Economic silver lining found at Dargate auction

The global downdraft is hitting the world’s economies with a speed and ferocity few imagined possible just months ago.

But that gloom and doom found a silver lining at Dargate Auction Galleries’ winter auction sale where patrons began to queue up before dawn to invest in antiques that continue to provide a bulwark against tanking growth elsewhere.

More than 200 people crammed into the Pittsburgh-based Dargate Auction Galleries Feb. 6-8 to collectively spend $500,000 on priceless scalp-level oil paintings, rare porcelain, pottery, jewelry, toys and memorabilia from one of America’s celebrity chefs.

“You can’t trust the stock market, the banks are unraveling and job security is ancient history, so folks are sinking hard-earned cash into antiques,’’ said Carroll Swope, who owns a small antique shop in Canton, Ohio. “This is a secondary market that is seeing strong growth right now,’’ she said.

Until recently, the antiques business was sluggish. However, the pace of the latest turnaround has caught even large auction houses off guard.
“Considering the current economic climate, we were thrilled and amazed by the large crowds,’’ said Ed Gills, operations manager of Dargate Auction Galleries LLC. 

In fact, Shirley Grist of Beaver, Pa., said she had never seen the auction house so packed. “I felt like a sardine trying to find a little space of my own,’’ said Grist, who collects antique furniture. Her bid for a Louis XV round couch fell short of the $4,750 sale price. 

“I had my heart set on that couch, but I will be back for another buying spree,’’ said Grist. “These sales are a wonderful escape from all the bad news we’ve had to digest.’’

Still, a string of successful buyers wore their triumphant bids like medals of honor.

Annamae Beardshall of Oakmont, Pa., lovingly stroked her $600 piece of Jasperware like it was a long lost friend. “I have just the right spot at home for this beauty,’’ she said. 

Much of the auction hoopla focused around the photos and memorabilia from the late Rudolph “Rudy’’ Stanish, the “Omelet King,’’ who became one of America’s early celebrity chefs. Stanish, a native of Yukon, Westmoreland County, served as the personal chef to Paul and Bunny Mellon and also cooked the inaugural breakfast for President John F. Kennedy. During the peak of his career, the Omelet King scrambled up some golden dishes for Leonard Bernstein, Gloria Vanderbilt and Marilyn Monroe.

And as it turns out, Stanish also had good taste in antique art as well as food. His estate included everything from a Metropolitan Opera poster by Marc Chagall to a large, abstract painting by Theodoros Stymos. A friend of Mark Rothko and controversial executor of the Rothko estate, Stymos was described by peers as “a dynamic member” of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, which included Rothko, Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning. Titled Delphic Shibboleth, the 1959 unframed oil on canvas measuring 60 inches by 50 inches sold for $35,000. Items  from the Stanish estate fetched $100,000 from eager  bidders.

An Aaron Gorson  painting sold for $25,000 after eight Internet bidders slugged it out in cyberspace. The Lithuanian immigrant captured the beauty of riverside steel mills as their firebreathing smokestacks blazed across the wine dark skies of Western Pennsylvania. While many saw Pittsburgh’s steel industry as hell with the lid off, Gorson depicted it as a heavenly gift.

Hailing from a private New York collection, an extensive selection of Hindu temple fragments added an exotic touch to the sale.

Even toy collectors found great buys at the auction. Five boxes of vintage British lead toy soldiers sold for just $100. Toy experts say the soldiers were worth more than $1,500.

“Those soldiers were a real sweet purchase,’’ said Herman Weiring of Bethal Park, Pa. “The toy soldier industry is going the way of many of Great Britain’s great old cottage industries like Wedgwood now struggling to survive,’’ said Weiring, an avid collector of children’s books and toys.

Gwen Chenoweth of Pittsburgh opted to purchase several antique books and a German Hummel figurine.

“I have been looking for the complete works of Alfred Lloyd Tennyson for years, and I found them at Dargate for the great price of $150,’’ she said. Chenoweth was extremely pleased with the Tennyson works because her favorite poem is “Charge of the Light Brigade,’’ which reminds her of her son’s glory days as a Troop B commander in Culver Military Academy’s famed Black Horse Troop Cavalry unit stabled near South Bend, Ind. The horse troop has ridden in every presidential inaugural parade since Woodrow Wilson.

Other auction participants praised the sale for its diversity and pace.

“It was nicely paced and you could really enjoy everything that was being sold,’’ said Shelly Campbell, who spent a mere $60 on an antique ring.

Elmer DiPiero of Youngstown, Ohio, said he was amazed at the crowd and the prices. “I can remember when you could pay a few dollars for something old, but now it is really a serious business,’’ he said. 

Joe Simmons, 82, of Wexford, Pa., echoed those same sentiments. “I’m amazed at how much money is being spent. It is reassuring to know that part of our economy is starting to pick up,’’ said Simmons, who treasures an autographed plane ticket signed two weeks before Sen. Robert Kennedy was killed. “It may be valuable one day.’’