Auction Blog

Schwenke February 13th Auction Features Property from The Estates of Thomas N. Armstrong III and Whitney “Bunty Armstrong

Posted January 29, 2024

Alexander Calder Presentation
Wire Whimsey Sculpture

Betty Woodman Balustrade Vase 39

William Sharp, Lithograph
The Great Waterlily of America

Jan Matulka, O/C Abstract Composition

George III Mahogany Architect's Desk-Chest

Harris Rubin Dining Table

Woodbury, CT – On Tuesday, February 13th Schwenke Auctioneers will present a “single owner” auction of property from the estates of Thomas N. Armstrong III and Whitney “Bunty” Armstrong, removed from 860 UN Plaza, New York City. The sale will begin at 10am on Tuesday, February 13th and will be broadcast “live online” through Live Auctioneers and Invaluable. Absentee and phone bidding is available by registering directly with Schwenke Auctioneers. Live preview is being held on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, February 8th, 9th and 10th from 11am to 5pm.

Thomas N. Armstrong III was an American museum curator and collector who was director emeritus of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Andy Warhol Museum. He was also a board member of the New York School of Interior Design. He and his wife "Bunty" were long time supporters of The Garden Conservancy of which Mr. Armstrong became chairman in 2007. Mrs. Armstrong was active as a member of The River Club and The Cosmopolitan Club, a long-time sustaining member of the New York Junior League, a long-time board member of the Women's Prison Association, and head of the Ladies Committee of the National Horse Show.

Tom and Bunty Armstrong were more than just collectors of American fine art and antiques. They were closely involved and had unique personal relationships with dozens of noted American artists and for many years enjoyed their intimate connection to the nucleus of all those artists’ creative genius. They floated seamlessly in and out of the professional and personal lives of those artists for many years. While their collector friends spent time with the dealers from whom they purchased, Tom and Bunty spent time with the artists themselves. The four Armstrong children, now adults, recount endless stories of the parties, balls, museum openings and other events when as children they shared their parents’ frequent interactions with the likes of Louise Nevelson, Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Jean Miro, Jasper Johns, playwright Arthur Miller, Marcel Breuer, Frank Gehry, Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Mark di Suvero, Isamu Noguchi, Betty Woodman, Alfred Leslie, Leon Polk Smith, Terry Winters, Justin McCarthy and a host of others.

Tom Armstrong was a character indeed, recognized everywhere and always in his flashy and signature bow tie, singularly identifiable for his relentless and un-abashed pursuits to accomplish whatever objectives he found worthy for the institutions which he led. Among other achievements, he succeeded in purchasing the Calder Circus for installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art. To generate the needed funding, he prevailed upon Ringling Brothers to bring their circus to the neighborhood complete with elephants and acrobats to mount a fundraiser. Testament to the depth and integrity of his artworld connections, for example, is the fact that he moderated the Alexander Calder memorial service held November 6, 1976 at the Whitney.

The collection, which until recently was installed and maintained at their four bedroom apartment at 860 United Nations Plaza in New York City, includes fine art comprising paintings, works on paper, ceramic arts by Betty Woodman and Andrew Lord, outsider art by Justin McCarthy, and a group of fine bronzes by various artists; ceramics and porcelains; fine English and American furniture; contemporary and custom furniture, decorations and lighting; and antique oriental carpets.

The ceramic arts by Betty Woodman, with whom Tom and Bunty enjoyed a close personal friendship, include a five-piece wall collage from her “Balustrade” series initiated in the early 1990’s. Entitled “Balustrade Relief Vase #39", the collage comprises a flat-fronted ceramic vase placed on a ceramic shelf and surrounded by an arrangement of four separate ceramic “fragments”. The collage is sold with the original mounting plans, and when installed according to those plans measures 68" high, 42" wide, 8" deep.

Two other Woodman ceramic works are being sold, a three-piece glazed ceramic vessel triptych ensemble entitled “Mewar Memories” and a fanciful glazed pottery large vessel entitled “Pillow Pitcher”. Auctioneer Tom Schwenke noted that the firm had offered yet another Woodman wall collage for the Armstrongs in a sale held in 2018. That collage, comprising over a dozen separate glazed earthenware pieces forming a complete artwork, was ultimately donated to The Woodman Family Foundation, and it had been installed in the “Hooverness” property owned by the Armstrongs on Fishers Island, New York.

The collection also features numerous works on paper, lithographs, prints and oils on canvas. Most notable are a group of six large format chromolithograph plates from John Fisk Allen (Br. 1785-1865) "Victoria Regia, or The Great Waterlily of America", drawn and painted by William Sharp (Br. 1803-1875), printed and published by Dutton & Wentworth, Boston, 1854. These bold, lavish plates are widely held to be the first chromolithographs produced in America and are among the finest floral examples ever produced. The works are framed, and measure 27 1/2" high and 33 1/2" wide. The group, a complete set of the six original works, have been lotted and are being sold individually.

Other artist’s works being sold include those by Wanda Gag, Mabel Dwight, John Gill, Edward Moulthrop, Andrew Lord, Justin McCarthy (six works), Frederick Roth, Alexander Phemister Proctor, Brenda Putnam, Ray Parker, Tom Palmore, Andrew Masullo, Robert Laurent, Katherine Ward Lane, Alexander Kruse, Mario Joseph Korbel, Edward Kemeys, Grace Mott Johnson, Rosella Hartman, Victor Joseph Gatto, Susan Frecon, William Fellini, Alan Cantwell Dunn, Geoffrey Dashwood, Howard Norton Cook, James Lippitt Clark, James M. Biederman, Virginia Berresford, Paul Wayland Bartlett, Thomas Hart Benton, Peggy Bacon and Vera Eugenia Andrus.

Two works by Jan Matulka (Czech-Am., 1890-1972) are selling, first an ink on paper entitled “Broadway”, with provenance Robert Carus Gallery, NYC. The second, a large and impressive colorful oil on canvas, “Still Life With Gramaphone” signed "Matulka" lower right, frame size: 38 1/2" high, 48 1/2" wide, provenance Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, NYC. Both works were exhibited at Whitney Museum of American Art, 1979-80; H. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1990; Berry-Hill Galleries, NYC, 2006.

Tom Armstrong’s relationship with Alexander (“Sandy”) Calder, the noted and internationally regarded late artist/sculptor who maintained his studio for years in Roxbury, Connecticut – just a few miles from Schwenke Auctioneers’ gallery – was well known. Also quite well known was Sandy Calder’s humorous and playful wit and “larger than life” engaging and unforgettably remarkable and authentic personality. Together the two men were a dynamic and symbiotic force, sparked by Calder’s magnificent talents and further propelled by Armstrong’s unbridled and virtually unstoppable visions of ways to expose, present and validate the works which manifested Calder’s genius.

Principal among Tom Armstrong’s achievements in this regard were the installation of “Calder’s Circus” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as a subsequent but equally significant installation at the Whitney of the “Calder’s Universe” exhibition. It was at that time when Calder surprised Tom Armstrong with a gift of a whimsical wire sculptural neckpiece of an elephant and a bow tie. Very little imagination is required to understand and appreciate that the symbolism in the gifted sculpture’s form reflects the elephants which Tom Armstrong brought to the Whitney to fund the Calder Circus installation and the bow tie mimics the signature sartorial “marker” for which Armstrong was universally known. The whimsey sculpture is being offered for sale in this single owner auction and according to Tom Schwenke, founder and CEO of Schwenke Auctioneers, offers bidders “. . . a unique opportunity to acquire a single object of art which uniquely reflects and embodies the creativity, vision and playful humor of two great American characters who in their own separate but commonly grounded ways left indelible footprints in the sands of the American art scene during the decades they were able to share.”

While the Armstrong collection is certainly “art centric”, several pieces of fine English furniture deserve mention. The sale includes two George III serpentine mahogany chests, one with serpentine sides and rococo hardware; an amazing robustly carved George II style mahogany double chair-back settee with eagle arm terminals; two Georgian slab tables, one with purple marble top and the other with a mahogany top; and a rare George III mahogany architect’s chest with pull-out front legs and fold-over top.

Also of note are a wonderful pair of Continental paint decorated and faux marble topped serpentine console tables, featuring painted allegorical landscape scenes in panels set within the front aprons, and paint decorated simulated inlays.

Modern and contemporary furniture includes five notable pieces from well-known artist Harris Rubin, Custom Furniture, located in Baltimore, Maryland. Tom Armstrong’s modus operandi became clear over the course of years he spent directing museums. When he found an artist whose work he loved and enjoyed, he really got to know the artist and provided support in both the museum and commercial worlds.

After a fire destroyed their colonial revival house “Hooverness” on Fisher's Island, Tom Armstrong and his wife Bunty commissioned Thomas Phifer and Partners to design a spectacular modernist steel and glass house on the same site, fulfilling Mr. Armstrong's dream of living in a garden surrounded by art. Harris Rubin furniture was strategically placed throughout the Armstrong home in Fishers Island, as documented in Armstrong’s noted design and landscape book “A Singular Vision – Art, Architecture, Landscape”, Quantuck Lane Press, December 13, 2011. A copy of a first edition of this book, in the original packaging, launches the sale as the first lot.

This sale offers a Harris Rubin custom round dining table, called “Pedestal”, with a pie wedge dark stained oak veneered top and an eccentric hammered “rock like” patinated steel base. The table measures 29” high, 66” diameter. The four other Rubin designs include a pair of “Pyramid” occasional tables, an elliptical “rust” finished steel “McGavin” console table, and a “Pyramid Torchere” steel and glass floor lamp.

Chinese porcelains and decorations are also included in the sale. Among the porcelain lots is a wonderful pair of Chinese porcelain lidded jars, brilliant yellow ground with famille verte floral enameled decoration. The jars have Kangxi style double circle marks on the base and measure 13 3/4" high, 8" diameter. Also of note are a set of four large Chinese framed panels, gouache and watercolor on paper, featuring flora and fauna in brilliant and highly decorative colors and designs. The panels each measure 81" high, 27 1/4" wide.

The catalog for the sale is viewable at Absentee and phone bidding are available for this live-online auction by registering directly with Schwenke Auctioneers. The sale will be broadcast for live internet bidding on Live Auctioneers and Invaluable. Live preview will be held Thursday, Friday and Saturday, February 8th, 9th and 10th, from 11am to 5pm. Please consult the firm’s website for additional information or call Schwenke Auctioneers at 203-266-0323.

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