Mystery Deters Dominy Clock Bidders

“the Schellinger-Hendrickson Very Fine and Rare Clock"
A walnut tall-case clock made in 1780 by Nathaniel Dominy IV was auctioned on Saturday at Sotheby’s in Manhattan for a surprisingly low price, and there is some question as to whether it is the same clock whose provenance is described in the handwritten letter that accompanied the sale.

What Sotheby’s called “the Schellinger-Hendrickson Very Fine and Rare Clock,” a tall-case beauty made by the East Hampton craftsman Nathaniel Dominy IV in 1780, was sold Saturday afternoon at the auction house’s Manhattan headquarters for $24,000 to an unknown buyer bidding by telephone.

Two astute collectors of Dominy furniture and clocks, Glenn Purcell and Charles Keller of East Hampton, sat in the room for hours waiting for the clock, which had a presale estimate of $30,000 to $50,000, to come up. It was knocked down in less than a minute, Mr. Purcell said.

“It opened at $19K,” he texted afterward. “I didn’t even raise my paddle as it jumped to $22K, then in a second to $24K. With Sotheby’s premium fees of 25 percent [the surcharge an auction house attaches to sales], plus New York State tax, it exceeded what we were willing to spend.”

According to the provenance provided by Sotheby’s, the walnut clock descended through the Schellinger family to Hattie Woodhull Schellinger, who sold it on May 29, 1939, to a Lumber Lane, Bridgehampton, neighbor, Howard F. Hendrickson, “for a sum of $150, plus $50 to be paid in milk and eggs.” Saturday’s successful bidder received, along with his or her purchase, a letter written by the late Mr. Hendrickson, describing the clock’s history as told to him by Hattie — and therein, as will be seen, lies a complication. 

Mr. Hendrickson’s letter reads as follows:

The history of my Telltale Alarm repeater clock made in East Hampton by Nathaniel Dominy in 1780 is as follows. This was told to me by Miss Hattie Schellinger from whom I bought the timepiece. Miss Schellinger was in her 91st year when this was related, on October 13, 1939.

Sylvester Schellinger is a native of Amagansett, the grandfather of Miss Hattie. He moved to Setauket, L.I. and taught school there for years. The journey no doubt was mostly by boat. This clock included. Sylvester died in Setauket 1839 and of his family there was but a 14 year old son, George Woodhull Schellinger, who was sent back to Amagansett to live with relatives. The teacher’s belongings and clock were shipped from Port Jefferson to Greenport by railroad, and because the crated clock had some appearance of a coffin the railroad demanded the crate to be opened. From Greenport the things were shipped by boat back to Amagansett.

George married in 1847 and became the father of Miss Hattie Schellinger. George left for the gold fields of California in 1849, later returned home poor and died of a fever contracted when in California. (“When [George’s] wife opened the door, he said, ‘Juliette, I’ve come home to die,’ “ according to Jeannette Edwards Rattray’s book of East Hampton genealogy.)

George’s widow (Miss Hattie’s mother) married Jacob Strong [in] 1855 and with clock and household moved by boat from Amagansett to East Marion. Later this family and clock moved again by boat from East Marion to North Sea, Southampton. At the close of the Civil War [in] 1864 Jacob Strong and family, Miss Hattie Schellinger, moved by wagon to Bridgehampton and lived out their lives at the corner of Lumber Lane. After Miss Hattie’s death, I had the case and works repaired and brought to my home. Miss Hattie retained the clock during her life. Jacob Strong had no children.

Howard F. Hendrickson.

P.S. Before radio, Miss Hattie Schellinger in order to tell time, because she was blind, would stand on stool, open glass door of clock, and, feeling hands, get the time of day. H.F.H.

 

Why did this rare Dominy clock, described by Charles Hummel in his definitive book “With Hammer in Hand: The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton, Long Island” as “probably the first example of the clockmaker’s elaborate work to survive,” though “unfortunately not recorded in Dominy manuscripts,” attract so few bidders and sell for so much less than its low estimate — especially since the last auction of a Dominy long-case, at Sotheby’s in January 2012, fetched, surcharge included, $110,500? 

Because Mr. Hummel denies that Saturday’s clock is the clock referred to in the Hendrickson letter.

“It is definitely not the same clock,” he said a  few hours before the sale began. “The letter refers to a simple one-stroke clock later made for Isaac Schellinger in 1787,” while “this clock auctioned was the first complex mechanism Nathaniel Dominy made.”

“ ‘Old Hattie’ was 91 when she talked to Howard Hendrickson about the clock,” Mr. Hummel noted, suggesting that her account ought not be taken for gospel. “She confused her family genealogy,” he said flatly. “This clock is not what she’s describing.” Instead, he said, “There is an excellent chance” it was made for one Elnathan Parsons of Fireplace and did not come into possession of the Schellinger family until 1867, when a grandson of Elnathan married a Schellinger. 

In Amagansett in 1954 or ’55, Mr. Hummel said, he had seen the very clock that Mr. Hendrickson was said to have bought in 1939. “I talked with a much younger Hattie Schellinger in her Amagansett home . . . she said the clock was always in the Schellinger family.” Not long after that conversation, Mr. Hummel wrote about the clock in “Hammer in Hand”: “Walnut, a more expensive wood than that found in most of the other Dominy clocks, was chosen for the case. . . . All of the pewter dials used for the best clocks have engraved Roman numerals to mark the hours and Arabic numerals to denote minutes.”

Mr. Hummel believes that “young Hattie” sold the clock she showed him later on, to Howard Hendrickson. Is it possible that as the years passed Mr. Hendrickson acquired not one but two Dominy clocks — one made in 1780, the other in 1787 — each of them from a Hattie Schellinger, and confused the two in his letter?

Whatever the case, it seems clear that the uncertainty as to provenance, compounded by the clock at auction having been refinished and its original weights replaced, alarmed prospective purchasers. 

“We always want to know for sure,” Mr. Purcell said. “We would have gone gangbusters for this if we had known for sure who it was made for. With a clean-cut provenance and condition, the sky’s the limit.” 

Mr. Purcell and Mr. Keller, who own two listed Dominy clocks, have worked closely with Mr. Hummel in the past, and the expert’s opinion “played a heavy role” in their decision not to raise the bid, Mr. Keller said. “He’s the boss,” he said. “He’s on a pedestal for us. What he says goes.”

“I am hoping someone in the Schellinger family bought it, but we know some of them and they were not in the room,” said Mr. Purcell. “I hope it’s at least somewhere on the East End.”

Hattie Schellinger is pictured in 1934 with a Dominy clock behind her, which she later sold to the letter-writer, Howard Hendrickson of Bridgehampton.