PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Representing 200 years of Philadelphia’s legal history, an art collection going up for auction this month includes the portrait of a 19th century congressman who repeatedly turned down judicial nominations, including at least one offer to join the U.S. Supreme Court.
The portrait of Horace Binney (1780-1875) is one of dozens of pieces that the Philadelphia Bar Association has displayed in its iconic law library since 1825. Freeman’s Auction House says the group consigned the portrait for a sale on Nov. 14 as part of a collection of 66 portraits and three busts that it must part with because the Theodore F. Jenkins Jenkins Memorial Law Library is relocating to smaller quarters.
Because the Philadelphia Bar Association lacks the space to display the works in its offices as well, Chancellor Mary F. Platt said that in an email that “the association had no choice but to sell the artwork to new owners who respect and admire the persons depicted in the artwork and who will display and cherish the artwork as much as the association has for almost two hundred years.”
Started in 1802 by a group of 70 lawyers, the Philadelphia Bar Association ranks as the oldest association of lawyers in the country. The group was initially founded so that its members could share law books, and its growing library moved six times over the centuries from not-so-humble beginnings in Independence Hall. Philadelphia’s City Hall is another location that has housed and will continue to house some of the association’s art collection.
Freeman’s notes that the bar association began its portrait and sculpture collection to honor and celebrate current and past figures of importance to the local and national legal community.
“By the 1830s, the Library of the Law Association of Philadelphia had some of the city’s finest portraits, painted by Thomas Sully, John Neagle, Henry Inman and others,” Freeman’s said in a statement. “The lawyers depicted in these portraits were often among Philadelphia’s most famous citizens — renowned orators, educators, community and legislative leaders, as well as highly successful litigators”
The portrait of Binney and a painting of Congressman Joseph Reed Ingersoll (1786-1868) are two of the Sully works up for auction. Freeman’s says it expects the Binney portrait to fetch between $5,000 and $10,000, and between $4,000 and $6,000 for the painting of Ingersoll.
Ingersoll was elected to Congress as a Whig and served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Binney meanwhile served just one term, as an Anti-Jacksonian, and was made director of the first bank of the United States when he was just 28.
Eulogizing Binney for the Philadelphia Bar a year after his death, Judge William Strong offered an enigmatic explanation for why Binney turned down multiple appointments to both the Pennsylvania and U.S. Supreme Courts.
“It was not because he did not value distinction, and not because he did not know his own superior fitness for the posts offered, but he valued excellence above place, and his chosen road to excellence was the path he had marked out for himself at the commencement of his career,” according to Strong’s discourse, which was published that year by the American Philosophical Society. “Yet, though he would not suffer himself to be diverted from entire devotion to his profession by office, or by seductive hope of gain in other directions, he did not decline calls that he thought consistent with that devotion.”
Edward Tilghman (1750-1815), another prominent lawyer who turned down an offer to serve as chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, is depicted in one of the portraits up for auction as well.
According to a biography from his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, Tilghman “persistently avoided public office.” His portrait for the bar association was painted by Philadelphia native Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860).
Ahead of the auction, set for 10 a.m. on Nov. 14, the paintings, sculptures and nearly 500 other lots of artwork and furnishings to be sold will be on display at Freeman’s from Nov. 9. Freeman’s, which fittingly holds the distinction of being the oldest auction house in the country, will also host a reception for interested buyers to view the collection on Nov. 12 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.