Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Auction of the Magnificent Art Collection of John Hunter in January 1866

During the 19th century, when wealthy New Yorkers built some of the region's most beautiful mansions along the shore of Long Island Sound in the Town of Pelham, the mansion of one wealthy New Yorker stood out.  It was the mansion of John Hunter on Hunter's Island.  

The "island" on which John Hunter's mansion once stood is now attached to the mainland due to landfill used to create today's Orchard Beach Park.  In its heyday, however, Hunter's mansion stood on a beautifully-landscaped island.  More interestingly, it housed the nation's finest private collection of old master art.  

John Hunter was born August 4, 1778.  He died in his home on Hunter's Island on September 12, 1852.  He was a son of Robert Hunter (born ca. 1735, died 1800) and Ruth Hunter (born ca. 1757, died 1840).  He graduated from Columbia College in 1799 and married a wealthy heiress, Elizabeth Desbrosses who died in 1839.  

John Hunter was a New York City businessman and a politician who served for eight years in the New York State Senate representing the Second District.  He also served as a member of the Constitutional Convention that revised the New York State Constitution in 1846.  

Before 1812, John Hunter bought "Appleby's Island" in the Town of Pelham.  Ever after, of course, it was known as "Hunter's Island."  As John Hunter's star rose and his fortunes improved, Hunter's mansion on "Hunter's Island" became an historic showplace in the Town of Pelham.  Among the most famous attractions of John Hunter's mansion on the island was the stunning art collection John Hunter spent most of his life assembling.  The collection then was considered the best such collection ever assembled during the infancy of our young Republic.  

After John Hunter's death, his family gathered his "extensive collection of ancient and modern pictures removed from his gallery and residence at Hunter's Island" and offered the art for sale at an auction administered by Henry H. Leeds & Miner, Auctioneers.  I have written before about this auction.  See Mon., Nov. 10, 2014:  Obituaries And Notice of Art Auction Published Upon the Death of John Hunter of Hunter's Island in 1852

Earlier this week I received an email from Brendan Cahill of Pelham who forwarded a link to a PDF of the full catalog and news links.  Brendan's note allowed me -- for the first time ever -- to read from cover to cover the full auction catalog for the sale of John Hunter's art collection in 1866.  An image of the cover of the auction catalog appears immediately below, followed by a citation and link to its source.

Cover of Henry H. Leeds & Miner Auction Catalogue
for January 17-19, 1866 Auction of the Art Collection
of John Hunter of Hunter's Island in the Town of Pelham.
Source:  Henry H. Leeds & Miner, Auctioneers, Catalogue
548 Broadway, (Next Door to Tiffany & Co.'s), on the Evening
of Wednesday 17th, Thursday 18th and Friday 19th January, 1866
at 7 o'clock Each Evening (1866).  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

The auction of John Hunter's massive art collection was a highlight of the year in 1866.  The collection was billed as the largest and finest such collection ever exhibited or offered for sale in the United States.  John Hunter began assembling his collection as early as 1800 and collected most of the paintings before 1835 although some were acquired between 1835 and 1850, about two years before his death.  

The collection sold at auction consisted of 373 "ancient and modern oil paintings" including a number by masters.  A review of the catalog for the auction is fascinating and shows the extent and importance of the collection.  For example, the entry for Lot No. 292 sold on the third day of the auction read as follows:


1483, 1520.
31 by 26 up

This picture was considered by Mr. Hunter as the most valuable in his collection.  It was purchased in Paris during the three days' revolution, and was taken from the palace of Charles X.  No doubt has existed as to its originality, and it is probably the only picture by the great master in this country."

Efforts to determine precisely which Raphael painting of Madonna and Child this entry refers to have not yet been resolved.  There are a variety of such paintings but none assessed so far seems to match the dimensions contained in the catalog ("31 by 26 up").  There is, however, an intriguing notation next to the entry in the catalog suggesting that Lot No. 292 sold during the auction for $850 -- about $21,100 in 2016 dollars.

Another example of the works that once hung in the Hunter Mansion in Pelham that were sold during the action was a masterpiece by John Singleton Copley entitled "The Tribute Money" and painted in 1782  An image of the painting, now owned by the Royal Academy of Arts, appears immediately below.

"The Tribute Money" by John Singleton Copely, 1782. 

Another example of the works sold in the Hunter auction was a masterpiece referenced in the catalog as "Murder of the Innocents."   The work was attributed in the catalog to Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).  Once again, it is somewhat unclear -- at least at this time to this author -- whether this work was or was not any of a number of paintings attributed to Peter Paul Rubens or the school of Peter Paul Rubens known today as "The Massacre of the Innocents."  Such works depict the murder of infants at the order of King Herod.  The Peter Paul Rubens original painting is now in "The Thompson Collection" at the Art Gallery of Ontario entitled "The Massacre of the Innocents."  The original of the painting is oil on oak dated from 1611 until 1612 and is 55.9 inches by 71.7 inches -- apparently inconsistent with the catalog's dimensions for Lot No. 195 which described the Rubens painting offered in that lot as "44 x 35 ob."  The painting sold during the Hunter Auction for $340 -- about $8,450 in 2016 dollars.  

According to one of a pair of New York Times articles describing the results of the auction:

"On the first evening there were sold 123 pictures, which yielded $3,433.  The second evening there were also brought under the hammer 123 paintings, which went for an aggregate of $6,895, or a total of 246 pictures sold, and $10,328 realized on Wednesday and Thursday nights.  On Friday evening there remained to be disposed of 127 pictures . . . The entire amount of sales [the] last night footed up $18,916.50, making a grand total of all realized for the entire collection of $29,244.50.  The highest price paid was for a piece entitled, 'The Swing,' by ANTHONY WATTEAU, which brought $1,250."

Clearly the Hunter art collection auctioned in January 1866 was a significant early American collection.  No effort yet has been made to identify each of the paintings referenced in the auction catalog and trace their ownership to the present day.  Clearly that would be a monumental -- but fascinating -- study.

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Below is an example of one of many advertisements that appeared at the time announcing the auction of John Hunter's collection, followed by a transcription of its text as well as a citation and link to its source.  Thereafter is the text of a pair of New York Times articles describing results of the auction.  Each also is followed by a citation and link to its source.  

New York Herald Advertisement for the January 17-19,
1866 Auction of the Art Collection of John Hunter of Hunter's
Island in the Town of Pelham.  Source:  HENRY H. LEEDS,
AUCTIONEER [Advertisement], New York Herald, Jan. 8,
1866, p. 7, col. 1.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.
See also HENRY H. LEEDs, AUCTIONEER [Advertisement],
N.Y. Times, Jan. 13, 1866, p. 6, col. 6 (same text; NOTE - 
Paid subscription required to access via this link).

Immediately below is the transcribed text of the advertisement above, provided here to facilitate search.  

H.H. LEEDS & MINER will sell at auction, on WEDNESDAY, THURSDAY, AND FRIDAY EVENINGS, January 17, 18 and 19, 1866, at 7 o'clock each evening, at the DUSSELDORF GALLERY, No. 548 Broadway, next door to Tiffany's.
being the ENTIRE COLLECTION of the late Mr. JOHN HUNTER of Hunter's Island, Westchester County, N.Y., comprising in all nearly 400 GENUINE WORKS of the old masters.

This sale will afford to CONNOISSEURS a rare opportunity for the selection of fine Pictures, being the 
ever exhibited or offered for sale in this country.  The late owner, Mr. HUNTER, formed the principal part of it from the year 1800 until 1835; no pictures having been added since 1850, many of the finest were purchased especially for him by his European agent, Mr. HOBSON, during the revolutionary troubles in France.

The balance being the careful selection of the late owner during a period of fifty years.  It has always been esteemed the BEST REPRESENTATIVE GALLERY OF THE OLD MASTERS IN THE UNITED STATES.

There are no other pictures embraced in this catalogue, it comprising the ENTIRE COLLECTION of the late Mr. HUNTER only.  The sale will be POSITIVE and WITHOUT RESERVE.

They may be VIEWED on and after TUESDAY, January 3, at the GALLERIES as above.
CATALOGUES may be obtained at the GALLERIES, at the office of Messrs. E. H. LUDLOW & CO., No. 3 Pine street, or at the office of the AUCTIONEERS, 93 Liberty street."

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The Celebrated 'Hunter Gallery' Disposed of at Auction.

Last evening, at No. 548 Broadway, next door to TIFFANY & Co.'s establishment, was inaugurated the sale of one of the finest collections of oil-paintings every yet made in this country.  Messrs. HENRY LEEDS & MINOR, by order of the heirs and assigns of the estate, have brought to the block the private collection of paintings once belonging to Mr. JOHN HUNTER, lately deceased, and last evening, in the presence of a crowded audience, the first installment was brought under the hammer.  The collection was begun by Mr. HUNTER in 1800, and the greater part of the pictures purchased before 1835, and none have been added since 1850, so that those who are connoisseurs were pretty certain to find some rare and elegant productions.

Though the opening reception of the artists of the Academy of Design was held at their beautiful building in Twenty-third-street last night, and many people of artistic tastes were therefore kept from the sale, still the room was crowded, and the bidding tolerably spirited.  

Probably no other collection in America could boast so great a number of varied specimens of the best styles of the great European and American artists.

There were in this collection certain specimens of the works of several noted artists, duplicates of which are not to be found in this country.  As the pictures were all to be sold without reserve, the gathering comprised not only artists and amateurs, but many picture dealers, and other spectators.

The spacious hall, holding about 250 or 300 persons, was crowded at an early hour, and the sale commenced precisely at 8:15, Mr. HENRY H. LEEDS presiding at the desk.

The bidding was tolerably spirited, and many of the less valuable pictures were disposed of at a price quite as high as had been hoped for by those having the sale in charge.  To-night the sale will be continued, and some of the more valuable paintings of the collection will be sold.

A number of ladies were present last evening, and their suggestions were often noticeable in certain fancy prices paid for pictures, for which their more prudent spouses would not have been inclined to invest quite so many stamps.  The accommodations are good and all ladies and gentlemen who attend the sale can be assured of having good seats.

Last evening there were sold 123 paintings at prices ranging from $5 to $110 each.  The entire catalogue will occupy the auctioneer this evening, and also tomorrow evening, even if no longer.  As last night disposed of most of the 'trash,' those who attend to-night will be sure of seeing some good pictures offered, and may easily secure some excellent bargains."

Source:  IMPORTANT PICTURE SALE -- The Celebrated 'Hunter Gallery' Disposed of at Auction, N.Y. Times, Jan. 18, 1866, Vol. XV, No. 4466, p. 5, col. 4 (NOTE:  Paid subscription required to access via this link).

The 'Hunter Collection' Sold and Scattered -- Pictures, Prices and Purchasers.

Last evening was the third and last of the sale of the artistic collection of the late Mr. JOHN HUNTER, which sale has been conducted under the every-way admirable management of Messrs. HENRY H. LEED & MINER, the well-known auctioneers.  As is customary on such occasions, the choicest pictures of the collection were reserved until the last evening, although the excellence and undoubted genuineness of those disposed of on the former evenings were sufficiently well known to the world of picture-buyers to secure a crowded house each night, despite the opposing attraction of Academy exhibition.  Each evening, at a very early hour, the hall was crowded with an anxious throng, eager alike to see and admire, and also to purchase and secure some of the many gems of the art preservative.  The paintings were arranged on the spacious walls in situations best calculated to display their various merits to the fullest advantage.  Many ladies were in attendance, and, in the early hours, while the room was not yet crowded, these fair connoisseurs were eagerly engaged in examining the various works, in descanting on their artistic merits, speculating on their commercial value, and making private memoranda in their well-studied catalogues for instant reference in the more hurried and excited moments of bidding.  The front seats were very properly mostly given up to the mud-defying, petticoated sex, and though their fair lips were not often opened in audible bidding, their hints and suggestions prompted the bids of more than one gentleman whose stronger voice was better calculated to attract the quick ear of the auctioneer.

The sale began each evening promptly at the appointed hour, and last night even a little before, for the reason that in addition to the more active competition expected, the list of paintings was numerically larger than on any prior evening, and special exertions were requisite to enable the sale to be concluded at a reasonably early hour in the evening.

As on the previous nights, Mr. LEEDS, in person, first mounted the stand, and for the first two hours or so conducted affairs, after which time his partner, Mr. MINER, succeeded him, and brought the sale to a conclusion.  

As our report of the sale of Thursday night was, on account of lack of space cut particularly short, we will here and now devote a few words to it, inasmuch as a number of pictures of first-class merit were sold on that evening.

The first picture offered Thursday night was one of the German or rather Dutch school, being an 'Interior, with boors gamboling,' by BERGHEIM.  Though the value of this picture was somewhat enhanced by the fact that the artist's autograph was signed on the back, it brought but the insignificant sum of $16, which was given by Mr. SPIES.  For the next one, a 'Singing Party,' by nobody knows who, Mr. LELAND gave $17.  From this rather unpromising beginning the bid ran along still at low prices, ranging from $11 to $60, until number 161, and 162, its companion, were put up.  These two paintings are from the brush of NICHOLAS FRAGONARD, (whose works extend over the time from 1733 to 1806,) and represent 'Alexander the Great Elevating Abdalomyne, the gardener, to the Kingdom of Sidon,' and 'Alexander the Great after his return from Egypt, visiting the Temple of Jupiter Ammon.'  Both are executed on copper, and a rather brisk competition was excited, and the two were finally struck off to Mr. RANDOLPH, at $105 each.  Again an interval of low prices and small or inferior pictures, until No. 181 was put up, when a spirited bidding commenced between several gentlemen, each of whom seemed determined to secure the work at all pecuniary hazard.  It is a large canvas (67x64 inches) painted by FRANCIS SNYDERS -- subject, 'Hunting the Boar' -- and it really is a production of great spirit and vigor of action.  This artist was contemporary with RUBENS, and, as the catalogue informs us, was often employed by that master to paint animals and certain minor accessories into RUBENS' own productions.  Howsoever that may be, this work was evidently much desired by many gentlemen, who entered into a brisk and lively competition, which resulted in Mr. McLAUGHLIN taking the prize at the sum of $260.

Mr. PLATT secured No. 182, by PAOLO CAGLIARI, or PAOLO VERONESE, which represents 'Christ in the house of the Pharisee, the woman anointing the feet of the Savior.'  This is an admirable painting of the popular Venetian school, and is executed by one of its best known artists, in his very happiest manner.  Price $210.

Mr. BEAUMONT secured No. 186, the 'Joseph Interpreting the Dreams' of F. G. OFFELE, (1,759,) at the figure of $200.

The next work of special merit was a large painting of PETER PAUL RUBENS, entitled 'The Murder of the Innocents,' and it is a most elaborate and admirable work.  The purchaser was fortunate in securing it at the comparatively low mark of $340.

A Teniers, (DAVID, the younger,) representing 'Monkeys,' was knocked down to MR. RANDOLPH for $56.  Mr. WADE bought 'The Music Party,' by HOREMAN'S, (JOHN, the younger,) for $165, thereby securing an admirable and beautiful work.  The 'Ascension of the Virgin,' by PIETRO BERRETINI, was sold to Mr. TRAVERS for $150.  This gentleman also got a 'Market Scene." by GIACOMO DA PONTE, for $100.  A landscape by CUYP was sold to Mr. J. WARD for $110.  Mr. McLAUGHLIN secured No. 220, a 'Grecian Daughter,' a very well-known subject which has been treated in almost every conceivable manner by other artists.  This one is from the easel of ANTHONY SCHOONJAUS, and the price was $110.

The last three pictures offered on Thursday evening were 'Dead Game, Lobster and Fruit,' by WEENIX, (JOHN, the younger,) and was purchased by MMr. MORRIS for $415.  This same gentleman also bought the next on the list, 'A Stable Yard,' by GEORGE MORLAND, an undoubted original.  Price $530.  The last one offered on the second evening's sale was 'Fox, Dog and Dead Fowl,' by PAUL DE VOS, and was bought by Mr. BAKER for $370.  This is  picture of great spirit and truthfulness to nature, and of unquestioned high merit.  It is the best picture of the style in the entire collection, and the purchaser got it at a bargain.

On the first evening there were sold 123 pictures, which yielded $3,433.  The second evening there were also brought under the hammer 123 paintings, which went for an aggregate of $6,895, or a total of 246 pictures sold, and $10,328 realized on Wednesday and Thursday nights.  On Friday evening there remained to be disposed of 127 pictures, among which were many of the gems of the collection, the most valuable both in an artistic and financial point of view, though, by the way, the intrinsic and the fancy pecuniary valuation of a picture do not by any means always tally.

There were present last night a number of the leading artists of the city, an eager crowd of buyers with heavy purses and well-lined pocket-books, and, as before stated, a large number of ladies.

The entire amount of sales last night footed up $18,916.50, making a grand total of all realized for the entire collection of $29,244.50.  The highest price paid was for a piece entitled, 'The Swing,' by ANTHONY WATTEAU, which brought $1,250, which sum was paid by Mr. D. MARLEY.  Many others brought as high as $500, $700, $850, or more.  On the whole the sale has been most satisfactory to those having it in charge, and, strange to say, the buyers as well as the sellers are equally well satisfied, not usually the case in any sort of bargaining.  

For the accommodation extended to the press, for kindly information given and statistics furnished, we have heartily to thank Messrs. LEEDS & MINER, and their efficient corps of gentlemanly assistants, including Mr. JOHN FEEKS, the intelligent colored man in charge of the rooms.

Among the most extensive buyers on the three nights were several well-known gentlemen, most of whom purchased for private collections belonging to themselves or to others for whom they were acting merely as temporary agents; a few, however, of the works were purchased for public galleries, or by dealers for the purpose of being sold again."

Source:  THE GREAT PICTURE SALE -- The "Hunter Collection" Sold and Scattered -- Pictures, Prices and Purchasers, N.Y. Times, Jan. 20, 1866, Vol. XV, No. 4468, p. 8, col. 4 (NOTE:  Paid subscription required to access via this link).

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