Published July 16. 2014 4:00AM Updated July 16. 2014 5:37PM
New London — As she rummaged through box after box Tuesday morning, Maureen Gallagher inspected and then photographed relics from the Whaling City's past.
"It's a treasure hunt," she said as she reached the bottom of one box and carefully navigated across the cluttered room to find another to explore, "and an obstacle course."
The treasure Gallagher sorted through once belonged to Hugh Devlin Jr., who owned and operated the New London institution Hughie's Restaurant until his retirement in 2000.
The purpose of Gallagher's treasure hunt was to catalogue the items, which will be up for auction by the Ocean Auction House on Sunday at 2 p.m. in the former Bank Street Cafe at 639 Bank St. The auction house will host preview showings from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 2 p.m. Sunday.
"Hughie's was a legend, it was unbelievable," said auction manager Steve Femiak. "I met some of my longtime friends at Hughie's."
Opened in 1961, the restaurant at 221 Howard St. was one of the city's most popular establishments throughout its nearly 40 years in business, known for the pungent "love salad": the restaurant's signature dish of greens, salami and enough garlic to vanquish a vampire.
But in 2000, the New London Development Corp. paid Devlin $1.1 million and took control of the property shortly after filing eminent domain papers in court. The restaurant, which stood in the path of a road-widening project that was part of the redevelopment of the Fort Trumbull area, was razed to make way for a roundabout.
Both Femiak and auctioneer Jeff Mullen fondly remembered Hughie's on Tuesday morning as they organized the items for bid.
"We both grew up with Hughie's and the 'love salad,'" Femiak said. "Those old wooden bowls were so saturated with garlic and everything else that they used to say that if you just added water you would have the dressing."
Though the auction does not include any of the bowls - many were snatched up by souvenir-hungry diners before the restaurant closed and others sold at an auction soon thereafter - items up for auction include a slew of framed pictures that adorned the walls of Hughie's, its iconic boxing glove menus and the restaurant's door handle.
Femiak said Ocean Auction House acquired the collection from an antiques dealer. Susan Devlin, one of Hugh Devlin's five daughters, said Tuesday she and her sisters were not consulted before the items were initially sold.
The auction lot also features other artifacts of New London's past: drink chips from Lighthouse Inn and Ye Olde Tavern, a wooden football commemorating the Chapman Technical High School football team's 1949 victory over the Bulkeley School, and a picture of music icon Willie Nelson wearing a Stash's Cafe T-shirt.
"We're finding bits of New London history everywhere as we go through all of this," Mullen said.
Among the wealth of boxing memorabilia that will be auctioned off is a framed Western Union telegram from 1930 announcing that Hugh Devlin Sr., one of the great pugilists in the golden age of New England boxing, had defeated Johnny Vacca in 10 rounds in New Bedford, Mass., to claim the New England bantamweight championship title.
There are also dozens and dozens of pictures of fighters from the early 1900s, including a framed newspaper photo of Jack Johnson as he was introduced before a fight on July 4, 1910, billed as the "Battle of the Century" - the fight in which Johnson defeated James J. Jeffries and became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world.
"We've already gotten a call about that one," Femiak said. "We got a call from someone in Hollywood, Calif., who is interested in that photo."
Another picture shows Connecticut-grown boxer Willie Pep sharing a laugh with Muhammad Ali as they each read a book Pep wrote. Other photos show fighters whose names and legacies have faded from the public consciousness.
The auction lot also features a good deal of baseball memorabilia, such as pictures of Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. There are also two photos of Babe Ruth, including one of the Sultan of Swat at the plate which was signed to Hughie's by two of the Bambino's granddaughters.
"It's a time capsule in here, there's really a good variety of items here," Mullen said. "We're hoping the auction attracts New London people who are interested in the restaurant, interested in the history of New London, and those interested in boxing and baseball history."
And to try to recreate a bit of the Hughie's vibe, Gallagher said she plans to have plenty of garlic on hand Sunday to really bring back the memories.