STEPHANIE L. RYAN
BENNINGTON -- One of the largest known collections of Vermont-made antiques is going on the block next week, and the owner is going to miss some of it.
"The sad part about our collection is, we've built it over the last 35 years. We had three auction houses come, each of them wanted to get the auction, and they all said, ‘you know, younger people are not collecting these days; you're not going to get the money out of it that you put in,'" said Bob Levine, owner of the collection with his wife, Barbara. "We didn't buy it for the money. It was fun, and better furniture than you can get at a department store." He said the family trips to auctions also helped to teach his own children about quality furniture, and to spur their own interests in it.
But it has to go, as the Levines are selling the Greenwich, Conn., home that houses much of it, and will be coming back to spend more time in their Bomoseen home. "I have very mixed emotions," Levine said. "I would have wanted to keep some of the big ones," but was told that leaving certain items out would negatively affect the auction, which will be held at Skinner, Inc. in Marlborough, Mass. - where some of the collection was purchased in the first place.
"This collection was assembled by the Levines over a long time, and now it will be dispersed. Much of it was exhibited at the Bennington Museum years ago, in 1995. I went to the opening night. ... A few of the pieces we sold to Barb and Bob, we got to see them again in the museum and the house, and now we have them coming back to us," Fletcher said.
And "the big ones" are very big, indeed. A chest of drawers, built in Rutland around 1805, is featured on the front of the auction catalogue, and is described by Skinner American expert Steve Fletcher as "the star of the collection." The piece is a four-drawer Federal-era bureau. "You can imagine the cabinetmaker saved the veneers," Fletcher said. "There are Vermont-native woods, like birdseye maple, tiger maple and flame birch, and there are (non-native) woods like mahogany. He combined the elements to produce a dazzling piece. It's one of the most striking pieces of Vermont furniture known, and Rutland, in 1805, was a small town," he said - not the sort of place, at that time, from which one might expect a masterpiece to come.
A piece Levine is particularly fond of is a carved, gilded, five-foot replica, from 1896, of the original catamount that was mounted on the signpost of Old Bennington's Catamount Tavern, meant to strike fear into the hearts of New Yorkers. "I have very mixed emotions about the catamount," Levine said. "I gave it a minimum. If it doesn't take the minimun, we'll take it back!" he said, laughing.
"The catamount sculpture is Lot 4," Fletcher said. "It's a great piece of sculpture. It's not folk-art. It's anatomic, it's accurate in its detail ... It was displayed in the house in Greenwich, Conn., high up in the entry. You wouldn't see it when you walk inm but you'd turn around, and wow!" Fletcher said the catamount had been adopted as a sign of Vermonters' defiance of the New Yorkers who wanted to claim their land.
Another piece Fletcher appreciates is a needlework sampler, believed to be the earliest known sampler out of Vermont. It was created in 1721 by a girl amed Margaret Allen. "Needlework was an essential part of a girl's education," Fletcher explained, and there are many samplers found in the eastern half of the U.S. Because of Vermont's small size, however, examples from the state are encountered less often.
"Lot 20 is one of my personal favorites," Fletcher said. "It's a cherry shop wall regulator by Levi Pitkin. The timepiece was made in Montpelier around 1800, and has a circular, engraved black dial and a very simple, rectangular, vertical case." Powered by a weight, the three-handed regulator could run for eight days once wound and set the time for all the other timepieces in a clock shop - and is a singular piece of Vermont history. The dial, case and movement were all made in Vermont, not assembled from parts brought in from elsewhere. "It's Vermont, through and through," Fletcher said.
Fletcher said he was happy the Levines chose the Skinner auction house to manage the sale. "I know they're parting with these things with reluctance, but they're both around 80 years old and they don't need it anymore. But I don't think they'll ever get Vermont out of their systems," he said.
And they won't, Levine said. He and his wife are from the Bennington and Rutland areas, and southern-Vermont items are salted all through the collection. "My dad used to own a laundry on Main Street in Bennington," Levine said, where Stewarts is now, which among other things, took care of the linens for a number of local hospitality-based companies. Levine himself graduated from the former Bennington High School.
Fletcher said an entire event is being built around this auction. On Saturday, Aug. 13 at 3 p.m., Philip Zea, president of Historic Deerfield, will lecture on "Cabinet Furniture: Vermont Craftsmanship, 1760-1860."
See the auction catalogue at: http://www.skinnerinc.com/american-furniture-decorative-art-auction.php?fam=2&type=latest . The Levine items are the first 47 lots of the 900 or so scheduled to be auctioned. Items may be previews Aug. 10-13 from noon to 5 p.m., and Aug. 14, the day of the auction, from 8-10 a.m., when the auction begins.