The Anatomy of a Collection

As is so often the case, the Collection of Margaret P. Altany and her late husband John demonstrates the growing depth and focus of a collection informed over time. As collectors' enthusiasm and knowledge grow, themes emerge and expertise develops. The Altanys were diverse collectors, but over several decades, as their travels and experiences introduced them to new things, they focused on specific areas of interest.

In this Featured Story we will focus on highlights from the Altany estate from three of those areas on which the Altanys concentrated: early American furniture, works on paper by important 20th century artists, and artifacts of Native American life.

Early American Furniture
The earliest memories that John Altany, the son of John and Margaret, has of his parents' collecting is of being loaded into the car over school vacations to drive up the East Coast from North Carolina to Virginia to Maryland and Pennsylvania, hunting antique furniture. The Altanys prided themselves on sourcing their finds directly from estates, rather than simply shopping with dealers or antique shops. Indeed, a Southern Chippendale Flat Wall Walnut China Press carries their mark of its provenance on its reverse.


Because the Altanys took to the road on their trips of discovery, they amassed a collection of pieces that originate from a variety of eastern American locales. The New England Chippendale Oxbow Slant Front desk is a fine example of its form, which was popular in Massachusetts in the late 18th century. Desks of this kind were made by full-time craftsmen for the wealthiest colonial Americans. Oxbow fronts had to be fashioned from thicker pieces of hardwood in order to shape the undulating form, making them more time-consuming and expensive to produce. Notably, the desk is in remarkable, all-original condition. It is a rare memento of our nation in its revolutionary moment.

The Southern Chippendale China Press, on the other hand, is exemplary of the furniture that the Altanys discovered farther south. Its style is typical of late 18th century eastern North Carolina furniture, but this particular chest comes from the central part of the state, making it a much rarer find. It too is almost entirely original - china presses of this type and condition do not come to market often.

Works on Paper
The immediacy of works on paper gives us a unique window onto an artist's ephemeral thought process. Viewing these pieces can feel like having a personal conversation with artists whose prominence otherwise keeps them at arm's length. Fine art prints from the Altany collection comprise a veritable who's who of Western 20th century artists. Margaret Altany's interest in these works developed from her time working as docent at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, to which the Altanys gifted several important works from their collection. In our Important Spring Auction we are offering two fine art prints by David Hockney (whose paintings have recently been achieving record-setting prices at auction), Richard Diebenkorn, Jasper Johns and more. The selections in the Altany collection by these artists who are so well-known for their ultra-saturated palettes give an alternative view of their creative process, a moment of spareness from artists who normally traffic in full-bleed color.

Artifacts of Native American Life
After their children left home, the Altanys' travels took them farther west. It was on several trips to the western and southwestern United States that they began to collect rare Native American baskets and pottery. These items are important vestiges of the Native American cultures that first populated the American West but were so violently depleted in the 19th century. The Yokuts of Central California, for instance, numbered 18,000 at the 1770 census and only 533 in 1910. Their traditional weaving was of exceptionally high quality - the incredibly tight weave allowed the Yokut people to use these baskets for all manner of things, including cooking. The Large Vintage Yokut Cooking Basket in the Altany estate would have been used to cook acorn meal - the meal was placed directly in the basket with water and hot stones. The Apache trays and ollas in the Altany collection were used for storing and winnowing grain. The baskets were all woven by hand, many using devil's claw - a plant native to the Southwest, but complicated to work with.

The Altanys also collected a number of pots from the Acoma Pueblo - one of the longest continually-inhabited communities in the United States. The Acoma have been living in the Pueblo since around 1200 AD and pottery is an integral part of their culture and tradition. Acoma pottery is well-known for the fineness of their painting, their thin walls, and graceful fluted shapes.

View the full selection from The Collection of Margaret P. Altany, Charlotte, NC