Friday, April 3, 2009

Southam estate goes up for sale at Christie's in New York


By John Mackie, VANCOUVER SUN: Melissa Gagen travels all over North America to check out fine antiques to auction at Christie's in New York. Most leads turn out to be duds, but last year she scored big time at 1426 Angus Drive, the Shaughnessey home of the late Vancouver philanthropists Gordon and Jean Southam.

The 10,000-square-foot Tudor-style mansion was filled to the brim with beautiful antiques, many of them dating to the 18th century.

There was a Queen Anne settee with dazzling embroidery, a handsome George I walnut chest of drawers, and the most amazing silver soup tureen you've ever seen.

Christie's wound up taking more than 100 items for auction. The furniture and china will be sold April 7 at Christie's sale of Important English Furniture, Clocks and Ceramics.

The Queen Anne settee is estimated at $70,000 to $100,000 US. A Queen Anne embroidered stool of the same vintage is estimated at $30,000 to $50,000 US. The George I walnut chest of drawers is estimated at $70,000 to $100,000 US.

The highest pre-auction estimate belongs to the silver soup tureen, $90,000 to $120,000 US. It will be sold at an Important English, Continental and American Silver sale on May 22.

Over the phone from New York, Gagen said it was a "great treat" to come across the Southam collection, which she calls "a hidden treasure."

"It [was] a wonderful thing for me to see, because it's collecting in the best old fashioned sense," she said.

"There's an obvious passion that stands behind everything they collected, and you can really see it come through consistently in what they bought. Mrs. Southam was obviously the driving force. She loved simple, elegant things, that are still sophisticated.

"It's really where our market is right now, it's what collectors want to buy. The pendulum has sort of swung back to what's really authentic and wonderful. Each piece sings, in a sense, in its simplicity and elegance."

Jean's daughter Nancy said her mom loved antiques from childhood, when she would often visit fine English country homes on trips with her father, lumber baron H.R. MacMillan. She started collecting back in Vancouver, but as her passion for collecting grew, haunted fine antique stores and auctions from Toronto to London and New York.

"It really did become a passion of hers," Nancy said.

"Whenever she found something she wanted to upgrade, there were seven [Southam] children to give the stuff she wanted to replace to. It was a constant rolling circus, in a way. Because she would always be collecting and didn't have room for some stuff, she'd give it to one of us, which was marvellous."

Nancy laughs. "She said if she wasn't able to do that, she wouldn't be able to collect as much, and that all the dealers around the world would stop being her friend."

The Queen Anne settee and stool date to about 1710. Christie's devoted two full pages to the settee in the auction catalogue, and includes provenance that dates back to when it was made, possibly for an English aristocrat named Sir John Conyers, who lived in a "massive Jacobean brick structure" called Charlton House in Greenwich.

The settee is English but is done in a French style, in an unusual blend of Chinese and rococo themes.

"It's amazing, these large-scale Chinese figures with banners and musicians, it's absolutely wonderful," said Gagen, whose official title is senior vice-president, international specialist in English furniture.

Nancy Southam has a special fondness for the settee, which used to sit at the end of the front hall by the garden.

"We all loved it and would sit on it all day long, or at a cocktail party or birthday party or whatever," she recalls.

[But] because it's so delicate and it's so old - it's a hand-done silk tapestry - sitting on it kind of upset it a bit. So eventually, we stopped sitting on it."

It was used by one member of the family, however - the Southam's beloved bulldog, Mister.

"Mister could jump on anything," Nancy says with a smile, producing a snapshot of Mister reclining on the settee during a party.

"He could jump up on the dining room table and mum and dad wouldn't mind. So he was allowed up on that."

Jean Southam also loved miniatures, and Christie's will be auctioning off several, including two 16-inch-high George II chests of drawers made of walnut (est. $6,000 to $9,000 US), and mahogany (est. $3,000 to $5,000 US).

Being the daughter of H.R. MacMillan, Jean knew her wood. Gagen raves about the wooden furniture she found in the Southam home, particularly the George I walnut chest of drawers.

"This one chest of drawers is extraordinary," she notes.

"Just the most beautiful patina that you never see, a complete and utter gem. It's relatively simple but it stands apart, in that it's got these wonderful what I call 're-entrant' corners. They come in and out again on the case, which is quite unusual.

"There needs to be an understanding [of craftsmanship and quality] behind buying something like that."

The international auction market has been in a state of flux of late, reflecting the shaky world economy. The local auction house Maynards recently auctioned off some of the lesser items from the Southam estate and achieved mixed results: the highlight was a tiny but beautiful smoky quartz bulldog sculpture that sold for $26,000.

Gagen hopes that the quality of the items in the Christie's sale will bring better results.

"You just have to approach it all smartly," she says.

"People still want to buy nice things. The whole sale is really filled with things that people will want, because it's fresh to the market, which is critical. I think it's sensibly priced, which is critical. And everything is of a quality that takes it out of the realm of furnishing into the realm of potential objects for collectors.

"It's a supply and demand thing. ... Quality things don't come up as often as you'd like them to."

Items from the Gordon and Jean Southam estate are lots 131 to 214 in Christie's April 7 auction of Important English Furniture, Clocks and Ceramics in New York. They can be viewed at the Christie's website at: and clicking on the "Important English Furniture" link on the front page

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