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Antiques and Knicknacks Draw Crowd to Synagogue Auction

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Feb. 17, 2008 — Raindrops Sunday did nothing to deter the throngs of art lovers, bargain hunters and ordinary folk out for an unusual time as they poured into the University of the Virgin Islands' Sports and Fitness Center for the Ninth Annual Synagogue Auction.
The auction took in almost $200,000 gross, out of which between $50,000 and $60,000 will benefit the historic St. Thomas synagogue after expenses, said auction organizer Penny Feuerzeig.
The gymnasium was transformed into a veritable museum, stuffed with rare and beautiful pieces of West Indian furniture, paintings, antique Chinese cabinets, Indian artifacts, jewelry, Oriental rugs, rare stamp collections, vintage wines and champagnes, books and — once again — a 1976 Porsche 914. Last year's purchaser returned the classic car because his wife doesn't drive shift, Feuerzeig said.
The expansive space felt like (a very affluent) somebody's living room as folks wandered among the treasures, kibitzing over their finds. How about an antique West Indian cake safe, an oil by Shansi Miller, or perhaps that little antique pocket watch over there?
Historian Felipe Ayala compared notes with former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. Ayala didn't name a specific item he had his eye on. A hand-crafted 1840 four-poster bed from Grenada? A cane sofa?
"There's no room anymore," he said with a laugh. "I'll just have to pile it on top of each other — my new philosophy."
Turnbull, a familiar figures at territory auctions, echoed the same space problem.
"I have no room for anymore, but I'd like to donate some pieces to the Ft. Christian Museum," he said. Seriously eyeing the pie safe, he said, "I still believe these things belong to the Virgin Islands, and should be where people can see them."
There were a total of three four-poster beds, along with Phillip Sturm's furniture collection, including a mahogany and cane sofa, rockers, a lady's steamer chair and several armoires, including a rare purple heart.
Probably the youngest attendee was five-year-old Chantal Gumbs Carty, who wandered among the furniture while clutching paddle number 195. She looked terribly serious. Well, what did she have in mind? Mother, Rene Gumbs Carty, had a hard time getting Chantal to say.
"I don't know," she finally allowed, while looking seriously at a weathered dining-room chair. "This is my second time," the Montessori primary school student said proudly.
April and Byron Newland donated several pieces of antique Chinese furniture. Standing next to two carved Rosewood armoires, Byron ran a hand affectionately over the carving as they described their adventures acquiring the rare pieces.
"We had been to Beijing before," April said, "and Byron simply fell in love with the furniture. Last summer we returned to look for some. There are huge warehouses you go through, and you have to be very careful, really know what you're looking for. There are reproductions."
Byron, an accomplished carpenter himself, opened a door on one of the armoires.
"Look at this work," he said. "No nails."
He pointed to a place high on the door: "This is called mortise and tenon."
The warehouses in Beijing are "stacked to the top" with merchandise, the Newlands said.
"Sometimes they're lighted by a single bulb hanging on a bare cord," April said. "You have to hand pick each one. Look at the vases carved into the doors; you can determine its age by the age of the vases."
Likewise, she said, the metal hardware is revealing. She pointed out a cabinet lock incorporating a coin.
"You can tell what year this is by the coin," April said.
The Newlands rented a trailer to bring back their rare finds.
"It's not easy to do legally, getting though the customs," April said.
They were there 10 days on the last trip, and they plan to return.
"We took our daughter Shannon with us," April said. "She's 14 and she's learning Mandarin, so that was a help."
Shannon is returning this summer to spend two weeks with a Chinese family.
Among other treasures they brought back is a Buddha poised with one hand up and one down.
"That's called a boon-granting gesture," April said. The gold Buddha figure stands about five feet tall.
Feurezeig was delighted with the crowd, which just kept pouring in, filling all the ground floor chairs and most of the bleachers.
"The items are more beautiful than ever this year," she said. "And I think the Chinese furniture lends another dimension."
The sale tables did a brisk business before the formal auction. Folks crowded among the bargains, pointing out their finds. There was a bit of everything for everybody.
"Look here's a hippo," said Mary Gleason. Holding it up, she said, "Oh, it's a candle. I may have to have it."
Hippos, dishes, jewelry, clothing, books — all manner of tchotchke, or knicknacks, abounded in the tables. Notable this year was a collection of sheet music from the private collection of Patricia Cummins, retired UVI professor. The music was professionally mounted on placards reflecting an era or an event.
"These are all related to black history, or black music," she said, pointing out an edition of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" from the collection of Marion Kerby of Negro Exhalations.
Antique jewelry by Lee Monaco, former owner of the Peach Bloom antique jewelry shop on the island, was "flying off the table," according to the volunteers. In fact, all the sale-table items were rapidly being caught up.
The silent auction featured 70 items, including art, gift certificates for restaurants, massages, vintage jewelry, wines and champagnes. Values range from about $50 to $500. A handsome mahogany easel drew lots of attention from artists and from those who saw it as a way to display their art.
An enormous basket of Jewish toys dominated one end of the table, attracting lots of bids.
Auctioneer Brian Wilson of St. Croix brought the gavel down at noon sharp, and kept the bidding lively. Noticing a couple friends bidding on the same item, he laughed.
"There are no friends at auctions," he cautioned.
Speaking later, Feuerzeig said, "I think we did very well. The donated items sold, and we get all the profits from those, the jewelry, the trips, furniture. Some of the consignment items sold well. Overall, prices held up, and people got some wonderful bargains."
The Chinese armoires didn't sell, she said, but "still, they were a wonderful addition." She continued, "People were able to see them, and they're so unusual. The Newlands know so much about the Chinese furniture — they've really studied it."
"The Camille Pissarro sold for $10,500," she said. The work is an 1891 etching of the market in Pontoise by the St. Thomas-born artist known as the father of impressionism.
"And the four-poster bed from Grenada sold for $17,500, the highest-price item," she said. Both items were purchased by Warren Mosler of St. Croix, Feurezeig said.
Oh, and that Porche's owner will simply have to teach his wife to drive stick shift. It didn't sell.
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