Selling off history, piece by piece

Gail Boehm, right, and Julian Maiorano, partially hidden, both employees of Russ Antiques & Auctions, hold up portraits of Charles Mallory and Eliza Mallory for people to see during the auction of the contents and home of captain Charles H. Mallory in Mystic Saturday.
Gail Boehm, right, and Julian Maiorano, partially hidden, both employees of Russ Antiques & Auctions, hold up portraits of Charles Mallory and Eliza Mallory for people to see during the auction of the contents and home of captain Charles H. Mallory in Mystic Saturday. Dana Jensen/The Day

Mystic — Mystic's 19th century maritime history, pieces of everyday life of the social elite, paintings of noted locally built ships and portraits of the seafaring Mallory family who brought it all to the southeastern Connecticut shoreline went up for sale Saturday.

Generations of Mallorys lived in the house at 35 Willow St. in Mystic from 1828 to 2010, including Capt. Charles H. Mallory, whose shipyard property later became Mystic Seaport.

Paintings of ships, portraits of the Mallory family and period lithographs were among the highlight of Saturday's auction, with sale prices routinely reaching tens of thousands of dollars, drawing cheers from the packed and wet banquet tent erected on the backyard lawn of the estate, as auctioneer Dan Russ competed with pounding rain on the tent roof throughout the day.

The house and contents were inherited by family members in Wisconsin after the last Mallory occupant, yachtsman Thayer (Pete) Mallory Kingsley, died in 2010.

Bidding was spirited for an early 19th century portrait believed to be of Charles Mallory as a boy. Russ tried to start the bidding at $30,000 to save time and his own voice, but no hands went up.

He gave in and started at $5,000. Seconds later, the price skyrocketed to $40,000 as the tent went silent but for the rain. The portrait sold for $43,000.

Bidder No. 8, who said he was too busy concentrating on the auction items to discuss his interest in the paintings and lithographs, posted winning bids on several large and small paintings that drew some "wows" from spectators and bidders alike.

It became evident that the paintings would be the top draw as soon as members of the Russ family raised an oil painting of a Mallory ship that sold seconds later for $15,000, drawing the first round of applause.

"That's one of many great paintings to come," Russ said.

A few minutes later, a painting of Mallory's Civil War ship "Varuna" sold to Bidder No. 8 for $29,000, drawing another round of applause.

Later, the bidder declined to discuss his bids or identify himself. Another bidder, who purchased wooden half-hull ship models for several thousand dollars, also declined to identify himself.

It was unclear Saturday whether or not Mystic Seaport bid on any of the items.

Some of the smallest items in the auction also drew strong interest, especially silver eating utensils, platters and accessories. A small set of inkwells sold for $500.

"You thought you had it all," Russ said at one point. "You don't have this. A silver asparagus server."

Someone soon owned it for $1,050.

But no winning bid was posted for the largest item of the day, the 12-room Greek revival Mallory home with a half-acre lot. Only one bid for $475,000 was posted, but it did not meet the family's minimum requested price. Russ said the house would now be put on the market.

The auction of local sailing and whaling history was a historic event for Russ Antiques & Auctions of Waterford as well. Bonnie Russ and her husband, Paul Russ, own the company that has been in business for 100 years.

Bonnie Russ said more than 800 bidders registered for the auction in advance, and 35,000 bids were cast on the Internet before Saturday's auction even started. She was up all night Friday night into Saturday morning taking dozens of calls from as far as California and from potential foreign buyers.

This was the first Russ auction that featured live online bidding coinciding with bidding by the tent crowd, Bonnie Russ said. She enlisted family members and Russ company employees to handle the phones and online clients as the auction sped along.

The Russ family spent much of the summer sorting, appraising, and numbering items for the auction. Dealing with such historic materials is nothing new for the Russ family, but she quickly realized the value of the Mallory family history to southeastern Connecticut.

"We're trying to be as sensitive to the Mallory family and to Mystic Seaport as possible," Bonnie Russ said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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