Gray was born into a family that encouraged the preservation of our country’s most treasured artifacts. His cousin, Frank Horton founded the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Gray later served as the museum’s vice-president for development and chair of its board of directors. He studied art history at Duke University and obtained a master’s degree in early American culture through the Winterthur program at the University of Delaware. With his mother, Anne Gray (1921-2003), Gray co-founded the Toy Museum at Old Salem. The family fortune descended from Gray’s great-uncle, Bowman Gray Sr., former president of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and builder of Graylyn, North Carolina’s second largest home after Biltmore.
Every object in the sale has a personal story directly connected to Gray, his mother, cousin, great-uncle or the Moravians who settled in Forsyth County. Many antiques in the sale were Christmas and birthday presents from his mother.
When Tom Gray was 8, his mother sent him to Old Salem with $385 to buy a child’s desk from Frank Horton. “It fit me to a tee,” said Gray. He later sold the desk when he discovered that its base had been replaced. In 1983, Gray bought a duplicate of his first antique, a New England Queen Anne child’s desk – this one with its original base. That desk is in the March 29 sale with a $4,000-$6,000 estimate.
The engraving, “A View of Savannah,” not only shows the Moravian settlement in Savannah, Ga., in 1734, but Gray used the design of the housing lots as a model for his own backyard garden. The engraving is one of 11 known copies, only two of which are in private hands. Savannah was the first settlement for the Moravians in the New World. From there they migrated to Maine, then Pennsylvania and finally to North Carolina. The engraving is estimated at $50,000-$70,000.
Savannah played a prominent part in the story behind the Jeremiah Theus (1716-1774) portrait of young Amarinthia Elliot (1741-1822) of Charleston, S.C. The unsigned oil on canvas, circa 1748, shows Amarinthia holding a sprig of blue cornflowers. Gray first saw the painting in 1974 when he was given a tour of Mercer House in Savannah by then-owner Jim Williams. Williams was later convicted of killing his male companion, a story told in the best seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Gray later purchased the painting through an agent while Williams was in prison. Accompanying the portrait, estimated at $30,000-$50,000, is the 1984 bill of sale on Mercer House stationary.
The photographs of the Connecticut Chippendale desk and bookcase on page 58 of the sale catalog make it look larger than it is, said Gray. “My mother dreamt of owning a tiny Connecticut desk and bookcase. When she died in 2003, I bought it just because I wanted to fulfill her dream.” Recent research has established that the maker is probably Calvin Willey of the Colchester area with construction dating to 1785-1795. Its most dramatic feature is the boldly shaped broken-arch pediment with carved fylfot rosettes. The cherry desk/bookcase, which is 85 3/4 tall by 38 inches wide by 20 inches deep, is estimated at $30,000-$50,000.
The Shelton sisters, Mary and Eliza, were noted basket makers that moved to Bethania, Forsyth County, N.C., between 1850 and 1860. The 1910 U.S. Census listed each one as “basket maker at home,” a noteworthy detail since rarely are basket makers documented. Gray collected five Shelton baskets of varying sizes, three in excellent condition. All five are for sale as one lot with an estimate of $10,000-$15,000.
The North Carolina Chippendale cellaret in the sale was given to Gray, now 62, as a Christmas present from his mother when he was 16. “It is one of the top pieces in the sale,” said Gray. “What’s so rare is its identical mate is in MESDA.” Like the Connecticut desk and bookcase, recent research has led to the identity of the cellaret maker. It is attributed to Micajah Wilkes, Roanoke River Basin, N.C., 1780-1795. In excellent condition, it is expected to bring $40,000-$60,000.
Of the 560 lots in the sale, Tom Gray has a favorite. He describes the Augustine W. Phillips yarn sewn and chenille shirred rug as “absolutely incredible, a tour de force, museum quality.” Gray purchased the rug in 1993. Probably from Maine in the early to mid-19th century, it had previously sold at the Edgar and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch sale at Sotheby’s. Shirred rugs like this one (est. $10,000-$20,000) came “way before hooked rugs,” said Gray.
The sale of the Tom Gray collection will take place at the Fine Arts Center at Salem Academy and College in Old Salem, at 10 a.m. Eastern on March 29. Previews are March 28 from noon to 7 p.m. and two hours before the sale.
“Many people are very excited about the opportunity this sale provides,” said auctioneer Bob Brunk.
For details on Brunk Auctions visit www.brunkauctions.com or call 828-254-6846.View the fully illustrated catalog and sign up to bid absentee or live via the Internet during the sale at www.LiveAuctioneers.com.
ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE