HINGHAM, MA - Copley Fine Art Auctions, LLC will present a two-day sale event on July 27 and 28 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Collection of Important American Sporting Art and Decoys, Sessions I & II, will be available at auction on July 27, followed by the the twelfth edition of Copley’s annual Sporting Sale on July 28.
Perennially balanced between fine art and decoys, Copley will offer a wide range of American, folk, sporting, and wildlife art. With its reputation for quality, integrity, and results, Copley continues to set benchmarks in the field. Copley’s sales have led the pack with first-rate offerings and strong results for the past decade. The Sporting Sale 2017 will offer the opportunity to see and take home world-class paintings, fine bird carvings, and antique hunting and fishing collectibles.
Highlighting the decoy offerings on day two is the second session of the Grant Nelson Collection of Shorebird Decoys, one of the finest groupings ever assembled. For two decades, Nelson’s focus was on acquiring exemplary works with great form, surface, and impeccable provenance. In this session, a pintail drake by Charles H. Perdew (1874-1963) and a plover by Charles Sumner Bunn (1865-1952) or William "Bill" Bowman are set to lead the way.
Fine art highlights include fresh-to-market works by dog painters Percival Rosseau (1859-1937), Gustav Muss-Arnolt (1858-1927), and Edmund Osthaus (1858-1928), and classic sporting scenes by Lynn Bogue Hunt (1878-1960), Robert K. Abbett (1926-2015), Ogden Pleissner (1905-1983), Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969), Chet Reneson (b. 1934), and Brett Smith (b. 1958), among many others.
The Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Collection of Important American Sporting Art and Decoys, built and curated over six decades by one of America’s great conservationists, is virtually unrivaled in its breadth and quality. It is considered by many to be the finest American sporting art and bird decoy collection ever assembled. It totals well over 500 objects and constitutes a remarkably complete collection of classic sporting art and decoys.
Donal O’Brien was one of the earliest decoy collectors “who usually went to the sources–... family members, even the carvers themselves...” according to a 2005 Forbes article by Monte Burke. Burke quotes O’Brien: “‘When I was a young boy, while my friends were playing with electric trains and teddy bears, I was out collecting decoys.’”
Donal O’Brien acquired many carvings from their original context as utility objects and was amongst the first to recognize them as a true American art form. O’Brien was very active in the 1950s and ‘60s, trading with Adele Ernest, Malcolm Fleming, William J. Mackey, Jr., and other early collectors. Whereas Mackey collected quantity and Ernest was a dealer, O’Brien was a connoisseur. As a carver himself, he brought his artistic eye to his pursuit, and his influence shaped decoy collecting as we know it today.
O’Brien’s connoisseurship led him to collect the very best carvings, by individual makers, that are also considered pinnacle decoys by region. The John English (1852-1915) pintail drake is the only example known in original paint, and Delaware River decoy authority Bob White calls it, “the best Delaware River decoy in existence.” Many consider the Charles E. “Shang” Wheeler (1872-1949) Canada goose to be not only the most famous decoy by Wheeler but also one of the most important Connecticut decoys known to exist. A 1971 Sports Illustrated feature on O’Brien states, “his prize-winning collection of decoys seems out of this world.”
The ruddy duck by Lee Dudley (1860-1942) of North Carolina is considered by many to be the finest North Carolina decoys in private hands and one of the few Dudley carvings that retains its original bill. Thomas Chambers’ (1860-1948) wood duck is one of only two known in original paint, and recognized as the best of the two. It is widely considered to be the finest Canadian decoy ever to have surfaced. Additionally, the turned-head “Dust Jacket” Plover by famed Massachusetts carver A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) is the exact carving pictured on the cover of the seminal publication American Bird Decoys by William J. Mackey, Jr.
O’Brien’s impressive collection of paintings and prints includes masterworks by Frank W. Benson (1862-1951), Ogden Pleissner (1905-1983), Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969), Roland Clark (1874-1957), and A. B. Frost (1851-1928). The collection also houses some of the finest J.J. Audubon (1785-1851) engravings, including the Virginian Partridge and Canvas-backed Duck, among others.
Highlighting the fine art in the collection is Pleissner’s The Run Downstream, a prized oil by the noted sporting artist. Along with Blue Boat on the St. Anne, an atmospheric oil painting in the collection of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, The Run Downstream is among the artist’s most important works. It depicts bright, bold figures on a sunny day, successfully hooked up to a large salmon. O’Brien was good friends with Ogden Pleissner, who would stop and see O’Brien on his way to New York galleries, giving the collector the opportunity to acquire some of the artist’s best works before they hit the broader market.
As an ardent conservationist, O’Brien was a leader of the Audubon Society for decades, as well as the Atlantic Salmon Federation and other conservation organizations. In particular, Mr. O’Brien helped to further the concept of Important Bird Areas, or IBAs, raising awareness of the four main migratory flyways. His New York Times obituary notes, “‘Birds don’t know about state boundaries,’ said David Yarnold, the organization’s chief executive. ‘Donal was always urging Audubon to think the way birds see the world–to think about large-scale conservation.’”
Mr. O’Brien was chairman of the board of the Audubon Society for fifteen years and involved for over twenty-five years. He was the recipient of the Audubon Medal in 2010, one of the highest honors in conservation. His obituary continues, “Like many of the nation’s early conservationists, Mr. O’Brien expressed much of that passion through hunting; he also amassed an enormous collection of duck decoys.” O’Brien was an active attorney with the New York firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy, where he served as legal counsel to the Rockefeller family.
Sessions I and II of the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Collection of Important American Sporting Art and Decoys, consisting of approximately 175 lots, will take place at Hotel 1620 in Plymouth, MA on July 27, in conjunction with Copley’s Sporting Sale, which will be held on July 28. A full-color hard-bound collector’s edition catalog will be available. Online bidding will be available through Copley’s industry-leading app, CopleyLive, and through Bidsquare.
Copley’s sales have led the pack with first-rate offerings and strong results for the past decade. Since expanding in 2009, Copley has sold more of the top one-hundred American decoy lots at auction than all other firms combined. Copley also continues to dominate the field, regularly setting world records for America’s top sporting artists. This summer’s offerings look to continue this bullish trend.
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