PITTSBURGH – A rare botanical antique art collection hit the auction blocks earlier this year to pay for the long-term care of James J. White of Pittsburgh.
White, 68, suffers from a degenerative neurological disease, so he put his rare antique collection of 283 lots for sale at Concept Art Gallery in Regent Square, where it netted about $200,000.
“This was a bittersweet sale because the circumstances behind the sale are so humbling,’’ said Sam Berkovitz, owner of Concept Art Gallery.
After directing the art collection at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University for more than 30 years, White is now living in a nursing home and the proceeds of the recent sale will help in his specialized care.
As most avid collectors might suspect, the White sale selections embody the interests of a man who collected botanical works for professional and personal purposes. The lots were heavy on prints of flora and fauna from the 17th century up to contemporary works. And much of his collection is a reflection of the many years he spent working at the Smithsonian Institute’s Department of Botany during the 1970s when he often found original botanical art in the same drawer as specimens of herbs.
His Smithsonian work stimulated his deep passion for botanical art. In 1978, he moved to Pittsburgh to work at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. For the past 30 years, the quiet Tennessee native created his own private collection of botanical art with a keen eye for detail and composition. His Victorian home was filled with antiques and an art collection that included 19th century still life.
Many of White’s 19th-century still life paintings that were recently auctioned came from his late friend George J. McDonald, who ran an art and antique gallery in Washington, D.C., before his death in 1998.
But some of White’s interests moved far beyond the field and stream botanical themes. Along with antique furniture ranging from Sheraton tables to pieces crafted by Duncan Phyfe, White amassed Civil War memorabilia, Indian stringed instruments, Inuit carvings and 19th century glassware.
“White approached each of his varied interests with a scholarly passion, whether it was his art collection, gardening or involvement in Civil War re-enactments,’’ said Berkovitz.
Peers report that White visited India five times, absorbing the culture, meeting artists and learning about the country’s cuisine. Working as a Fulbright research scholar, White helped catalog more than 1,000 original botanical watercolors and drawings during a trip to India.
A creative and hardworking collector, White also helped found the American Society of Botanical Artists. In 2007, the organization gave him its Award for Excellence.
One of White’s outstanding examples of botanical art is a hand-colored engraving of irises made by Basilius Besler, a German artist who lived from 1561 to 1629. Besler, who was in charge of the gardens of the Prince Bishop of Eichstatt, created a two-volume set of books with 374 plates that showed more than 1,000 flowers in those gardens.
“White is extremely methodical and always approached his work with great passion and care,’’ said Lugene Bruno, acting curator of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, She worked with White for 13 years.
Bruno also said that White often organized the International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration, a global event held every three years. “White took an active role in anything he was working on,’’ she said.
Starting in 1999, Bruno and paper conservator Wendy Bennett worked with White to catalog 100 items found at a Grand Army of the Republic veteran post in Carnegie. Members of Post No. 153 met in a second floor room in the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall – the wood paneled space was recently restored and White’s uniform which he used in countless Civil War re-enactments is exhibited there.
A lengthy bout of prolonged bidding created a marathon auction at Concept Art Gallery where some of the high points included an unsigned 19th century portrait of a young man with a fly on his shirt and a Charles Baum still life of peaches and grapes which sold, respectively, for $4,000 and $7,000.
Susan Crimes, who attended the auction, said she hopes her antique collection will continue to earn value. “I collect antique glassware and stoneware pottery that has been valued at more than $3,500,’’ said Crimes, a retired nurse from Trafford, Pa. “It is sad to see his collection be sold, but it is being sold for a very good cause,’’ she said. “You simply can’t put a price on health.’’ ?
Chriss Swaney is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist for Reuters, The New York Times, Pittsburgh Engineer and Horse World, and an avid antique collector.
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