The offerings up for sale include pole weapons from the Tower of London, an early 17th-century portrait of an English gentleman and his daughter, Victorian silver and a rare tapestry billed as “one of the jewels” of the collection built by a globe-trotting Richmond couple before their untimely deaths in a 1948 train crash.
The Virginia Museum of History & Culture is planning to auction off 480 artifacts from Virginia House, a Gilded Age mansion built and elaborately furnished by diplomat Alexander Weddell and his wife, Virginia. The furniture, art, books, silver and other relics will be auctioned on Wednesday in an event overseen by the renowned Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia.
The history museum plans to use the proceeds — expected to bring in several hundred thousand dollars — to preserve other Virginia House items and the house itself, a Windsor Farms landmark that the museum’s new leader says should play a more active role in the city’s cultural life.
“We’re doing it with the absolute best interest of the future in mind,” said Jamie O. Bosket, the history museum’s president and CEO, in an interview this week. “Every dollar that comes from the sale will be reinvested back into the house and the art.”
Bosket said the items being sold represent a small fraction of the Weddells’ massive collection. Many of the pieces, he said, have been in storage for decades in the Virginia House basement.
“It was like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ There were racks and racks of tapestries. And boxes and boxes of silver,” Bosket said. “And all these beautiful things that were from their travels but didn’t relate to our story.”
But the auction has stirred unease among some history enthusiasts who feel the museum is offloading valuable resources that shouldn’t be severed from Virginia House.
“These are world-class items. There are museums across the world salivating for some of these things,” said Mary Lynn Bayliss, a local historian who recently published a book about the Dooleys, the couple who built Maymont, another Gilded Age Richmond estate.
Bayliss said she was surprised to learn some paintings and tapestries that had been on display in Virginia House had been taken down to be sold, because she felt the history museum had created the impression the auction would include only items from storage. She also believes the auction may run afoul of the Weddells’ will. The will entrusted the house and its contents to the Virginia Historical Society, which changed its name to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in early 2018.
Bosket said the museum is well-aware of the will. But he said the auction, the first of its magnitude from the Virginia House collection, does not contradict it.
The board approved the auction plan in a unanimous vote. Still, Bayliss has her suspicions.
“I think they were asleep that day and didn’t ask any questions,” she said.
Like its neighbor Agecroft Hall, Virginia House is a reconstruction of an English manor, built with old materials shipped across the Atlantic. Virginia House, finished in 1929, is the older of the two, made from pieces of an English priory dating to 1119.
Alexander Weddell, a Richmond native, had a lengthy foreign service career that took him to Denmark, Athens, Mexico City, Cairo, India, Argentina and Zanzibar. After serving as ambassador to Argentina, he was appointed ambassador to Spain in 1939, giving him the difficult task of trying to keep dictator Francisco Franco from joining the Axis powers at the outbreak of World War II.
Virginia Weddell, the widow of a prominent St. Louis businessman, met her future husband in Calcutta while on a round-the-world cruise with friends.
The couple’s travels routinely made headlines in Richmond newspapers, and they used their knowledge and status to contribute to the city. The Weddells were deeply involved in the Virginia Historical Society, and both contributed to the founding of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In 1938, Alexander Weddell revealed that a prized portrait of colonist John Smith — hung in the state Capitol after being presented to the state as a gift by a group of prominent Virginians — was actually a painting of an obscure Russian diplomat.
The Weddells envisioned Virginia House as an asset and possible headquarters for the historical society, which instead purchased property on the Boulevard. The couple stipulated that the house would be their lifelong residence.
While traveling to Arizona during a snowstorm in 1948, the Weddells’ train car was struck by another train in Missouri, killing the couple and their maid.
Their will left everything in Virginia House to the historical society, stating the property was to be “held by said Society and used by it in the use of Virginia House.” The document says that if the historical society were to stop using Virginia House or cease to exist, the estate would go to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, known today as Preservation Virginia.
“We can’t comment on this specific issue as we don’t have all the facts, but we understand adaptation is often a necessary fact for museums and historical institutions to remain relevant and sustainable,” said Preservation Virginia CEO Elizabeth S. Kostelny.
Charles L. Cabell, a partner at Williams Mullen who serves as chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, said the auction process was “vetted thoroughly by the museum and its lawyers.”
The item estimated to fetch the highest price, according to the Freeman’s catalog, is a sculpture of a man’s face carved from tropical wood by Russian artist Stephen Erzia, whom the Weddells met in Argentina. The piece has an estimated price of $15,000 to $25,000.
The collection also includes a Mortlake tapestry similar to one held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The tapestry’s estimated price is $8,000 to $12,000.
The cheapest items in the collection are vintage books, including an 1882 edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and a 1935 first edition of “The New America: The New World” by H.G. Wells, in which the author described the scene in America as “the spectacle of a great material civilization, halted, paralyzed.”
Rather than keep Virginia House frozen in time exactly as the Weddells left it 70 years ago, Bosket, who joined the history museum from Mount Vernon in 2016, said he wants to open it up as a space for both private gatherings and community events, building on the periodic tours, meetings and weddings that have been held at the house in recent years. The history museum has already hosted a few open houses at the estate, and there are plans for a wine festival in the property’s sprawling gardens this spring.
The furnishings and decor may be moved around, Bosket said. But the art and artifacts that are an integral part of the Virginia House story, he said, will still be there, even though some items on display had to go in order to create “the right mix of things to make the auction attractive.”
“The house will still look and feel and be as interesting as it was when the Weddells were here,” Bosket said. “We’re using this opportunity to do good by that house and that collection.”