Research on Antiques & Collectibles

THE FOLK ART ANTIQUE COLLECTION OF STEWART GREGORY:  A pioneer collector of American toys and decoys, weather vanes and whirligigs, portraits and painted furniture

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Stewart E. Gregory's ancestors knew the weathered red barn in Wilton, Connecticut, that their descendant bought some fifty years ago. When Mr. Gregory made his home there - along the same road where Deacon Daniel Gregory had built his house 200 years earlier - barns were not meant for human dwelling. They were occupied by cows and horses, and weather vanes were usually found perched atop the roofs.

But Mr. Gregory was an individualist in many things. Not only did this lawyer and drug company executive make an unconventional choice of a place to live, but he also selected unconventional furnishings. He brought his weather vanes indoors, for example; they rested in the rafters and stood sentinel in the shadowy corners. Others dotted the well-manicured yard, where Canada geese and their goslings congregated. The weather vanes were a part of Mr. Gregory's extraordinary collection of American folk art, which he collected until his death in 1976 at the age of sixty-three. When he began, such wares as hooked rugs, whirligigs, ships' figureheads, weather vanes, vintage Windsors and portraits of other people's ancestors were known and admired by only a few pioneer collectors. Long before scholars were studying folk art and museums collecting it, Mr. Gregory was in hot pursuit of most categories. He collected compelling nineteenth-century oil and watercolor paintings. He accumulated numerous hat boxes and decoys. He went after shop signs and toys and painted furniture. Just how successful he was had been known for more than a decade by folk art collectors and museum-goers. As a board member (from 1968 to 1971) of New York City's Museum of American Folk Art and later (1971 to 1974) as its vice-president, Mr. Gregory shared a large part of his collection with the public.

However, even the exhibitions at that museum and elsewhere - including the landmark Flowering of American folk Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and an exhibition at the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka, Japan - were mere hints of the arresting sights he had surrounded himself with in the once-simple New England barn. For the public never got to see all of Mr. Gregory's purchases, either in the barn or in the nearby farmhouse (also eighteenth-century) to which he moved two years before his death. Thankfully, members of his family decided that the entire collection should be sold, and on January 27, 1979, the public was able to bid for the objects that Stewart Gregory spent more than half his lifetime accumulating. The two-session sale of 373 lots at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York was described as the most important public dispersal of American folk art ever presented. It was estimated that the auction fetched as much as $800,000.

Masterworks abounded, especially in paintings and sculptures. There was, for example. Portrait of a Child, painted by John Brewster, Jr. This study of a jowly ancient-faced juvenile brought well over $35,000. Compared to the Brewster portrait, the adults in Ammi Phillips's world seem far more serene and ever so refined. The pair that he painted, probably before the Civil War, carried a presale estimate of $30,000. The portraits are typical of Phillips's work, particularly that of the woman. Her face has a Botticelli-like calm that softens the impact of her outrageous sausage curls. She carries herself with exquisite grace, without a muscle moving to disturb the organdy ruffle on her aristocratic shoulders. A second pair of portraits in the sale - of Deacon Pease and his son Henry - were no-nonsense paintings by Erastus Salisbury Field. Their unsmiling, keen-eyed demeanors are aggressively impressive.

For some folk art enthusiasts, the more memorable selections were the sculptures - the weather vanes, whirligigs, shop signs and toys. Mr. Gregory obviously could not resist anything modeled or carved that told which way the wind was blowing. There were a few dozen examples, some zoological - cows, horses, dogs, roosters, giant grasshoppers and a superb stag and hound - and some not: the flag-bearing Columbia, a regal Indian, a wittily conceived flagpole acrobat who flew before the Wright brothers did. And landlocked though his property was, Mr. Gregory also owned a vane, nearly a yard long, in the shape of a three-masted frigate.

Of the nineteenth-century carved figures and shop signs, the whirligigs and toys, the most provocative offerings were the largest. There was, for example, a man-size racetrack tout attributed to Charles Dowler of Providence, Rhode Island. Other notable works were a Wilhelm Schimmel eagle, a zinc figure of George Washington and a toy depicting Civil War troops marching.

Mr. Gregory's taste in rural and primitive furniture was also impressive. Of works offered in the sale, one of the rarest was a late-seventeenth-century oak and pine blanket chest from the Guilford, Connecticut, area. The surfaces are carved and painted. It fetched nearly $30,000 in the sale. The decoys Mr. Gregory collected proved to be far more valuable than anyone had dreamed. That became clear a few another summers ago when that part of the Gregory collection was auctioned at Richard A. Bourne Company in Hyannis, Massachusetts. When Mr. Bourne inspected the carved birds, he called the assemblage of eighty-eight lots "one of the finest of antique examples." The collection, Mr. Bourne predicted expansively, would probably bring about $40,000. Once his gaveling had ended, the total was $101,210. One splendid bird had been bid to $10,500, tying the record set by a curlew at the Bourne sale of the much better-known William J. Mackay, Jr., collection.

While folk art consumed Mr. Gregory's collecting activities - he logged thousands of miles in the air piloting Miss Allis and others around in his Piper Cherokee to inspect offerings from Maine to Virginia - he actually made his first purchase of an antique in a quite different field. While stationed in London shortly after World War II as a lieutenant with the United States Army counterintelligence corps, he bought an Andreas Guarneri cello made in Cremona, Italy, in 1683. From then on, it was a frequent companion. He played it often in amateur chamber groups and for friends. "When he bought a plane," Miss Allis recalled, "he always had to be sure he could get the cello in the door."