James Cogan recalls an adage that a good estate sale is the sign of a successful antiques dealer. Maybe that's why his mother, Lillian Blankley Cogan, a doyenne of Americana dealers for nearly 70 years, always wanted to have an auction at her house when she died. Mrs. Cogan passed away in December at age 93, but she'll be having one last sale on Labor Day at her residende in Farmington, Conn. The sound of Christie's auctioneer's gavel will signal the end of an era.
Friends and familuy agree that "Queen Lillian," as she was called would have enjoyed her own farewell. They imagine her enthroned in the front row -- she always was in the front row at auctions -- in one of her favorite William and Mary period Connecticut high-back chairs, with pierced hearts and crowns in the crest rail. Chances are she'd be bidding yp the prices.
She was a big buyer at other dealers' estate sales and is said to have wagered with th late Roger Bacon of Exeter, N.H., her chief competitor,about which one would be bidding at the other's auction. It seems she won. Fittingly, items bought from Bacon's estate, including a pine cupboard painted blue, will be on the block again. Mrs. Cogan paid $6,500 for the cupboard at Skinner's in Bolton, Mass., in 1982; now, a sign of the times, it's estimated at $2,000 to $3,000. "We have estimated low, and the bidders will decide what they are willing to pay," said Dean Failey of Christie's.
Mrs. Cogan arrived in a big black limousine for the June 1986 dispersal of the estate of North Dartmouth, Mass., dealer George L. Considine, and from a wing chair bought a circa 1700 to 1730 lift-top blanket chest painted blue for $13,200, now estimated at $6,000 to $9,000. When a favorite client like Katharine Prentis Murphy died, Mrs. Cogan tried to reacquire items she had sold years earlier. Skinner auctioned Mrs. Murphy's collection in Sept. 1983, and Mrs. Cogan spent $25,300, more than four times expectations, for a gumwood gate-leg table with bold early turnings made in New York circa 1720, which now should exceed its $12,000 to $18,000 pre-sale estimate.
Calvin Coolidge was president when Mrs. Cogan placed her first advertisement in The Magazine Antiques which read "Wanted Old Wooden Trencher Plates in Good Condition." She was a schoolteacher in Bayonne, N.J., and had developed a passion for dining at Pilgrim Century tables, being served from trenchers and bowls made from the burls of ancient trees, drinking from horn cups, and eating from old pewter or blue and white English delft plates using two-tined bone-handled forks and knives with large curling blades.
Before long Mrs. Cogan was dealing, selling a "look" to ladies and gentlemen like herself. "She didn't care if a chair was uncomfortable as long as it was nice to look at," recalled Roger Gonzales, a cabinet maker and dealer in Kent, Conn., who worked for Mrs. Cogan.
Occasionally pieces of the highest quality passed through Mrs. Cogan's shop or her booth at antiques shows. At other times, she was forgiving, overlooking new paint on an old chest or a not very authentic chair leg. Mrs. Cogan "was a dedicated antiquarian" but wasn't finicky about authenticity the way dealers and collectors are now, observed her friend Elisabeth Sharpe, a dealer in Spring Mill, Pa. When a frail Mrs. Cogan was dropped as an exhibitor at the New York Winter Antiques Show several years ago (she was a founding member in 1954), several others resigned in protest; apparently they felt it unfair to make Mrs. Cogan abide by rules unheard of in her heyday.
Reputation for honesty
"If Mrs. Cogan knew about a piece's imperfections or repairs, she told the customer," Mr. Gonzales said, emphasizing her reputation for honesty. "So many of the chairs she bought were rockers, and I put new feet on them. . . . That doesn't mean that all the stuff she had was 'funny stuff' -- all the little things, the blown glass, delft, pewter and silver, are great, and there are a few great pieces of furniture still in the house."
Mrs. Cogan often acquired her best pieces privately, Mrs. Sharpe noted. "She was very social and met people who would be changing their houses and sell her old things."
An elegant woman with a penchant for hats -- felt at the Hartford, Conn., show, mink in New York -- Mrs. Cogan also was a scrappy and determined bidder at auctions. Sometimes she paid too much and those pieces were hard to resell. "Much of the furniture that's left she hauled from show to show, and it eventually ended up in her house," Mr. Gonzales said.
Dealer Paul Weld of Middletown, Conn., drove Mrs. Cogan to and from antiques shows for 26 years and helped her set up her booths, generally as replicas of her house, with subdued lighting, a pyramid of glass tazzas filled with fruit, soft seat cushions, old needlework, a 17th century portrait of someone's ancestor wearing a red waistcoat, and loads of objects painted red, her favorite color. "I could not live without a touch of red.
Red always impressed me. I associated it with the church, bishops and early settlers. Red is a very old color, it stands for something," she told an interviewer in 1979.
Julia Cogan Finney, who manages a group antiques shop in Philadelphia, said the whole Cogan clan will attend her grandmother's auction. "We all hope to get something." One person who might not be bidding is Mrs. Cogan's son, James. "I have plenty of things I bought from her retail," he said. "My son-in-law will attest to it. He bought retail, too."
If you go . . .
A public preview of the Cogan collection will be held Sept. 4-6 at Hearts and Crowns, 22 High St., Farmington, Conn. The auction begins at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 7. Catalogs are $25 postpaid from Christie's, 502 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022. For more information, call Christie's at (212) 546-1181.
' Solis-Cohen Enterprises