Contents of Chinqua Penn to be sold in bankruptcy auction

mquillin@newsobserver.comApril 16, 2012 

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Luke Newbold carries a portrait of Beatrice Schoelikopf Schwill painted in 1912. She was the last resident to live in Chinqua Penn Plantation near Reidsville, N.C. The painting is one of 1074 items to be auctioned off next week. The exotic, museum-quality contents of the 1920s-era Chinqua Penn Plantation go up for auction on April 25 and 26 to pay bankruptcy claims of the Davidson County businessman who bought it from the state in 2006. Historians hoped he'd be able to save the place, which the state couldn't afford to keep, but now Calvin Phelps is in bankruptcy and under criminal investigation, and the goods will be sold to bidders around the world.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com

  • Iron Horse Auction Co. and Leland Little Auction & Estate Sales of Hillsborough will conduct the Chinqua Penn auction from the Greensboro Coliseum beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Buyers can attend the live event or participate over the Internet, by absentee bidding or by phone.

    The items for sale will remain at Chinqua Penn until they’re sold; buyers can view them through an online catalog, by purchasing a printed catalog, or during previews at the house, 25 miles north of Greensboro, on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Purchase of the $50 catalog is required to attend the preview and the coliseum event.

    The auction is absolute, with no reserve prices.

    For more information, go to www.llauctions.com.

— A sign welcoming visitors to Chinqua Penn Plantation declares the 1925 home filled with antiquities “An American Treasure,” but a two-day auction next week likely will disperse its collection of rare and priceless items back around the world.

The 14th-century bronze Siamese Buddhas, the 17th-century Limoges triptych of the baptism of Christ, the 1926 Skinner pipe organ and more than 1,000 other items that Jeff and Betsy Penn brought back to their beloved Chinqua Penn from travels around the globe in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s will go out the way they came in. Piece by piece.

The house and its contents – once owned by the state of North Carolina – are caught up in the legal and financial troubles of Mocksville businessman Calvin Phelps, who bought the property from the state in 2006 amid hopes that he could save it for posterity by somehow making it into a successful tourist attraction.

Ultimately, Phelps met the same problem the state had struggled with for 40 years: He couldn’t afford the place. He bought it, lawyers say, with money improperly diverted from three companies he owned and ran, or borrowed from SunTrust bank using his companies as guarantors. Last year, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Greensboro agreed to the sale of the home’s contents as a way to repay some of the millions Phelps owes.

The 31,000-sqare-foot manor house, the five-bay greenhouse and other structures, as well as the 23 landscaped acres on which they perch likely all will go into foreclosure and be sold as well.

“To have a collection like this to be offered all at one time is really rare,” said Tom McInnis, CEO of Iron Horse Auction Co. in Rockingham, one of two auction houses involved in the liquidation. “There are some world-class, one-of-a-kind and special items in there. We already have people committed to the sale from Italy and England, and we expect people from several other countries. We expect strong interest from mainland China.

“A lot of the buyers will be from abroad and will look at it as stuff that shouldn’t have left their country to begin with,” McInnis said. “They’re going to try to bring their treasures back.”

Everything up for grabs

Work began months ago to get ready for the sale, with auction house employees taking inventory of the home’s contents, sorting items into 1,074 lots and tagging them. Throughout the house and across the grounds, nearly everything that can be picked up or pried loose has been numbered and marked. Furniture, wall hangings, bed coverings. Dishes, flatware, silver serving pieces. Light fixtures, window valances. Garden statuary. Even the stone-and-timber pagoda the Penns finished in 1932, based on one they had seen in Japan and designed to serve as the bath house for the estate’s swimming pool, will be sold, dismantled and hauled away.

A crating company will set up on the property to build custom crates for shipping when the sale is complete.

It will take much less time to remove the Penns’ collection than it did for the couple to acquire it.

Betsy and Jeff Penn were each other’s second marriages when they wed in 1923. Betsy had divorced a Chicago millionaire, and Jeff was a widower whose first wife was Betsy’s cousin.

Both came from wealthy families. Jeff Penn’s father and uncle started Penn Tobacco Co. in Reidsville, and Betsy was the only daughter of the chairman of Niagara Falls Power Co.

Jeff Penn worked in the family business for years, then became a broker of stocks and bonds. He and Betsy had their house built on land outside Reidsville he had bought years before, more than 1,000 rolling Piedmont acres on which Penn eventually ran a state-of-the-art dairy cow operation.

The Y-shaped 27-room house took two years to build and became a showcase for the construction and design skills of artisans the Penns hired from around the world. Once it was finished, they went out in search of furnishings.

They took three round-the-world trips during the Great Depression, buying furniture, religious relics, books, tapestries and other items as they went. They were especially fond of Buddhist and Asian decorative goods.

Jeff Penn died in 1946. Betsy lived two decades more, becoming increasingly involved in philanthropy. Before she died, she arranged for the house to be transferred to the University of North Carolina, whose Greensboro campus would get $750,000 to maintain it. The Penns had no surviving children, and their nieces and nephews gave the home’s contents to the state as well.

Operating money runs out

There was no stipulation that the money be invested, so UNC-G used it for operating expenses once it took over the house after Betsy’s death in 1965. Within two decades, the money was gone, and UNC-G asked N.C. State University to assume responsibility for the property since it ran a 4-H camp and a farming operation on land the Penns had given earlier.

Charlie Leffler, who oversaw Chinqua Penn for N.C. State after the school got it in 1986, said money was a constant problem, despite efforts to hire the house out for meetings, weddings and corporate parties. When the state legislature quit chipping in, the university had to close the house to the public in 1991.

A private, non-profit foundation of local citizens then tried their hand, but the house closed again in 2002. In 2006, the Council of State voted to sell it. At the time, appraisers valued the contents of the house at about $2 million and the rest of the property at about $3 million. Phelps got it for $4.12 million.

“It breaks your heart,” said Libby Cole, who ran the Reidsville Chamber of Commerce and was on the board of the Chinqua Penn Foundation. “We don’t have anything else like this, and we’ll never have anything like this again. You just take things for granted sometimes. Then when you lose them, you regret it, and it’s too late.”

Auctioneer Leland Little looks at it a little differently. Many of the items he’ll be helping to sell next week are museum-quality pieces in less-than-museum-quality states of repair. The ups and downs of Chinqua Penn’s fortunes have meant that sometimes the heat and air conditioning weren’t turned on, causing temperatures and humidity to fluctuate. Sunlight through windows has taken its toll.

But finally, for Little, it comes down to this: As a tourist attraction, Chinqua Penn often drew fewer than 10,000 people a year. Dispersed, some of the items Jeff and Betsy Penn loved enough to bring home will be enjoyed by many more people than would take a detour off U.S. 29.

That organ, for example, made by one of the finest manufacturers in the world. It hasn’t been played in who-knows-how-long, but is restorable and will be sought out by collectors.

“It’s not an artifact; it’s a musical instrument. It needs to be played,” Little said. Like everything else in the house, he said, “It’s going to live again.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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