|By Eric Rodenberg
ARTHUR, Illinois – It wasn’t the art or antique craftsmanship of a blanket chest, attributed to celebrated Amish craftsman Henry Lapp (1862-1904), that drove its price to $7,200 at an auction on Oct. 21. It was the discovery of the piece, believed by some family members to be lost for 85 years, culminating in a family bidding war.
An estimated 600 persons attended the auction conducted by John Miller of Westfork Auctions in the small rural community of Arthur (population 2,288). Melvin and Annie Otto hosted the auction, with plans to downsize and move from the house they lived in since 1978. The Ottos, as many in the community, are Old Order Amish.
The chest was the focus of much interest within this largest and oldest Amish community of Illinois. Founded in the fertile land of the east central part of the state in the 1860s, many of the inhabitants trace their ancestry back to Lancaster County, Pa.
A painting on the lid of the chest suggested it was made by Lapp, who lived in the Lancaster County area. The painting was not signed, but had many of the distinctive characteristics Lapp often used when decorating his work. It was dated, 1884. Lapp would have been 22 years old at the time.
Lapp, who was born deaf and was at least partially mute, worked out of Lancaster County and often traveled throughout other Amish communities. He used a handbook, in which he illustrated his handiwork, to communicate with his customers. From his hand-drawn handbook, he and his customers could “customize” each piece to meet demands.
Lapp made highly crafted, but plain, cabinetry, chairs, seed boxes, wash benches, desks, tables, in addition to a wide variety of utilitarian tools, including ladders, wagons, sleighs, rolling pins, trellises, picture frames and more. Essentially, if it was made of wood and had a demand, Lapp would construct it.
The Pennsylvania Museum of Art has one of Lapp’s painstakingly drawn handbooks on exhibit.
As a result, many antique dealers, collectors and “just plain curious folks” were interested in the Lapp blanket chest, which was specifically scheduled to be sold at “high noon.”
The bidding opened at $400, rapidly escalating to $4,000. At this point, most of the antique dealers and collectors were out of the game. The family, for the most part, would scrabble for the remaining dollars left in the chest.
The family bidding war came about thanks to a chance encounter just one day before the auction. One of Otto’s neighbors had come over to look at the chest, consignor Annie Otto said. Upon seeing it, the neighbor proclaimed that the chest was his long-lost grandmother’s chest. “He said, ’I’m going to buy that chest,’” Annie Otto said. “He then, called part of his family in Iowa, and told them he had found the lost chest, and he was going to buy it. He was going to bring it back into the family.”
By noon, the Iowa family was on the road to Illinois.
Ironically, it could be argued that the chest belonged in Iowa. The provenance, as it exists, picks up when Melvin and Annie bought the chest from his parents in 1987. His parents had purchased it from Melvin’s grandparents (Dan and Mary) in 1954.
The “AH” initialed in the front of the chest was said to be the initials of Anna Hostetler, who was married to Solomon Hostetler from Lancaster County, Pa. When Solomon died, Anna moved to Illinois and lived with her sister.
Anna would later re-marry and move to Iowa. Speculation is, that the chest was too heavy to move at the time. Now, decades later, the blanket chest – after a public auction – followed Anna to Iowa.
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