Le Pho, Charles Bruguier and a Grand Harmonicon stood out at Nye & Co.’s Estate Treasures sale

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BLOOMFIELD, N.J. – The phenomenon of rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine goblet to produce a note is as old as glassmaking.

However, the crystallophone, an instrument composed of glass vessels to create music, is a more recent phenomenon. The Irish musician Richard Pockrich is credited as the first to play the so-called “glass harp” in the 1740s, with various musically minded entrepreneurs championing various forms of the instrument as a parlor amusement into the 1750s. It is none other than Benjamin Franklin who, in 1761, gained credit for “inventing” what he called the glass harmonica, which used graduated bowls to produce three octaves of sound by means of friction.

Francis Hopkins Smith (1792-1872), of Northampton County, Virginia, patented his version of the crystallophone, which he called the Glass Harmonicon, on April 7, 1785. Smith’s glasses were blown to pitch, with each engraved with the note to the base. Offering his instrument with an accompanying manual, Tutor for the Grand Harmonicon, published in 1825, Smith advertised that the instrument was easy to play, claiming “a few weeks practice will make a pleasing performer.”

Most, if not all, of Smith’s Glass Harmonicons were manufactured in Baltimore between 1830 and 1850, with prices ranging from $18 for the standard two-octave model to $85 for the 24-bowl harmoniums with elaborate cases that doubled as occasional furniture.

It is estimated that only around 30 of these survive, with most of them residing in American museum collections. The labeled example offered for sale by Nye & Co. on September 13-15 (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3) had a provenance to the dealership Stanley Weiss. It hammered for $8,500 ($10,880 including buyer’s premium) against an estimate of $3,000-$5,000.

Another music-making device popular in the middle years of the 19th century was the singing bird box. Some of the best were produced by the Swiss maker Charles Bruguier (1788-1862) of Geneva. Throughout his professional life he concentrated on automata, and was famed for making boxes that really did mimic birdsong. The example at Nye & Co. was housed in a 4in silver case decorated with taille-douce engraving and panels of polychrome enamel. It is dated to circa 1850. Estimated at $10,000-$20,000, it reached its high estimate ($25,600 with buyer’s premium).

The top lot overall was a large oil on silk by the Vietnamese artist Lê Phổ  (1907-2001), The 2ft 4in by 3ft 3in Mother and Child hammered for $90,000 ($115,200 with buyer’s premium) against an estimate of $40,000-$60,000.

Lê Phổ was part of the first generation of Vietnamese artists who — exposed to western artistic practices at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Hanoi — established an art career in Paris.

Lê Phổ’s career is often divided into three distinct historical and stylistic periods: his early works painted before the Second World War; those painted during the troubled post-colonial years, when the artist was represented by the French gallerist André Romanet; and the period from 1963, when Lê Phổ ’s near-exclusive dealer of choice was the Wally Findlay Galleries in the US.

Mother and Child was stamped and labeled Galerie Romanet, dating it to the period circa 1946-1962. Lê Phổ was still painting on silk but using the harsher and intensified colors thought to reflect sociopolitical events of the time. It came from a private Princeton, New Jersey collection.

The sale’s best performer against its estimate was a mahogany and painted metal center table designed by Gerard Bland. A typical creation by the Sotheby’s fine furniture specialist turned New York interiors dealer, it combined a circular top from a Georgian dining table with a contemporary base. A table of this design – perhaps the same one – appears in promotional shots of the Gerald Bland gallery taken a decade ago. Estimated at $400-$600, it raced away to bring $13,000 ($16,640 with buyer’s premium).
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Grand Harmonicon, which sold for $8,500 ($10,880 with buyer’s premium) at Nye & Co.
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Grand Harmonicon, which sold for $8,500 ($10,880 with buyer’s premium) at Nye & Co.
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Gerald Bland wood and black metal center table, which sold for $13,000 ($16,640 with buyer’s premium) at Nye & Co.
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Le Pho, ‘Mother and Child,’ which sold for $90,000 ($115,200 with buyer’s premium) at Nye & Co.
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Charles Bruguier singing bird box, which sold for $20,000 ($25,600 with buyer’s premium) at Nye & Co.
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