Highlights from the Estate of the late Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans

The Duke family were cut from the cloth of the great patrons of the arts throughout history. The late Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and her husband Dr. James Semans, like her mother Mary Duke Biddle before her and her children after her, focused much of her philanthropy on supporting the arts in North Carolina, from the establishment of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University to stewardship of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.

While the public impact of the family's dedication to the arts will be felt for generations, it began at home. Both Mrs. Biddle and Mrs. Semans curated multi-faceted personal collections over their lifetimes. In our Important Summer Auction we are offering a selection of pieces from the Biddle and Semans homes in Durham, North Carolina. Replete with a catalogue of seminal artworks and furniture and lighting commissioned specifically for the estates, these homes bespeak lives in which art played a daily importance. Here we highlight the stories of selections from the estate that convey Mrs. Biddle and Mrs. Semans' interest and knowledge across varied art forms, and the rich environment of artistry in their homes.

A Custom Pietra Dura Classical Style Marble Table by The Società Civile - Arte Del Mosaico


Dr. and Mrs. Semans' support for the arts had international reach. They traveled extensively and took entire groups of students from the North Carolina School of the Arts to Europe to experience the life of an artist abroad. On one of their trips to Italy they visited the Società Civile - Arte Del Mosaico, a conservatory for the traditional Italian craft of inlaid stonework. There they commissioned this remarkable pietra dura table.

Pietra dura is thousands of years old, with roots in ancient Rome. In the late 16th century, the Medici Grand Duke Ferdinand founded a society in Florence to foster the art of "painting with stone." With the support of the Medicis, the popularity of pietra dura spread throughout Europe. Like so many laborious traditional arts, however, the craft was in decline by the 20th century. Like the Medicis before them, the Semans' patronage no doubt helped sustain the artform.

Pietra dura pieces are created by the almost incomprehensibly exacting process of sourcing tiny pieces of semi-precious stones and cutting and inlaying them to a large stone base to create incredibly detailed pictures and designs. Every element of shading and tiny gradation of color desired in the final design must be identified in the natural variations of the stones. As noted in the original correspondence between Dr. Semans and the Società Civile, the artisans who created the table in The Important Summer Auction honed their craft for decades - the senior artist involved in its production was 76 years old and had been working in pietra dura for 50 years. Pietra dura has garnered revived interest in recent years - major museums are mounting exhibitions of historical pieces, and a new generation of young artisans are taking up the mantle of the age-old craft.

An Early Photograph by Edward Steichen (American, 1879-1973): Flatiron - Evening

The late James Duke Biddle Trent Semans, the son of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, worked closely with his mother on the conservation of their family's estates, and inherited her deep appreciation of the arts. Mr. Semans had a particular interest in photography and was himself an amateur photographer. This important early photograph by the seminal American photographer Edward Steichen was a gift to Mr. Semans from his mother.

Edward Steichen was one of the most influential photographers working in the United States in the 20th century. Born in Luxembourg, Steichen's family emigrated to the United States in the 1880s. He began his artistic career as a lithographer and painter, and studied painting in Europe on and off from 1900-1920s. When Steichen settled on photography as his primary art form, and began collaborating frequently with Alfred Stieglitz on the magazine Camera Work (in which Flatiron - Evening was published), Steichen's familiarity with the European art world was instrumental in establishing photography as a legitimate artistic medium.

Steichen had many notable professional titles and associations throughout his career, including Director of the U.S. Naval Photographic Institute, in which capacity he mounted several important exhibitions of WWII photography, and the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he was responsible for more than 50 photography shows.

Dining Room Suite by Designer Karl Bock

Mary Duke Biddle was an enthusiastic re-decorator and renovator, of both the family's New York residence and Pinecrest, her home in Durham. She decorated the interior of Pinecrest several times over - when the pieces in our sale were removed from the dining room, current finishes gave way to mirrored walls and inlaid flooring. Mrs. Biddle worked closely on these projects with New York designer Karl Bock, who was also involved in several renovation projects at Duke University. For the Pinecrest dining room, Bock and Biddle collaborated on this complete suite of Biedermeier-style furniture, which seamlessly complimented the myriad other styles incorporated in the interior of the home. Biddle also worked with Bock over the years to develop the Pinecrest estate as a whole. Bock designed and oversaw the construction of a guest cottage and a gardener's cottage and greenhouse, and served as the estate's landscape architect, installing a picnic area, recreation facilities including tennis courts, swimming pool and bath house, as well as footpaths and streams throughout the grounds.

View the full catalogue of items from the Estate of the Late Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans in the Important Summer Auction.

Lead photograph of the interior of the Biddle home courtesy of the Semans family and Elizabeth Matheson

Created by LLA Content Director Elizabeth Sharp