Weston Park, one of the locations of open valuations for the Freeman's Auction trip.
Weston Park, one of the locations of open valuations for the Freeman's Auction trip.

Americana Abroad: Freeman’s Auction in England

The influx and influence of English goods and style into America has become one of the standard tenants of decorative arts and design scholarship on this side of the Atlantic. With this stream at times resembling a flood—from Chippendale’s Director to Wedgwood’s Queensware to mezzotint portraiture copied by itinerant artists— it might come as a surprise to discover that, quietly but regularly, American antiques have been going in the other direction. And now there are Americana experts quite eager to bring them back.

From July 31st until August 7th, three specialists from Freeman’s will be touring the United Kingdom in search of American-made wares. Lynda Cain, Vice President and Department Head of American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts, is one of the trip participants and has followed stories of antiques and artifacts found in England throughout her career. The idea for this trip began developing a few years ago. After much discussion, Freeman’s staff decided to conduct it as an experiment. While they do have some leads that they will pursue in private appointments with collectors, including a line on a suite of furniture purportedly made in Philadelphia, the rest of the trip is open to the public for free valuations. The most exciting, albeit mysterious, part of this excursion is not knowing what or how much was taken back, or by whom. From Loyalist families fleeing with a few precious possessions during the Revolutionary era to military officers bringing back a Native American tomahawk as a souvenir, the British have brought a staggering array of American objects to England, which have been turning up unexpectedly ever since.

Despite the trip’s investigational nature, Freeman’s has good amount of precedent to justify the effort. Since the late 1990s, they have enjoyed a collegial transatlantic relationship with Scotland’s oldest auction firm, Lyon & Turnbull, based in Edinburgh. In addition to advertising together, the firms have discovered that referring relevant objects to interested markets across the pond has increased attention to their sales. American-made antiques tend to command higher prices in the United States, and English interest in aspects of our country and culture has preserved many treasures hidden away in attics or cellars. As is always the case in the auction world, Ms. Cain reiterated, the potential discoveries will be a mixed bag.

Among the Wild West mementos and 1976 Bicentennial souvenirs, which enjoyed some popularity in Britain, occasional finds have emerged that answer questions long posed by decorative arts scholars. This past April, Freeman’s sold an engraved powder horn found in England. Signed by Captain Abraham Perry, its discovery not only delighted horn enthusiasts, but answered a long-standing question about the maker of a small, but famous group of similar widely admired objects. In such instances, the attention (and bidding) realized in America can exceed even the most optimistic estimates.

Ms. Cain admitted that there are always more questions than answers when American material is unearthed abroad, particularly regarding how it found its way to England. For items with good provenance, family ties between the countries usually prove the chief cause of migration. When many loyalists returned to Great Britain because of the American Revolution, prized possessions such as portraits, silver, and other movables often came with them. It is extremely difficult to determine, however, how much they brought, or what made the cut in an era of long and often dangerous travel.

The movement of families and their goods was not always of a fugitive nature or tied to politics. In 2011, Freeman’s auctioned a Philadelphia silver washstand basin by Anthony Rasch & Company that, though found in England, had descended through six generations of women in the family of Elizabeth Washington Lewis, the sister of George Washington. The basin stayed in the United States until the 1960s but went to England following to the marriage and subsequent emigration of Frances Lovell Oldham, who, incidentally, later served as editor of Vogue’s UK edition.

Although comparatively more rare, American-made furniture sometimes emerges in foreign collections. The 1974 discovery and auction of five mahogany side chairs matching the famed Cadwalader suite of Philadelphia-made furniture is a story familiar to many furniture enthusiasts. The chairs were likely brought over by Dr. Charles Cadwalader in the aftermath of his mildly scandalous marriage to Bridget Mary Ryan, his much-younger Irish housekeeper. After failing to win over popular sentiment in his hometown, he left for Ireland with his new wife. He took much of the family silver with him, but after his death his widow returned these wares to the main branch of the family. Nobody thought to ask after unaccounted-for items of furniture until their reappearance nearly seventy years later. Through the sale of the chairs by a New York auction house, several leading American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, were able to acquire an example from one of the finest sets of rococo furniture made in pre-Revolutionary America. Although the finer points of distinguishing English from American furniture may not always be within the domain of the typical collector, Ms. Cain frequently fields calls from abroad about antiques that don’t quite align in terms of design, materials, or construction with native-made English items, indicating a possible American provenance.

Particularly as transportation became faster and more reliable in the latter half of the 19th century, Americans themselves began bringing or sending American-made objects to England in greater numbers. With the emergence of world’s fairs and international expositions beginning in 1850, American designers and manufacture displayed their products on equal footing with their European counterparts, elevating firms such as Tiffany & Co. to international prominence and rendering their goods more appealing to foreign consumers. Furthermore, the growing number of high-society marriages between American and British families later in the century often resulted in large shipments of heirlooms (in addition to dowries and inheritances) eastward to England.

No matter how much research on the movement and dispersal of these objects is undertaken, there is the occasional surprise that leaves everyone stunned. Two years ago, during the filming of an episode of the BBC-version of “Antiques Roadshow,” the appearance of a type of a never-before-seen American coin bank shocked the community of toy and bank collectors. For well over 125 years, an illustration of this bank in an 1884 issue of Ehrich’s Fashion Quarterly had been the only record of its existence. When and where this bank was manufactured, whether any others survive, and, above all, how this one came to be in an attic in Peebles, Scotland, is anyone’s guess. The owners decided to put it up for auction at Freeman’s, and by the time of the sale interest among collectors had reached a fever pitch. The auction estimate of $30,000-$50,000 turned out to be low by a factor of five. The winning bid was $266,500.

Whether or not such a discovery happens on this trip remains to be seen, but Ms. Cain is looking forward to exploring Edinburgh (it will be her first visit there), and visiting potential clients in their homes. “If you’re in the auction world, you’re always curious,” she remarked. Some of the details may be different from what she’s observed in the Midwest, New England, and Mid-Atlantic, but, in the end, people and their collections will always bring surprises.

We wish Ms. Cain and her colleagues safe travels, a wonderful time, and many spectacular finds! A list of events and appearances during this trip can be found here.

The Decorative Arts Trust would like to thank Lynda Cain and Melissa Geller, both of Freeman’s Auction, for their assistance in creating this post.

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