Auction could spread plantation's collection across the country

Sunday, May 18, 2003

NEW ORLEANS -- The late George Crozat spent much of his life preserving colonial Louisiana craftsmanship in a stately column- and gallery-adorned antebellum plantation home along the Mississippi River.

Those who appreciate Louisiana's distinctive material culture adored him for it, and now seem almost heartbroken by an auction this weekend that could widely disperse the trove of armoires, tables, bureaus, canopy beds, desks, upholstered chairs and other colonial furniture.

"The man did us all a favor. When things came up that could be lost he would hold it in Louisiana, and not only that but he took good care of those pieces and people could see them," says Norman Marmillion, who runs the Laura Plantation home in nearby Vacherie. "He opened his house. You had that feeling that this is the way people lived, and you'll never get that again."

The good thing about the sale at the Houmas House, Marmillion says, is that it likely will heighten appreciation throughout the art world for antique Louisiana furniture. The pieces have a clean but rich, well-built look to them, with an air of French influence.

"When people think of Louisiana culture, they never think of furniture, they always think of food and music," Marmillion says.

A catalogue produced by the Neal Auction House lists the price of one mahogany armoire, for example, at $30,000 to $50,000. Word among collectors is that a number of items could sell for three times the listed amount.

Another prized item is an 1818 portrait of British Maj. Gen. Neil Campbell (who escorted Napoleon to exile). Painted by Frenchman Casimir Carbonnier, it's listed at up to $25,000.

Collectors from around the country, including museum curators, are attending the sale, auction house founder Neal Alford said.

"French material culture and its influence reached its apogee right here in south Louisiana and that's why people are intrigued by it," said Alford.

Crozat, a New Orleans orthodontist, bought the Greek revival mansion in Burnside, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in 1940, the home's centennial year. The home was open to public tours from the time of his death in 1966 until this month.

At Houmas House, one could open up an armoire and see items such as folded pillow cases inside.

"It's a functional piece of furniture and when you went through Houmas House, that's how they were using them," Marmillion says. "It will be great for people in Philadelphia or Dallas or New York to see these items, but they'll be on a stand in a museum, they won't still be in the house."

There are 18 owners of the home and its contents, at least half of whom now live out-of-state. Margot Turk, a family spokeswoman, has said decisions about how to maintain and manage the property have become more of a burden than a blessing, so they decided to sell the property and all of its contents.

"For those of us who've known the house 40 to 50 years, it's tragic because there really was a special magic about what Dr. George created. For those of us interested in our history and having that legacy remain, the sale is unpleasant," LSU art history professor H. Parrott Bacot said.

"The positive thing is that a lot of things will go to other collectors who'll take care of them, hopefully, so all is not lost," Bacot said. "You're going to see a heck of a lot of people there from around the country because it's one of the most beautiful surviving plantations and everybody knows that."

A New Orleans man who asked that his identity not be disclosed bought the home and grounds of handsome old live oak trees for $2.9 million. He plans to refurnish it and perhaps keep it open to the public, Alford said.

The combined value of the furniture, china, paintings and other pieces kept in the home is estimated at more than $1 million, Alford said.

Marmillion says he hopes at least some of the pieces will remain in Louisiana and be displayed in one of the state's many historic homes.


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