US Coins

William Barber wax portrait in Maine auction

Maine artist Michael Blackwood said he bid on a framed wax portrait in a Feb. 8 sale by Farrin’s Country Auctions because he was keenly interested in its oval black walnut wood frame, to use to house his own artistic work.

Scant information was provided in the auction lot description of the piece. Only after placing the winning bid to purchase the item, all in at $90, did Blackwood learn the true identity of both the enclosed piece and the artist who rendered the portrait.

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The wax portrait is of the nation’s first comptroller of the currency, Hugh McCulloch, who later served as Treasury secretary in the administrations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, from March 9, 1865, through March 9, 1869, and again at the close of President Chester A. Arthur’ term, in 1884 and 1885.

The Feb. 6 auction by the auction firm in Randolph, Maine, was an estate sale of items consigned by McCulloch’s heirs, which had been removed from the Gardiner, Maine, property previously owned by the McCulloch family. McCulloch himself was born in Kennebunk.

Once Blackwood had the item in hand, he began to suspect that the wax portrait was important. After some research, he determined that the framed wax portrait is the work of chief engraver of the United States Mint William Barber, who served as the Mint’s top sculptor and engraver from 1869 until his death in August 1879. Barber signed the wax portrait W. Barber Sculpt on the truncation of the McCulloch portrait. Blackwood conducted some preliminary research on Barber after confirming the signature.

Blackwood said when he examined the artwork in person before the auction, he saw it had been broken through the middle. 

“The wax portions were in a glob of aged duct tape,” Blackwood said. “I will assume it had entered that condition after numerous examinations and or mishandlings that took place prior to my viewing it in person.”

Right now, Blackwood said he has no plans to sell the wax portrait, until he can find more information about its manufacture and explore suspicions it might have been presented directly to McCulloch by Lincoln.

Blackwood also wants to ascertain whether Barber made additional wax portraits of McCulloch or other Washington, D.C., dignitaries.

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