Marion antique store owner recognizes rich history of items

Aug 1, 2022

MARION — Always be careful before tossing away old paperwork.

The item could bear the telltale signs of classic American writer Edgar Allen Poe, known for his mastery of the macabre.

That’s what happened when Frank McNamee, owner of Marion Antique Auctions, visited a home in the area in 2013.

The owner had requested that an old desk be appraised. As usual, when appraisals are done on desks, the drawers were emptied. 

And in this case they were filled with literary history.

In a folded up envelope he saw “a scribbled out poem on stained pieces of paper.”

This poem wasn’t your usual homemade vignette. The writing bore the words “The Conqueror Worm” by E.A. Poe. 

That Poe poem was first published in 1843, six years before Poe’s death at 40, and examines human mortality and the certainty of death.

McNamee’s finding, needless to say, drew “tremendous interest.” But was it real?

The signature looked right, and the paper proved to be from the right time period.

“Paper changes over time,” McNamee said, so correctly aged paper is one sign of an item’s authenticity.

But the paperwork was also greeted with skepticism. Was it really Poe’s writing? Some scholars said yes, others had their doubts.

In the end, thorough research connected the dots between the history of the paper’s location and connections with Poe’s one-time editor. 

The poem was determined to be authentic and now sits in the Morgan Library in New York City.

But not before being purchased at auction from the Marion business for $300,000.

Of all the finds he has made, this one was “the most exciting,” McNamee said. 

But it was not the most lucrative. 

That title rests with a hand drawing that could ultimately net more than a million dollars. 

This story began with an auction at Marion Antique Auctions in October 2020. The sale included a 1652 hand drawing of Dutch Army General and Navy Admiral Maarten Tromp by Dutch painter Jan Lievens. 

McNamee found the drawing among the estate of a local family. He wasn’t sure what he had at first. He questioned whether the drawing was a fake Rembrandt.

In fact, Lievens had a close connection to Rembrandt, his contemporary, who was a year older. The two once shared a studio and both painted historical works and portraits.

Over time, according to McNamee, Rembrandt “became famous and Lievens became forgotten.”

But not to historians. The drawing of Tromp had been unaccounted for since it was sold at auction around the early 20th century.

“What happened” from that point “was unknown.”

He wondered if he had his answer in this South Coast estate. The lettering on the print gave credence to its possible authenticity and intrigued McNamee enough to put it up for auction for about $80,000. 

McNamee greatly underestimated the interest. The image went for $514,800 to a New York art dealer who “took a big chance.’’

That chance, the dealer hopes, could pay off, literally. He hopes to sell the piece for about $1.5 million in a European auction.

In this case, the subject Navy Admiral Tromp was a large draw, McNamee said, because he’s “like the George Washington of the Netherlands.”

A fierce fighter, Tromp had great success in the First Anglo-Dutch War, which was fought from 1652 to 1654, primarily by sea. In 1652,Tromp sat for a portrait for Lievens. The next year, he was killed by an English sharpshooter during battle.

He is considered a Dutch hero to this day, entombed in a marble monument and revered by the country’s residents and now by art historians worldwide.

Not every sale McNamee makes fetches six or seven figures, but he believes all of them have an interesting backstory. 

A recent auction netted sales including an early 19th century inlaid ebony and whalebone for $10,000, an early 20th century hammered silver and enamel box for $8,000 and an assortment of John F. Kennedy memorabilia for $950.

Nearly all of his items involve finding items from customers, determining their worth and relying on his historical knowledge and that of his staff.

“I go out every day to look at things to see if they are auction-worthy,” he said. “We discover things every day. It’s an exciting career.”

Marion Antique Auctions is hosting a sale at its 13 Atlantis Drive location in Marion at 10 am. Saturday, Aug. 6. Viewing is available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4 and Friday, Aug. 5 and from 8 to 9:30 a.m. Saturday. For more information, visit