August 21, 2015
Keiara Carr | The Journal Gazette
Since the board of directors for the Peabody Home Foundation voted to auction off its collection of paintings by the renowned Indiana impressionist Homer Davisson, there have been a few types of responses, says Stan Williams, director of development for the Peabody Home Foundation. With the auction taking place Saturday, Williams says there are the ecstatic collectors and intrigued curators, the frustrated resellers who fare better when paintings are scarce, and then there are the people disappointed to see a large collection of Davisson’s paintings separated into auction lots after being housed on Peabody’s North Manchester campus for more than 45 years.
Davisson died in 1957 at 91 years old. His wife, Elizabeth “Bess” Davisson, moved to Peabody in 1963 and donated Davisson’s work from her personal collection. She died in 1970. The couple did not have any children. Davisson was well-known for his Indiana landscapes. Bids for the majority of his paintings begin at $2,400, except for “Woman Boating on River,” which starts at $5,000.
Williams said money from the auction will establish the Homer G. and Elizabeth Davisson Memorial Chapel endowment to commemorate the couple’s Presbyterian faith; the endowment will support its maintenance and programs for the chapel.
“It’s interesting that most of the people who expressed regret and disappointment are the ones who really aren’t affiliated with Peabody anyway; they don’t have a vested interest in our mission,” Williams says. “The ones that are disappointed who have a vested interest, fully understand once it’s explained to them.” Perhaps it’s better to think of the upcoming auction as a large garage sale that will fund 20 new endowments, each honoring a donor’s name. Williams says that starting in 2012, he began a two-year inventory of items donated to Peabody over the years, and one thing became clear. “We are not a museum, we are a retirement community,” he says. There are close to 300 lots, including Davisson’s 21 paintings, that will be put on auction Saturday. Williams says there are a number of items that have been forgotten over the years or are losing their value as generations lose interest in some collectibles. “We found that we were not being careful stewards of the collections in a way that maintains their value as it increases over time,” William says. “We found with the paintings that some were hanging in direct sunlight, some were hanging in hallways that were only 8 feet wide, so as people were walking by, they would touch them.” “I presented to the board that we are not a museum, and we shouldn’t be expected to care for the Davissons like the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.”
Fort Wayne Museum of Art Executive Director Charles Shepard says that although the museum has eight or nine Davisson paintings in its collection, having such an unusually large number of the artist’s work entering the market at one time does pique his interest.
Shepard says one reason why buyers don’t see a large number of paintings by the same artist in a single auction is that the abundance of material can detract from its rarity and drive prices down. This auction could possibly be a bargain for buyers, he says. “You could probably guess – at least I think so, anyway – that his wife probably would have had some of his best work,” he says.
“I’m curious to know if these paintings are better than the ones that we have. That might be a very good thing for us. And what if, because there’s 21 of them, the bidding that doesn’t go high as they want it to go? Will there be a chance to get a good buy? I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
But Shepard says getting the paintings into institutions and into the hands of good, private collectors could stir up some new energy for Davisson’s work. “It’s going to be good for how he’s remembered in the long run as an artist. Twenty-one good works can change a lot of opinions,” Shepard says.
Davisson grew up in Blountsville, developing his art skills at an early age. He studied at DePauw University and refined his talent at art schools in the U.S. and Europe. Settling in Fort Wayne in 1911, Davisson began teaching at the Fort Wayne Art School, where he would work for 30 years. In his free time, Davisson began making trips to Brown County.
He met Elizabeth, a high school English teacher, during one of his trips. The couple married in 1926. The Davissons maintained a studio behind their home in Fort Wayne and another at their summer home in Somerset, a township south of Wabash. Williams says a majority of Peabody’s collection features images of Somerset and the nearby Mississinewa River.
“He was a lover of the Fort Wayne community, but it was often told by Bess Davisson that when the winter’s thaw would begin, he was like a caged lion who couldn’t wait to get to Somerset,” Williams says. “Open-air painting was his love, and the scenes along the Mississinewa were some of his favorites.”
As for the auction, Williams says he hasn’t dwelled on a specific dollar amount he would like the foundation to bring in, mainly because he would like to sleep peacefully until Saturday.
But he guarantees that Homer and Elizabeth Davisson’s legacy will live on. He says local company Century Imaging has taken photos of the Peabody’s Davisson collection, and the prints will now hang in the hallways.
“My guess would be because of their love of the Presbyterian Church and their love of this region, they would be happy to know that we’re just not wasting away the money to the bottom line; we’re creating a perpetual endowment. I think they would be very pleased.”