Auction of Duke family treasures draws international crowd

tgrubb@newsobserver.comAugust 25, 2013 

— Bidders and curious onlookers clapped heartily Sunday when a collection of hand-painted French porcelain offered for about $800 sold for a staggering $64,000 at the Washington Duke Inn.

“Sometimes there is a nice mystery to things. It’s always surprising,” Andrew Brunk, of Brunk Auctions in Asheville, said of the bid from an unidentified overseas buyer.

On the other hand, many items from the estate of the late Durham philanthropist Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans left the President’s Ballroom for less than $1,000. Besides the expected collection of silver, china, jewelry, art and furniture, the estate also included unusual offerings, such as a 1915 Steinway grand piano in a Colonial Arts case and several letters and documents hand-signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, Frank Lloyd Wright and Josephine Bonaparte, the wife of Napoleon.

Another room at the inn held 1,100 of 10,000 books – just a slice of Semans’ collection. Asheville book seller Thomas Wright said he would sell the rest at his store.

It was a rare moment of insight into one of North Carolina’s most prosperous and philanthropic families, officials said.

A budget-busting Steinway

Dudley Oakes, a professional pianist from Washington, D.C., said he blew his $25,000 budget when he agreed to pay $40,000 for the 1915 Steinway, but he really wanted it for the unusual case. The estimated value for the mahogany piano, with inlaid rosettes and bell flowers, was $12,000 to $15,000. It was a gift from Benjamin Duke to his daughter Mary Lillian Duke Biddle.

Oakes fought a hard battle against an unseen bidder, and after winning, made a face in the direction of the phone bank, sticking his thumbs in his ears and wiggling his fingers.

A New York company will restore the piano, he said. It is worth an estimated $150,000 in mint condition.

“I have two other Steinways,” Oakes said. “We’ll get this one completely restored and see what I’ve got, which ones I have to keep and which ones I’m going to have to sell to finance this whole thing. It’s got the most glorious case.”

Roughly 300 people turned out for the auction. An additional 1,000 bidders from 40 countries followed it online, and an unknown number bid by phone.

Items for the auction came from four Duke homes: a Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City, the Four Acres mansion that once stood on Chapel Hill Street in Durham, and two houses at the Semans homeplace in the Forest Hills neighborhood.

Family kept some personal items

Two of Semans’ seven children still live in the Triangle, but the family declined to comment. Brunk said they kept some sentimental items and donated others to the Duke Foundation and educational groups. But as with many families, objects can overwhelm available space when combining homes.

The auction started Saturday with a public preview, followed by a private reception to raise money for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. Organizers said the fundraiser reflects Semans’ generous nature and her talent as an accomplished pianist, as well her love of books, art and culture, officials said.

The great-granddaughter of Washington Duke, for whom Duke University is named, Semans was well known as a progressive advocate for education and human rights.

“Since we work with objects so much, you get to learn something about a person, and you learn they had so many things going for them,” Brunk Auctions spokesman Aaron Edwards said. “They touched so many people’s lives.”

Remembrance of a generous friend

Several people said it was fitting to hold the auction in Durham and at the Washington Duke Inn. Semans was born in New York but spent most of her life in Durham. In 1951, she was the first woman elected to the Durham City Council. Joann and Robert Claytor said they came to show respect for their “very generous” friend.

“This is an historic auction. If I could have a piece of it, I would feel honored,” Joann Claytor said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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