Secondly, there were two determined bidders. Thirdly, it came from a distinguished collection, fresh to the market. And finally, it is was sold in a carefully cataloged, well-advertised, single-owner sale in the region where it was made and most appreciated.

Fraktur, the Pennsylvania German name for a style of calligraphy, a fractured script, was often embellished with watercolor drawings. The previous auction record for a fraktur, $110,000, was paid for a 6-by-8-inch watercolor drawing of a lady in Colonial dress on a horse, and the words "Lady Waschingdon"in script, which sold at Sotheby's in New York last October. The record taufschein is larger, 19 3/8 by 16 3/8 inches, and more fully documented. This taufschein was made for Georg Negely, son of Joseph and Anna Maria Negely, born Sept. 8, 1805. It is signed by the artist, Carl E. Munch, in Paxton Township, Dauphin County, and dated 1808. Moreover, birth and baptismal certificates are the most characteristic form of fraktur.

Instead of being decorated with the usual hearts, birds and tulips, this taufschein is painted with four watercolor drawings depicting the four seasons and showing the relationship of father and son. In spring, the father and his boy are shown under a tree picking flowers. In winter, the father is seated in a Windsor chair ,, next to a 10-plate stove smoking his pipe. In summer, father and son are harvesting wheat and in autumn they are picking apples in the orchard; their farmhouse is in the background.

A determined buyer and an aggressive underbidder made the record; half a dozen others who hoped to compete never got their hands up to bid before the price soared past $100,000. Another bidder dropped out at $120,000.

The buyer, a collector from Center County who asked for anonymity, sat alone in the left corner of the salesroom. There was a round of applause when auctioneer T. Glenn Horst dropped his gavel and the collector had outbid Chris Machmer, a dealer from Annville, Pa., who was standing at the back. Then Clarence Spohn, who cataloged the sale, stepped to the microphone and announced that it was the third time Mr. Horst had sold a record fraktur. In 1980 he got $29,000 for a birth certificate, and in 1988, $67,600 for a schoolmaster's copy book.

The Four Seasons taufschein was illustrated in color on the cover of the catalog for the sale of the collection of Evelyn Yingst Good, held at Horst Auctions' spacious new salesroom in Ephrata.

"I had bid for a client up to $120,000, but I was bidding for myself after that," said Mr. Machmer, who dropped out at $140,000. "It's a great one; it transcends the normal form," he commented, after he shook his head when the auctioneer, not able to get a bid of $150,000, asked for $146,000.

Part of the fraktur's mystique was the fact that it was previously unknown to all but a few Lancaster County antiquarians. And it was sold in good company. There were half a dozen fine frakturs and 100 good ones in the sale, along with some rare books and manuscripts, a small collection of china and a few textiles and other miscellany collected over nearly half a century by a woman with discriminating taste.

Mrs. Good, a tiny octogenarian, sat through the sale marking her catalog. She said she had come to Ephrata in 1937 as the borough's first librarian. Her late husband, David Good, was the burgess of Ephrata and he operated the hotel on Main Street.

Early in her career Mrs. Good put together a collection of books printed in Ephrata for the library. After she completed that collection, and the library was no longer buying, she began collecting for herself. She said she often went to farm sales. "It was something to do on Saturdays," she explained.

But she claims her best things came from pickers. "The pickers who traveled around the countryside and dug things right out of homes would offer me the best they had, once they knew I'd pay their price," she recalled. "I had a picker in Northumberland County, one in Berks and another in Lancaster County." A picker from Northumberland brought her the Four Seasons fraktur; she would not reveal what she had paid. She said she stopped collecting 20 years ago when prices got beyond what she could afford.

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