By Louise Krafft
“Going once, going twice, sold!” is the familiar call of the auctioneer as the gavel drops and the sale is final.
Auctions date back to the early days of recorded western civilization, though some of them were infamous. It has been noted that in 500 B.C. Greece, it was common for women to be auctioned off as wives by their families. Auctions were popular with the rise of Rome, mainly with the selling of personal property and war plunder.
A particularly notorious auction was written about by the Roman historian Cassius Dio. He wrote of the murder in 193 A.D. of the Roman Emperor Pertinax by members of
the Praetorian Guard. It was not the first time the Guard had a hand in murdering an emperor — only this time the Guard proceeded to put the Roman Empire up for auction to the highest bidder.
Auctions surfaced again in the 17th century, this time in the guise of candle auctions.
To start the bidding, a candle was lit and it is said that the bidding continued until the flame extinguished itself.
The candle auctions were followed by what would now be considered traditional auction houses: the Stockholms Auktionswerk (The Stockholm Auction House) in 1674, Sotheby’s in 1744 followed by Christie’s in 1766.
Auction houses continue to this day, though they have evolved a bit with the advent of modern technology. Alexandria is home to one of the more prominent auction houses in the region: The Potomack Company. Founded in 2006 by Elizabeth Haynie Wainstein and originally located on North Fayette Street, The Potomack Company was named after a now-defunct Alexandria business founded in 1785 with the help of George Washington.
Since its opening, approximately 100 auctions have been held at The Potomack Company, each containing 800 to 900 lots for sale. Dr. D. Morgan Delaney, president of the Historic Alexandria Foundation, says of The Potomack Company, “Elizabeth Wainstein has in a short period of time created an important local auction business in a very competitive arena. The Potomack Company is operating in a national, I would actually correct that to say, an international marketplace. Every auction contains important pieces of furniture, paintings and decorative arts. I have found treasures there for my personal collections.”
Wainstein attributes the high quality of items offered for sale at auction to the interesting lives of the local population. Each lot that’s sold has a story of some kind behind it, some more unusual than others.
A long distance phone call started the acquisition of one painting that was recently auctioned. Its acquisition story is unique, yet the path it followed to sale is typical for the auction house.
The caller possessed a painting of a scene of Alexandria in the mid-1800s showing the crossing bridge over Great Hunting Creek and beyond to the Mt. Eagle mansion house.
The call was turned over to fine arts specialist Anne Norton Craner. Craner quickly
realized that this was an important local piece as well as a fine arts piece and accepted it for auction.
Further research revealed that the local landscape was painted by Alexandrian William MacLeod around 1860. MacLeod had been commissioned by Alexandria resident
William Fowle or his daughter Harriet Boardman Taylor. Fowle was a prominent local businessman who lived in what is now known as the Patton-Fowle House at 711 Prince St. MacLeod’s work is also in the collections of the National Gallery of Art and The White House Historical Society. One MacLeod painting, “View of the City of Washington from the Virginia Shore,” is on display in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.
The work that Craner was excited about, “Bridge over Hunting Creek near Alexandria, VA,” having been selected for the September auction, was then photographed, a catalog description written up and posted online for the website and other auction platforms as well as the auction brochure. The painting went on display along with nearly 1,000 other lots of items for that auction. It ultimately sold to a local collector for $87,500.
One of Wainstein’s favorite stories concerns the tale of two marble urns. In January 2011, two carved marble urns were put up for auction by a dealer in Queenstown, Maryland named Darryl Savage.
The urns had stood outside his shop for a number of years when Wainstein suggested to Savage that he try selling the pair at auction. As Wainstein tells the story, when the base of the urns arrived at The Potomack Company — the weight of the entire urn was too great to move just for the sale — the research began.
Savage had mentioned that the stonemason he had gotten the urns from was said to have taken them, with permission, from Arlington National Cemetery during the
restoration of the Memorial Amphitheater of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. According to the stonemason, the urns were placed with all of the other stone that was being discarded and on their way to the stone crusher.
This story needed verification and all initial calls to the National Park Service and the
Department of the Army turned up nothing about the origin of the urns. So on a snowy day in January, Wainstein and fellow Potomack Company employee Lucie Holland made their way to Arlington Cemetery to see what they could find. It was slow trudging through the deep snow, making their way into the amphitheater. At one point, Wainstein slid down a flight of stairs but luckily was not injured.Rising up again, she scanned all that was above and around her and spotted the urns. Way up next to the stage area, copies of the urns she was researching rested in niches flanking either side.
These urns are nine feet tall and skillfully carved with snakes, eagles and rams’ heads, so there was no mistaking their identity.
Eventually, the Potomack Company made contact with the Department of the Army, which claimed the urns and expressed interest in having them returned. The Potomack Company facilitated an agreement between the Army and the consigner, Savage. The urns were later delivered to the Army Corps of Engineers for display in a future museum. Wainstein and her staff were pleased with the outcome.
“I’m very happy to play a small role in bringing these national treasures back to their
rightful place,” Wainstein commented after the urns were returned to the Army. “It was almost 100 years ago when Congress passed legislation authorizing the construction of the Memorial Amphitheater, and it is fitting a century later that we are renewing that tribute with the return of these historic urns to the American people.”
In September of this year, Wainstein was invited to attend Invaluable’s Global Auction House Summit in Boston. Out of 5,000 auction house members, only 250 houses representing 16 countries were invited to this inaugural event. Wainstein commented on some of the emerging technology that was on exhibit, including 3D fine art scanners.
The Potomack Company now operates out of a showroom at 1116 and 1120 North
Fairfax St. In addition to holding live auctions with on-site, telephone and online bidding, the auction house offers an online auction.
In the showrooms that were open for a recent auction preview, the image of George Washington frequently appeared in drawings and paintings. Americana manager Christine
Messing asserts that she does not remember an auction without something depicting the first president being offered for sale.
After 11 years in business, The Potomack Company stays true to its Algonquin meaning: “A place where people trade.”