Crocodile Inn Sign Sells for $247,500

by Lita Solis-Cohen

On Saturday, October 30, Jay M. Werbalowsky of JMW Auction Gallery, Rosendale, New York, got $247,500 for an old inn sign painted with a crocodile against a blue background and, below that, in gold lettering "G. D.WITTs INN."

"It was the most expensive item I ever sold in the twenty-four years I have been in the business," said Werbalowsky on the phone Monday morning after the sale. "It was consigned by a friend I went to nursery school with. When I went to look over the furniture and told them I would sell their painted washstands and trunks in my multi-estate auction, I walked by the dining room to go upstairs, [and] I saw this sign. I stopped in my tracks and told her I would like to sell it for her and it would bring more than ten thousand dollars. They weren't anxious to sell, they liked it, but their son has just started college, and they decided they could use the money, so they let me offer it on October thirtieth."

Werbalowsky said he was lucky enough to catch the M.A.D. deadline for the November issue (which was mailed just about two weeks before the sale) and illustrated it in his ad. He also sent a picture off to Antiques and The Arts Weekly and posted it on his Web site.

"Word got around, and the people from the Connecticut Historical Society came up to see it and were in awe of it. Everyone said it was the best paint in untouched condition—never repainted—and the wear on the reverse came from the north wind," Werbalowsky continued. "We needed so many phone lines that I borrowed a line from the laundromat next door and lugged in a walk-around phone from home. We are in a valley, and there is no cell phone service here."

Werbalowsky said he tried to open the bidding at $50,000 but had to drop it to $5000. There was plenty of competition up to $70,000, but all except one phone bidder was out by $100,000. From $100,000 to $200,000, the competition was between Woodbury, Connecticut, dealer David Schorsch in the salesroom and the phone bidder, who finally got it at $220,000. The buyer's premium brought the final price to $247,500.

The auctioneer said the buyer on the phone was Jack Whistance of Kingston, New York, an old-time dealer in Americana, marbles, and glassware. Schorsch said he did not get to the preview to see the sign until 3:30 because the ad said the sale began at 4 p.m.

"I had to wedge myself into this crowded room to preview it in the middle of the auction. It was hanging above the clerk's desk. I never had it in my hand, but I could see it was so early, so untouched. People who relied on the photograph or the Web site missed seeing this magical thing. Tavern signs are extremely rare. I have only owned one in my entire career. This one is a simple eighteenth-century sort of thing, and the original hangers of wrought iron were shaped like strap hinges."

Reached by phone, Whistance said he could not let the sign leave the area. "It has the most fantastic history," he began. "Colonel Charles DeWitt, who fought in the Revolutionary army, was the father of Gerrit DeWitt, who owned the inn. When his father died, Gerrit opened the inn about 1800. Helen Wilkinson Reynolds describes the house in her book Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley Before 1776 on page one hundred ninety-six. She says the inn sign was in the attic in 1925 and that it had a crocodile painted on it. There is a photo of the house as it looked in 1925 in the book before it burned in 1930. The sign was saved, and the new house was built on the old foundations on the main road from Kingston to Ellenville.

"Do you know why the inn was called crocodile?" asked Whistance. "There is a stone in the basement—still there—that looks like a crocodile's tail."

Whistance is not certain he can find a local collector to buy it and keep it in Ulster County. "I thought I might keep it for a while, but I have almost a quarter-million dollars tied up in it, and I just heard of a major glass collection coming on the market, which I should buy, so I guess I will sell it," said the 83-year-old dealer. "It is such an incredible thing. In the fifty years I've been in business it is the most exciting thing I've ever found. It has never been repainted; the rough side, which faced north, shows the kind of weathering I call nature's sculpture."

© 2004 by Maine Antique Digest