Morris Plains, N.J., Jan. 11, 2006-- The souvenirs of a remarkable lifetime--well, half the souvenirs, anyway--were auctioned off yesterday as legendary trainer George Morris watched his trinkets and treasures from around the world head to new homes.
The scene was the gallery of Dawson & Nye, whose representatives had culled piles of possessions from George's old digs at Hunterdon Inc., about a half-hour west of here. The U.S. show jumping chef d'equipe last fall sold the farm that he had called home for more than 30 years. Some items, including his 1960 Olympic team silver medal, made the trip south to his other house in Wellington, Fla., which now will be his permanent residence. But he had to sell about 50 percent of what he had collected over six decades in the horse world because he didn't have space for it. Neither could he see paying storage fees on items like the nearly life-size bronze of a boy on a horse, or a "George III Japanned faux-tortoiseshell hanging corner cupboard."
There was a lot of good furniture for sale, much of it purchased originally from the late Emily de Nemethy, who was married to one of George's mentors, former U.S. Equestrian Team Coach Bert de Nemethy, whose mantle George has inherited. Other pieces came from torch singer Libby Holman, who was a friend of one of George's family members.
George seemed to get a kick out of watching people bid for such items as his high school class ring (New Canaan, Conn., 1956) that "didn't fit anymore" which went for $225, paired with a gold signet ring. In addition to those on hand at the auction house, people also were able to bid by phone and via the internet, which made for a very lively session.
After the sale ended, George remarked, "I certainly enjoyed it. I'm very happy those people will have some of the memorabilia I've enjoyed."
He called Dawson and Nye a "very classy outfit," but noted his final verdict on the sale isn't in.
"I just have to see the total result," he explained, since his take has yet to be calculated.
The auction drew both new and old George Morris admirers. Robi Greenberg ("She was my longest customer, probably ever," Morris confided) came to bid on some things for herself and for friends who are fond of George and wanted a souvenir.
"It's the end of an era," mourned Robi, of nearby Bernardsville, who started riding with George as a novice adult and now competes in the senior jumper division under the guidance of George's former partner, Chris Kappler. For $250, she purchased a group of judges' medals and ribbons, including an Olympic pin from the 1936 Berlin Games. We joked about how George had figuratively whipped her with his disciplined teaching style, and I suggested she bid on a silver-handled riding crop as an appropriate memento. Whoops! Turns out my friend Suzann Johnson had wanted that, as her husband, Art, sitting next to Robi, politely informed me. Robi graciously declined to bid and Art got the crop for $100.
Juliet Piekarski woke up at 4:30 a.m. to make the four-hour drive to the auction from her home in Odenton, Md., near Annapolis. She had never met George, but she knew what a towering figure he is in his sport. Juliet wasn't exactly sure what she would buy.
"I just came because it's George stuff," Juliet confided, and she came away well-satisfied. She got two of his hunt caps for $50 and $25 respectively.
"You know," I told her, "the new U.S. Equestrian Federation rules say you can't wear those when you jump, you have to wear an approved helmet." But Juliet wasn't thinking of donning the hats.
"They're for decorating my horse shrine with my ribbons," she said. Best of all, though, she got to introduce herself to George. "I told him I'd take good care of his helmets, and he was really gracious. It was such a thrill to meet him."
One of the most interesting sales involved a "presentation board," on which a bridle and four horseshoes were mounted. That went for $250 to Wayne Rasmussen of Country Saddlery, who is hoping to make a bridle copying the one that had belonged to one of George's best-known early rides, Big Line. Wayne's wife, Janet, explained her husband would like to develop a "tribute line" to "icons of the industry" such as George or Rodney Jenkins.
A really unusual item was an El Salvadorian machete that got picked up for $55. I asked the buyer whether he purchased it because it belonged to George, but I thought I knew the answer, and I was right. He had no idea who George was, he just collects machetes. I decided I could end that interview right there.
Jack Wetzel, a prominent combined driving competitor from Aiken, S.C., sat with George and bought some things for a garden room he is redoing into a study. Before the sale, he told me one of the things he wanted was a brass top hat, a trophy from the 1984 Almaden Vineyards Grand Prix. He went after it, too, but didn't get it--inexplicably, it sold for $900.
I guess there isn't always a rhyme or reason for what sells, and at what price. Art wasn't able to get a group of Gothenburg (Sweden) horse show posters that Suzann wanted; they were gaveled down for $1,100. I've been to that show. Too bad I never bothered to bring a poster home. Then there was the red, blue and ivory Oushak carpet, listed in the catalogue as "distressed" (I think that's auction-speak for "threadbare"), which sold for $7,500.
I held my breath when there were no bids at first for an 8-by-10 pencil portrait of a much younger George. There was an awkward silence before the bidding began, and the drawing finally went for a respectable $175. It would have been embarrassing if that didn't sell.
Ironically, because of the auction house's schedule, the sale was held during the USEF convention. George used to be a regular at the convention, but noted because of the demands of the show schedule, which has expanded into what used to be a quiet period in early January, it's tough for people to attend.
George was headed to a horse show in Jacksonville last night. But me, I'm going to the convention in Cincinnati. I'll be sending a postcard Monday to tell you what went on there.