This painting by George William Sotter, a stalwart of Freeman’s Fine Art Auctions, sold for $122,500.

by Sally Cohen

Freeman’s, a 208-year-old auction firm owned by the Freeman family of Chestnut Hill, whose appraisers are often seen on public TV’s “Antiques Roadshow,” held its inaugural auction of American Art & Pennsylvania Impressionists on Sunday, June 9. The sale attracted competitive bidding from both private collectors and museums, and the 38 paintings from the Pennsylvania Impressionists section achieved $668,373 total.

The top lots included George William Sotter’s “Covered Bridge, Winter,” which sold for $122,500, and “Steel Mills, Pittsburgh” by Frederick R. Wagner, which achieved a world auction record at $45,000, more than doubling the previous one from 2003.

“Freeman’s has been selling Pennsylvania Impressionists dating back to when the artists were still alive and working. We are the world leader in this market and have posted auction records for Pennsylvania Impressionists from Fern Coppedge and Kenneth Nunamaker to Roy Nuse and Antonio Martino,” said Freeman’s Vice Chairman and Fine Art Department Head Alasdair Nichol. “There was a noticeable uptick in the number of Pennsylvania Impressionists works consigned for this inaugural sale.”

Additionally, the rare offering of 59 paintings by Walter Stuempfig from The Forbes Collection was sold to a standing-room-only crowd. This collection was amassed by noted art connoisseur and businessman Malcolm Forbes and subsequently by his family.

Several paintings were acquired by Woodmere Art Museum, the Chestnut Hill museum known for its focus on Pennsylvania artists from the Delaware Valley. Stuempfig, who was recognized for his moody atmospheric works, frequently used Philadelphia and its surrounding regions in his compositions.

“We were delighted to exhibit and sell Stuempfig’s works in his hometown. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Chairman Samuel “Beau” Freeman, the sixth-generation Freeman to run the firm. Beau runs the auction house with two sons, Samuel, 51, and Jonathan, 37, and more than 30 employees.

The auction house came into being in 1805 when Thomas McKean, the governor of Pennsylvania, appointed Tristram B. Freeman to the office of auctioneer in Philadelphia. The son of an Anglican minister in Devonshire, England, Tristram moved to Philadelphia in 1795 at age 32. He had been trained as a printer in London, and tried to re-establish himself as one in Philadelphia, without success.

As an auctioneer, however, he started selling wholesale goods that were flowing into the city from the docks, then moved into real estate and estate sales. By the 1830s Philadelphia was booming, and so was Freeman’s.

During the last 208 years, the auction house has sold some remarkable properties, among them, in the 1880s, the Philadelphia Post Office building on Chestnut Street, which went for $425,000, a record for a single piece of real estate sold at auction at that time, and in 1922, the liquidation of raw materials, machinery and factory buildings in Nitro, West Virginia, a town formed during World War I to manufacture ordnance.

The firm has always been strong in books, prints and Americana. In 1969 Freeman’s discovered an authentic first printing of the Declaration of Independence by John Dunlap of Philadelphia, one of 16 known copies at the time, and sold it for $404,000. In 1979 it sold a Thomas Affleck chest-on-chest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $92,000. In 1980 Freeman’s celebrated its 175th year with a sale of a “Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks for $210,000.

In 2005 Freeman’s sold a copy of the United States Constitution printed by Dunlap & Claypoole in the Sept. 19, 1787, Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser for $207,225, against a high estimate of $120,000.

Freeman’s holds over 30 auctions a year in the following categories: American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts; English & Continental Furniture & Decorative Arts; Asian Arts; American Art & Pennsylvania Impressionists; Modern & Contemporary Art;   Books, Maps & Manuscripts; Posters & Other Graphics; Oriental Rugs, Carpets & Textiles; Fine Jewelry& Watches; Silver & Objets de Vertu; and European Art & Old Masters.

The company’s marketing alliance with Scotland’s Lyon & Turnbull has extended Freeman’s reach into the European marketplace, maximizing global sales opportunities.  Additionally, Freeman’s offers Trusts & Estates and Museum services.

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