$1 Million John Hancock Letter Leads Sotheby’s $20.1 Million Americana Sale

Recently in New York, Sotheby’s annual Americana Week auctions concluded with a strong total of $20.1 million, surpassing the series’ high estimate of $18.5 million – and with more than 1,620 lots sold across five auctions and six days.

Below is an overview of the highlights that led to these outstanding results:

Fine Manuscript & Printed Americana

Auction Total: $3.2 Million

The week closed with a selection of exceptional historical materials from our sale of Fine Manuscript and Printed Americana, led by a manuscript letter signed by John Hancock, announcing the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, 6 July 1776 which achieved $1 million – surpassing its $800,000 high estimate and achieving the highest price of the week.

The text of the Declaration of Independence was first printed on the evening of 4 July 1776, by John Dunlap, with finished copies delivered to Congress the morning of 5 July. The number of copies printed is unknown but were likely printed in substantial numbers – between 500 and 1,000 copies.

The first copies of the Declaration were ordered by Congress to be “sent to the several Assemblies, Conventions & Committees or Councils of Safety and to the several Commanding Officers of the Continental troops.”

One of those printings of Dunlap’s broadside would have been accompanied by the present extraordinary letter, signed by John Hancock as President of Congress.

Several lots achieved multiples of their estimates, including a copy of The New-England Primer, an exceptionally rare edition of the most enduring of all American children’s books which soared to $62,500 – more than 15 times its $4,000 high estimate; an autograph manuscript fragment from George Washington’s undelivered first Inaugural Address which reached $137,500 – more than four times its $30,000 high estimate; and a book of maps executed by Emily Draper, a remarkable example of cartographic schoolgirl art, which achieved $50,000 – ten times its $5,000 high estimate.

Important Americana

Auction Total: $4.1 Million

The selection of American paintings on offer throughout the series was led by Ammi PhillipsPortrait of a Seated Child in a Pink Dress with a Spaniel and Coral Teething Ring that achieved $250,000. Painted circa 1835, the child depicted in the present work is perhaps one of the youngest in the artist’s entire ‘Red Dress’ group, while the spaniel, featured in many of Phillips’ portraits, has been thought to be the artist’s own dog, trained to amuse the child during the mundane sitting process.

Further highlights include a Bust Portrait of a Young Black Gentleman painted circa 1840 by William Matthew Prior, which far surpassed its $12,000 high estimate to bring $112,500. The presence of African-American sitters in Prior’s work is expansive in comparison to other artists of his time, though his depictions of black sitters are still extremely rare, constituting less than one percent of Prior’s oeuvre. The present work is rendered in Prior’s flat style – identical to the way in which he had portrayed white men— and in some cases, the artist would sign his portraits of African-Americans both as an artistic statement and expression of his moral values.

Among the standout pieces of Chinese Export porcelain was a Chinese Export ‘Rockefeller’ Pattern Part Dinner Service that realized $150,000 – more than triple its $50,000 high estimate.

This elaborately decorated group was originally part of a much larger service, with each individual piece painted in the centre with a different scene depicting Chinese figures. Previously known as ‘Palace ware’, though, with no particular connection to the Chinese Imperial Palace, the term was largely replaced by ‘Rockefeller Pattern’ in the 20th century due to several members of the famed American family owning examples from the service, including John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his sons, Nelson A. Rockefeller and David Rockefeller. A number of John James Audubon’s prints from The Birds of America achieved top prices on Sunday, led by his depiction of an American White Pelican (PLATE CCCXI) that fetched $137,500 (estimate $90/120,000).


Auction Total: $2.2 Million

Amassed over the course of several decades by a passionate collector and philanthropist, this dedicated sale was distinguished by an exceptional group of important weathervanes, as well as exemplary folk art and painted furniture. 

Full proceeds from the auction will benefit a new initiative for folk and self-taught art at the historic institution. The sale was led by a Molded Sheet-Cooper and Zinc Fire Pumper and Double-Horse Weathervane, Cushing & White, Waltham, Massachusetts, Circa 1870 that nearly tripled its high estimate $150,000 in selling for $437,500. Cushing & White made a number of these steam fire engine vanes for New England firehouses, several of which still belong to the houses for which they were built. A nearly identical weathervane can be found in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, and another vane of this type resides in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.


Auction Total: $3 Million

Arriving in this country in the 1960s with only a few dollars in his pocket, Arun Singh has gone on to become one of the nation’s leading cardiac surgeons. Arun and Barbara first met when he was a resident in New York and she was a nurse – Barbara introduced Arun to life beyond the hospital, including museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where their shared interest in Americana grew to the collection offered on Saturday.

An Exceptional Chippendale Carved Cherrywood Bonnet-Top High Chest of Drawers, Colchester, Connecticut, Circa 1775 led the impressive selection of outstanding New England furniture on offer, achieving $200,000. Retaining its original finial and brasses, this sophisticated high chest displays many details that follow the work of Calvin Willey (1769-post 1831), the cabinetmaker who was trained in Colchester, Connecticut and moved to Lenox, Massachusetts by 1791. An exemplary Rare and Impressive Panoramic View of Macao, Attributed to Sunqua, Qing Dynasty, Circa 1850 was among the standout China Trade paintings on offer in Saturday’s sale, more than doubling its $50,000 high estimate to bring $112,500. Sunqua (active 1830-70) painted with a distinctive style that has earned him the reputation of one of the most important Chinese painters for the European market of the 19th century, and the present work demonstrates the master’s later style. A virtually identical painting can be found in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum.


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