Saturday, October 07, 2006

19th century record set at estate auction of Mary Jane Morgan
By Robert A. Doyle, CAI, ISA, CES, CAGA

50th President of the National Auctioneers Association
Principal Auctioneer/Appraiser Absolute Auction & Realty, Inc.

Robert A. Doyle


The history of Auctions in America contains the stories of many memorable collectors, dealers and Auctioneers as well as the treasures that they accumulated and dispersed. However, one estate auction that occurred in the late 19th century was credited with the making of a major American auction house, setting world records and revealing the secret life and collecting expertise of a quiet, unassuming lady affectionately known as “Mary Jane.”

Mary Jane Sexton was the daughter of a successful New York City merchant. She was one of eight children. She was well educated in a series of fine schools. She became a teacher in Greenwich Village of French and mathematics. One of her students was a daughter of Charles Morgan, a widower who owned a fleet of sailing vessels.

Although Charles had a great respect for book learning, he himself was said to be practically illiterate. He was naturally attracted to Mary Jane and they wed in June of 1852. Morgan was 57 and Mary Jane was yet in her twenties. In fact, she was quite a bit younger then the sons of Charles.

Charles Morgan was from Connecticut and of Welch descent. He was a strong willed, one-man show of entrepreneurial power. He did not have use for banks or lawyers, trusted few people and had no partners. He was very frugal with personal spending. However, he invested heavily into the transportation industries where he made his fortune. Charles passed away in 1878.

Mary Jane was the only person that Charles truly trusted. There is a saying, “Where there is a will, there are relatives.” As executrix, she handled his affairs professionally and accurately amid tremendous criticism and pressure from greedy relatives and heirs. She avoided the press and continued to live her private life without fanfare. She was not into the high profile social scene that her neighbors enjoyed.

What nobody seemed to know was that Mary Jane had copies of every issue of “The Art Journal” published since her wedding day. That she studied and invested in quality art, fine art, antique furniture and accessories behind closed doors at her home at number seven Madison Square. High Society had written off Mary Jane as the “poor, boring widow” of the late Charles Morgan.

Investor in paintings
After the passing of her husband, Mary Jane increased her shopping sprees down Broadway. She shrewdly purchased paintings from Knoedlers, picking some of the best contemporary artists’ works. She knew art and would not purchase what they tried to “place” with her. Rather, she would peruse the inventory choosing the best examples. After finding what she wanted she negotiated hard to buy at a fair price. Mary Jane turned the big gloomy mansion into a museum filled with paintings, etchings, fine glass, porcelain, furniture and bronzes.

She quietly beautified her home, one item at a time. Her home was not open to the public; there were no parties.Therefore, no one knew that “plain Jane” had built a larger museum then the public examples in the city of New York. No one knew what she had. She never went into the streets with any of her million-dollar cache of jewels. Even her relatives had no idea what she had accumulated.

Mary Jane died in July of 1885 of Bright’s disease. It wasn’t immediately apparent that the once drab house would boast “the choicest collection of contemporary paintings in the world.” In fact her sister announced to the press that Mary Jane’s personal property was worth about $250,000. (According to Wesley Towner in his book The Elegant Auctioneers, “One dealer claims that Mary Jane spent over $700,000 with him alone.”)

Thomas Ellis Kirby, the principal Auctioneer for the American Art Galleries located right across the street from Mary Jane’s residence was called in to do the estate evaluation. It wasn’t long before the choicest pieces were crossing the street in preparation for the world’s greatest auction.

Kirby was attempting to raise the standards and change the reputation of the “Auction Room” in America. He had some minor successes in acquiring major art auctions in New York. However, this was his big chance and he took it.

The catalog expenses for the “Mrs. Mary J. Morgan” Estate Auction was a staggering $40,000. Five hundred catalogs were hand delivered to mansions across New York City. Only 500 numbered catalogs were published. The hardbound copies had gold leaf edges. The auction was to be held at Chickering Hall on the corner of Fifth Ave. The collection was to be sold without reserve. There were twelve scheduled auction sessions. Preview was available for 20 straight days prior to the first session. Over 100,000 people previewed the auction.

The world was astonished that a woman could amass such a collection on her own. The disbelief was reflected in the newspaper articles published prior to the auction that chastised dealers from taking advantage of the widow. Even her administrator and brother-in-law stated, “She was prey of any quantity of sharps.” However, critics were silenced after the results were in.

The auction of Mary Jane’s Estate fetched $1,205,152, the highest recorded estate auction proceeds in the world. A record that would stand for more then 20 years! By today’s standards that auction would equate to $23,469,981.40 according a CPI calculator.

The success of Mary Jane’s Estate Auction propelled Kirby’s American Art Galleries business to a new level. Several major Auctions, including the “Seney” and “Stewart” Auctions were booked by Kirby that were originally destined to be sold in London. According to Wesley Towner, one Auction observer commented after the Morgan Auction, “They ought to erect a monument.” Towner’s answer was, “They did, and it was an Auction House.”



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