EAST HAVERHILL, N.H. — For 35 years, Archie Steenburgh and his wife of 47 years, Martha, have hosted a Labor Day auction here. The sale, which takes four to five months of careful preparation, is a celebration of another successful summer season for the crew. Archie and his son Josh carefully set aside the best of what they see in houses across the northern tier of New Hampshire and Vermont and present these choice items in a bucolic setting during the last weekend of the summer. Diversity is the name of this game, diversity and quality. American or European, from locally made pieces to those carved in Italy, Eighteenth Century silver to a Harpers Ferry rifle. Fresh-to-the-market merchandise is the key to their success.
When I asked Archie how long Josh has been a part of the business, he told me that Josh started auctioneering when he was 12, at a benefit auction for Copper Cannon, a nonprofit in Franconia, N.H., that runs a summer camp for city kids. Martha’s responsibilities include keeping track of the results — and Archie. Josh’s wife, Mary, adds her touch to this smooth running operation by working behind the scenes organizing or pitching in when something needs to be held up for the audience to view.
Steenburgh Auctions is a successful blend of traditional country auction and modern day technology. The buyer’s premium is still ten percent, and Josh and Archie work hard at discovering local, fresh goods. Towns like Orford, Littleton, Piermont, St Johnsbury, East Corinth and Claremont are on the list of places where consignments were found. It is not a cataloged sale, so there is a spontaneous nature to the order of lots. This keeps the audience of roughly 300 people on their toes. A website that Josh updates frequently makes getting additional information from the Steenburgh organization easy, and the use of cell phones for left bids ensures competitive bidding from across the United States from this very picturesque setting. And I did see both gentlemen working on their laptops during the preview.
The atmosphere at this September 1 sale was a cross between a North Country Old Home Day and a good, old-fashioned auction. Set in a meadow, underneath tents and with good lighting and well decorated vignettes, the atmosphere is inviting and relaxed. And folks from all over come to visit and to bid on a treasure to bring home with them. I got to visit with some old acquaintances that I had not seen in years. Local collectors as well as collectors and dealers from across New England, attended. There were just under 200 registered bidders. The Steenburgh crew does what is necessary to accommodate this broad audience, and that means that Josh orchestrates the first couple of hours so that left bids, phone bids and requests are handled quickly and smoothly.
Getting to East Haverhill is not quick nor easy. As I joked with several New England dealers, no matter where you come from, it takes about two hours to find your way, unless you are lucky enough to live in the beautiful North Country. No matter where you are coming from, though, the last hour of the trip is just a pleasure. This is a land of great natural beauty, with a long history of great farms and farmland and wonderful old homes. On your way home, there are numerous opportunities to enjoy beautiful vistas and check out the numerous farmstands for produce or canned and baked goods. Also, just a few miles away, you can visit the Haverhill Corner Historic District, which is registered on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a treat for architectural and historical enthusiasts and sits across Route 10 from a stunning vista of the upper Connecticut Valley.
Ten o’clock came and Archie started the auction with the first lot, which was an Eighteenth Century silver cann in excellent condition and signed Moulton, with an inscription from Newburyport, Mass. The cann was discovered 25 years ago in northern Vermont at a yard sale by the consignor. A lucky find and with its historical connection to the Reverend Daniel Dana, a graduate of and president of Dartmouth College, there was a significant amount of local interest. After heated bidding from the audience, including veteran Vermont dealers Bob and Mary Fraser, it ended up being sold to a phone bidder for a final price of $6,050.
Two early American pieces of glass, which brought excellent results, were discovered by Josh in the back of a cupboard in a home in Orford, N.H. Josh was called to the house, which was being sold as a result of the death of the owner. The first piece was a rare Greeley’s Bourbon Bitters bottle in gray green color. It passed many rigorous condition inspections by the knowledgeable audience, including being subjected to black light (not an easy feat outdoors, under a tent, but it was successful). This gem was purchased by the happy gentleman with the black light for $2,145. A lovely Nineteenth Century amber blown glass milk pan, also from the Orford estate, brought $605. A cobalt blue Sandwich glass celery, found in a home in St Johnsbury, Vt., brought a respectable $1,320.
A large Persian Sarouk rug, 16 feet 6 inches by 13 feet 7 inches, was found in a storage unit. A condition issue (a hole in the center) did not slow down the bidding, and with the assistance of a strong left bid and activity from two phone bidders, it brought $9,900. A pleasing Herez rug, 7 feet 8 inches by 9 feet 6 inches, opened at $3,000 and there was strong bidding once again from the left bid and two phones until it sold for $7,700. A small Bijar sold for $1,100. Good estate Oriental rugs did well under the big top.
More than a few items, found locally, will stay in the neighborhood. One was a 30-by-40-inch oil on canvas painting of Mount Cube, Orford, N.H., signed by Henry Ryan MacGinnis. This painting found a new home with a very determined bidder from Piermont, N.H., and brought a strong $9,900. Steenburgh had good results with several paintings by the same artist last year, including a view painted from the Tomlinson residence in Orford looking towards the hills, which brought $11,000.
A bowfront Hepplewhite four-drawer chest with bird’s-eye maple drawer fronts, fresh out of a house in St Johnsbury, brought a strong $3,300 from a pleased young couple. The figured maple Queen Anne highboy from the same house in St Johnsbury realized a reasonable $2,200. It was bright and clean and maybe a bit too refinished and certainly a good buy at that price.
And the story of the day: A mother and daughter sitting next to each other and bidding (knowingly) against each other on the sweet red painted Hepplewhite tap table from a house in Littleton, N.H., until Mom won it for $660. Archie declared it was a first for him.
Signs did well. A 20-by-37-inch Delaval cream separator tin sign in fine condition brought $1,210. A graphic wooden sign from Randolph, N.H., yellow letters on a red background stating “For Sale at a Bargain Inquire at J.H. Boothman” brought $963. And my favorite was “Bicycle Riding on Sidewalks Forbidden by Law.” It was found in Woodstock, Vt., and brought $330.
A trove of fresh estate items came from a house in Campton, N.H. The first was a Nineteenth Century Italian Carrera marble bust of a young woman wearing a laurel wreath, signed “Barratta fecit 1852.” This lovely piece, carved in the classical manner, stood on a three-part marble pedestal. It started at $1,900 and a phone bidder secured it for $2,640. Also from the same Campton house was a very nifty standing tape loom, American, possibly late Eighteenth Century. It finished at a reasonable $743. Again from the same Campton house were two large “as found” oil paintings, European, of ships at sea. The first one brought $880, and the second one brought considerably more at $2,420. I was struck by the diversity of these pieces and wondered at the stories that house could tell.
One of the pieces that elicited great interest was a folky Nineteenth Century 3-gallon decorated stoneware jug decorated with a horse at a fence. It was signed JC Waelde North Bay (New York). Four phone bids as well as audience participation pushed the final price to $4,675.
Another folk art piece was an unusual fish weathervane with a zinc body and copper fins. It brought $7,150 from a phone bidder. A large and sweet carved wood folk art owl brought $578. A very cool radio that Archie found in Claremont, N.H., took a respectable $798, underbid by the successful bidder of the Delaval sign.
Two items that show the diversity of this auction were of interest to many in the audience. The first was a Harpers Ferry rifle, which achieved a final bid of $1,980 after heated bidding. It was consigned by a college friend of the auctioneer. The second, a terrific ski poster, published for New Hampshire Planning and Development, circa 1930, of a female skier holding a pair of skis was framed and in nice condition and sold for $1,210 to a happy woman in the audience.
Overall, strong prices were achieved for this eclectic mix of interesting objects. The day was lovely, the setting peaceful and the food and the company just right. It made me a tad nostalgic for the good old days, when most auctions were in a field and you never knew what treasure you could find. If you plan on attending next year and want to spend a few days exploring (which I highly recommend), then make your reservations early. Lodging in the North Country sells out for Labor Day weeks in advance.
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium. For more information, 603-989-5690 or www.steenburgh.com.