Friday, October 28, 2011

Silver "Dreamer" at Sotheby's

I promise I am not trying to be a marketing outpost for Sotheby's but a friend brought the catalogue for the sale of Carl De Santis to my attention and I was delighted to see lot 19. If you are a regular reader you are already aware of my obsession with places that no longer exist and the objects that were once contained therein. I present the Tiffany & Co. silver puzzle game from Thomas W. Lawson's yacht, "Dreamer".
Image via Sotheby's
Detail via Sotheby's
Some of you may recognize this as a "Tower of Hanoi" mathematical puzzle which was invented by French mathematician Edouard Lucas in 1893. It appears that Sotheby's has displayed it incorrectly. It should have all of the disks on one end in a graduated stack from largest to smallest. Basically the goal to to move the entire tower to the opposite tower one disk at a time, never stacking a larger on a smaller. It sounds mind numbing to an artistic soul like myself but you can see an animation of it here. The stand, complete with a compass, is surmounted by a rather jaunty bear in a sailor suit.
Detail of inscription via Sotheby's
For the life of me I could not find a single image of the "Dreamer" which was described by the New York Times on April 28, 1900 as being 175 feet long and equipped with his and hers suites for the Lawson's as well as five other staterooms and carrying six additional smaller boats all bearing "Mr. Lawson's private signal, a white bear on a blue block in the center of a white burgee." This would explain the bear motif. Lawson, the "Copper King", was a prominent Boston financier with a rather volatile career with fortunes won and lost several times over.
Having spent time as a child in Plymouth County, Massachusetts I was aware of this rather eccentric character. Around the turn of the century, Lawson's wife Jeannie was so taken with the coastal area just north of Scituate known as Egypt that he purchased large tracts of land for their country estate and farm "Dreamwold".
Lawson was obviously sticking with the "Dream" theme this time pairing it with "wold" meaning an elevated open plain. As you can see the estate was extensive and spawned a local landmark known as Lawson Tower. As legend would have it, in 1902 the town of Scituate was erecting a large water stand pipe infringing on the views from the back windows of "Dreamwold". Lawson saw fit to have the pipe clad as a German shingled tower complete with a clock and carillon bells.

Sadly, Jeannie Lawson died in 1906 and due to a significant reversal of fortune "Dreamwold" and its contents were auctioned in 1922 to settle $225,000 in back taxes and debts. The estate was significantly altered but the main house operated for years as a restaurant and event space later being converted into condominiums in the early 1980s. Thankfully the tower still looms in the distance as a fitting folly dedicated to happier times spent on this idyllic stretch of shoreline.
Present view of Lawson Tower (lower left) and the remnants of Dreamwold (upper right)
Lawson died a few years later in 1925 virtually penniless. As an aside, this little silver game was by no means the only unusual silver treasure Lawson owned, having acquired the solid silver dressing table and stool executed by Gorham for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

Image via Dallas Museum of Art
The style is a blend of Chippendale meets art nouveau and fortunately for us it entered the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art in 2000. While the "Dreamer" is long since scrapped and "Dreamwold" is a distant memory this puzzle is a sentimental token of the gilded age and is priced to sell at $4000-6000(an example Sotheby's sold in 2001 achieved $9600). This puzzle was once thought to be unique, but others have appeared at auction at Christie's in 1992 and 1995, Bonham's in 1997, Northeast Auctions in 2000 and at Sotheby's in 2001. Granted the same example could have turned-up a few times, but it is highly unlikely that one unique piece could have appeared in all these sales. The "Dreamer" had five state rooms and numerous public spaces so it is very likely several puzzles were scattered about. We will wait and see where the gavel falls on November 4th.--AR

Well the sale came and went and the puzzle sold for $4,375 which is nearly half what the previous example sold for in 2001. Perhaps it is the economy or the fact that it is lacking an element (it likely had a thermometer in the empty hole opposite the compass). As an aside, in my research I discovered that when the game pieces are all stacked together properly the letters engraved on the sides spell out "Launched July, 1899, Designed by J F. Tams Builders, Crescent Shipyard, Built for T.W.Lawson, Boston, U. S.S.T.M. Yacht Dreamer".

1 comment:

  1. What a cool object. It seems worth more than $4000, with its attractive details, not to mention Tiffany and sterling.

    The silver table and bench looks like it was designed by Mary Petty.
    --Road to Parnassus