Antiques | Another whirl for carousel art

Choice carvings owned by a notable collector will be put up for sale by Sotheby's.


Charlotte Dinger began her carousel collection in 1972, when she purchased an old and faded horse for $75 in a Philadelphia antiques shop. The appeal was based, in part, on childhood memories of the Olympic Park merry-go-round in Maplewood, N.J.

Many animals later, Dinger went on to become the doyenne of these spirited wood carvings, publishing The Art of the Carousel - illustrated with figures from her own collection - and serving as a consultant to Sotheby's. She died more than a decade ago, and Sotheby's will offer 13 choice figures from Dinger's holdings in its fall Americana sale Thursday.

Nancy Druckman, head of American folk art at the auction house, says the timing links up with the opening of a major exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, "Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel," which chronicles the immigration of Jewish wood-carvers to America.

Dinger made some of her more significant discoveries in the Philadelphia region, such as her find of two dozen horses in a warehouse in the city. Not surprising in light of the fact that so many carousel figures were made locally.

The Sotheby's sale offers an outside row jumper horse, a carousel rocking horse, and a hippocamp sea monster made by Philadelphia Toboggan Co. The latter, made in 1899, has what looks like a baby dragon behind the saddle and carries a presale estimate of $75,000 to $80,000.

Examples of work by one of the most famous carousel carvers, Philadelphia's Gustav Dentzel, include two outside row stander horses and my personal favorite - a spectacular Moroccan lion stripped down to its bold carving (estimate: $65,000 to $75,000).

Druckman picks out another rarity, the 1904 teddy bear carved by New York's Charles I.D. Looff (estimate: $70,000 to $75,000), which accurately copies stuffed toys inspired by then-President Teddy Roosevelt. As she puts it, "Great carving of fur and very rare, only four known."

Most of all, the sale reminds her of Dinger, her friend. "She was the end-all and be-all," Druckman says. "I have missed her enormously because she was such an incredibly knowledgeable and generous resource."

Across town, Christie's Americana sale Wednesday will feature a collection of folk art being deaccessioned by our own Atwater Kent Museum. The prettiest bits are the carved and painted trade figures, lifelike advertising sculptures that stood on sidewalks to lure customers in.

There are several of the familiar cigar-store Indians. But rarer are other personas, such as the standing "Jenny Lind" in dress and jewelry (estimate $40,000 to $60,000) and a charming "Jack Tar" ship's boy in uniform ($100,000 to $150,000), probably done by Samuel Robb of New York (1851-1928).

"He's got a little swagger," says John Hays, Christie's auctioneer and deputy chairman. "The thing that's driving this is the condition. The paint is original, not just on the Jack Tar but on the 'Lady of Fashion.' . . . People just can't believe the surface condition of these pieces."

The figures once belonged to collector Rudolf F. Haffenreffer Jr., a German American brewing heir who bought them in 1940, when the getting was good. A photograph in the Christie's catalog shows a room full of the figures crowded together, like theatergoers at intermission.

John McCosker, founding director of the Atwater Kent, purchased the figures and other folk art in this sale at auctions or from dealers. He had previously worked in the administration of Mayor S. Davis Wilson, who was instrumental in saving the original Franklin Institute building and turning it into a museum of the history of Philadelphia.

And therein lies the reason for the deaccession. Atwater Kent's executive director Viki Sand says, "This is part of a long-term evaluation effort on our part, to have the collection reflect Philadelphia and Philadelphia stories. . . . What we're doing, based on recommendations from the conservation center and our own collection policies, is refine the collection."

Proceeds from the auction will go "for direct care of the collection, purchase and conservation," and toward renovating the 1826 John Haviland building, Sand says.

Carved people and animals may be the fun stuff, but no Americana sale could fail to include serious Philadelphia furniture. Sotheby's is selling a sinuous sofa with dolphin-carved legs ($20,000 to $50,000). Meanwhile, Christie's cover lot is a Philadelphia tilt-top tea table attributed to the Garvan carver, with a $2 million-plus estimate. More on that next week.

"Antiques" appears monthly in The Inquirer. Read recent columns at http://go.philly.