Inkwell, historic gold box set records at Sotheby's auction


Sotheby's late June Americana sales used to go off like Fourth of July fireworks, but this June, like last year, there was a more subdued display with only two small items skyrocketing to record heights.

John Jay's gold Freedom Box sold for $506,000 and a heart-shaped stoneware inkwell sold for an astonishing $148,500. The gold box set a record for American metalwork; the inkwell took the stoneware record. Both were well-documented, historically important and aesthetically appealing.

The 3 1/4 -inch-long gold box presented by the city of New York to statesman John Jay in 1784 was made by Samuel Johnson and engraved by Peter Maverick. It has the seal of the city of New York on its top, and inscribed on the side in script is: "Presented by the Corporation of the City of New York with the Freedom of the City."

On Sept. 11, 1784, the Common Council of the City of New York under the direction of Mayor James Duane ordered that ". . . five respectful Addresses from this Corporation be presented with the Freedom of the City in Gold Boxes." Gen. George Washington, Gov. De Witt Clinton, the Marquis de Lafayette, Maj. Gen. Baron von Steuben and John Jay were the five designated for the honor.

By 1784 Jay already had served as president of the Second Continental Congress and minister to Spain and, with Benjamin Franklin, had negotiated peace with Great Britain in Paris in 1782. He had also been tapped by Congress to serve as minister of Foreign Affairs. Later, in 1789, he became the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

The parchment document signed by Duane, with a light blue ribbon and a wax impression of the City Seal, accompanied the box, which was consigned by a Jay descendant.

Of the five gold boxes presented, only Jay's and von Steuben's are known to survive. Von Steuben's, also made by Samuel Johnson, is in the Garvan collection at Yale.

The box was bought by Boston dealers Firestone and Parsons, who generally bid for New Hampshire collector Eddy Nicholson. The underbidder, New York dealer Eric Shrubsole, was reportedly bidding for the Winterthur Museum.

The $506,000 price topped the record $440,000 paid at Sotheby's in June 1987 for a Tiffany candelabra which still holds the record for American silver. Objects made in gold in the American colonies and the early Republic are extremely rare.

Stoneware is certainly not rare, but 18th century tableware articles of stoneware are extremely scarce. Most stoneware was made in the form of crocks or jugs for utilitarian kitchen use.

The heart-shaped, 5-inch-wide by 2 1/2 -inch-high record stoneware inkwell is signed on the bottom "William Crolius, New York" and dated "July 12, 1773." The top is pierced with holes for pens and the removable sander and inkpot are colored cobalt blue. On the botton of the inkpot is the inscription "Tyler." It is believed that William Crolius, a potter in New York City, may have made the inkwell for Edmond Taylor, a cordwainer, for having attained the status of Burgher. Crolius himself attained .. the status of Burgher in 1770. The pottery he founded in 1730 was operated by succeeding generations of Croliuses until it closed in 1887.

This was not the first time this heart-shaped inkwell had made a stoneware record at Sotheby's. In December 1979, when it was consigned by a Pennsylvania collector, it sold for a then record $16,500 to the late Barry Cohen. Cohen sold it in 1983 to Jerry Banta, a collector and restaurateur of Albany, N.Y. "Barry sold it to me for a little less than twice what he had paid for it when he was raising money to buy a Peaceable Kingdom painting by Edward Hicks," Mr. Banta recalled.

This time the inkwell sold on the phone, reportedly to a Pennsylvania collector who outbid half a dozen collectors and dealers including at least one dealer bidding for a museum. The underbidder was Sotheby's folk art specialist Nancy Druckman,

bidding for a collector.

The inkwell sent to rest the old record $47,500 paid at an auction in Batavia, N.Y., on Aug. 11, 1990, for a 4-gallon churn labeled "N. Clark & Co., Rochester, NY," decorated with a spaniel and bushes in fresh bright cobalt blue in the high Victorian taste. Only one other piece of stoneware has sold privately for over $100,000.

The inkwell was one of 46 pieces of American pottery Mr. Banta consigned to Sotheby's June sale. The 28 stoneware jugs, pitcher and crocks and 18 redware plates, platters, pitchers and jars fetched $298,050 plus 10 percent buyer's premium.

"I did all right; some pieces sold for much more than I paid, but a number brought less," Mr. Banta confessed. He said he is still collecting. "I kept about 10 fine pieces of stoneware and about as many pieces of redware and now I'll be able to buy some other things I'd like to own."

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