Last modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2013

When Smith College professor and sculptor Elliot Offner died in October 2010, he left behind an extensive body of work that included wood and bronze sculptures, watercolors, woodblock prints and other types of art.

Now that art, along with a host of other objects from the Northampton home Offner shared with his late wife, Rosemary, will be auctioned off this weekend at the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School on Locust Street. Bidders from across the country and overseas will also take part in the auction via the Internet.

“There’s already been quite a bit of interest shown in this,” said George Thomas Lewis, whose Northampton firm is handling Sunday’s auction. “We’ve received preliminary bids from 20 different countries — Australia, the Far East, from Europe — and from quite a few states, like California.”

Lewis says approximately half of the 350 “lots” — either a single item or a group of smaller items — up for sale at Sunday’s auction are from the Offners’ estate. The auction, which begins at 11 a.m., also includes items from the estates of a former Boston doctor and a Longmeadow resident.

From an artistic standpoint, the heart of the auction will be the Offners’ collection, Lewis said, because of Offner’s reputation. “Not only was he a very highly regarded artist in his own right, he and his wife had also collected some very distinguished work by other artists.” Among the collection is a large number of oil paintings.

Elliot Offner, a popular professor who taught at Smith for 41 years before retiring in 2004, was particularly renowned for his sculptures of animals. His work is on permanent display in a number of U.S. museums and public spaces, and his sculpture of a horse stands outside the Smith College equestrian center on Route 66.

Offner also worked in several other media, and items showcasing his varied interests — letterpress printing, calligraphy, photography, pencil sketches, watercolors — will also be up for auction.

John Davis, an associate provost and professor of art at Smith and a good friend of Offner, told the Gazette at in 2010 that “Elliot’s talents and passions spanned more media than are commonly found in an entire faculty of art.”

Rosemary Offner, a Smith graduate who later worked at the college in different capacities, had a close partnership with her husband, managing many of his administrative affairs; she died in September 2011. Lewis said he has since been working closely with the couple’s three children, all of whom live out of state, to finalize the Offners’ estate. Their Washington Avenue home was sold last year.

Big collectors

In a telephone interview from her home in Norwalk, Conn., Helen Ong, one of the Offners’ daughters, described her father as an “inveterate collector” whose passion was also shared by her mother, who in turn had an “excellent eye for objects d’art.” As such, the couple purchased many works of art, furniture and other keepsakes over the years — more than she and her siblings could keep themselves.

“We all took some items of sentimental value, and we had our children choose some things they wanted as well,” Ong said.

She said her father invariably painted watercolors for his grandchildren on their birthdays. “There was a lot to choose from.”

She joked about a time when she was little and her father came back from an auction in Cummington, his arms full of several Hudson River School paintings. “I remember my mother saying, ‘Never leave your father alone at an auction,’” she said with a laugh.

Though it’s been hard to deal with the loss of her parents and the dispersal of their possessions, Ong said she hopes this weekend’s auction will appeal to people who knew her mother and father and might be interested in buying a keepsake of their own.

The family’s old Washington Avenue home is now owned by a young couple with children who seem to appreciate the house a great deal, she said.

“It’s nice to feel that it’s been passed on to someone who will treasure living there,” Ong said.

To improve the sale prospects of the Offners’ remaining estate — and to keep pace with the changing dynamics of the auction world — Lewis is conducting just his second auction on the Internet. His first venture into that medium took place last November. “You have to change with the times,” Lewis said.

The Internet bidding is being handled by, a New York company specializing in online sales of art and antiques; the firm also formed a partnership with eBay. Bidders can view items in advance of an actual auction, then register at the site and place a preliminary bid. Items from the Offner Estate auction on display include, for instance, bronze and wood figurines that require starting bids of between $150 and $500.

Lewis said he has received between 20 and 40 bids from buyers daily since the Offner items were posted on the Internet at the end of January, although he won’t know the actual amount of the bids until the auction takes place. He also noted that there is some “negative reaction” to Internet bidding, given that technical problems with online service during a live auction can slow down the bidding.

But he said his company is prepared to deal with those issues with increased staffing and by bypassing the Internet bidding if there is a technical problem that slows or halts the auction. He’ll be joined by 12 other people who will oversee the Internet bids via a number of computers; staff will also monitor large TV screens that display auction items, handle telephone bids, and conduct the live auction at Smith.

Coordinating all that activity is a challenge, Lewis noted, but “it does seem to be the wave of the future.”


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