On Dec. 6, the John Toomey Gallery, one of the nation’s leading resources for accessing 20th century art and design, will auction the Robert and Elaine Dillof Collection. The assemblage of turn-of-the-century pieces is considered the best collection of Arts & Crafts works to come to auction in recent years. According to John Toomey, who has operated his gallery on North Boulevard in Oak Park since 1982, “This is the most coveted collection to come on the market in this period.”

The Dillofs

Elaine and Robert Dillof may not be household names, but to Arts & Crafts connoisseurs their collection is regarded as one of the more in-depth gatherings of Arts & Crafts designs in the country. Toomey points to Elaine’s inclusion in a 1977 New York Magazine story titled, “Move Over Deco – Here Comes Mission Furniture,” as evidence of how early the Dillofs began demonstrating their appreciation for the movement.  

“Elaine was a real pioneer,” said Toomey. “She and Robert began collecting before many had an appreciation for Arts & Crafts items.”

John Walcher, director of Silver and Decorative Arts for Toomey Gallery, pointed out that Elaine’s early interest in Arts & Crafts informed her choice of real estate. 

“Elaine took a liking to Arts & Crafts in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Walcher noted, “before a lot of people became interested. She had her collection in their apartment in Manhattan, and then she and Robert looked for a house that would be a good place to display that collection.”

The couple found a home in Croton Falls, New York, about an hour and a half from Manhattan, that had originally been built as a hunting lodge in the 1920s. Added onto over the years, the estate, said Walcher, “was really the perfect place for an Arts & Crafts collection.” With a stone- and wood-shingled exterior, and beamed ceilings as well as sandstone walls and fireplaces on the interior, the home was perfectly suited to display the growing collection. 

According to Toomey, it grew to fit the home. “Elaine designed her interiors around her collection. She used textiles, metals and ceramics and created a complete environment with first-class materials.”

With Robert’s death, she decided to sell the Croton Falls house and part with 99 percent of her collection. Toomey said this as an extremely opportune moment for Arts & Crafts collectors to learn or buy from an accomplished Arts & Crafts collector.

“With big collections and collectors,” Toomey observed, “when it’s time to move on, it’s time to move on. But once a collector, always a collector, so I’m sure Elaine will continue to be a force in this world. We’ve created a hardbound catalog with an essay from Elaine on the joy of collecting, and people from the antiques world speak about how they met her and what she meant to them. She was a true pioneer in the field.”

The collection

An assortment of nearly 260 items will be included in the Dec. 6 event. Toomey said the December sale is almost always significant. 

“We always have four auctions a year. This one will probably be one of the best we’ve ever had because of the Dillof collection.”

Included in the sale is the impressive collection of American wood block prints by artists Margaret Patterson, Edna Boies Hopkins and Gustave Baumann. A monumental Grueby vase decorated by Ruth Erickson and a hexagonal table by Gustav Stickley, with an original leather top are also included, along with silver, jewelry, pottery and furniture.

Other items of significance, according to Walcher, are a large Teco floor vase, a Tiffany lamp and Chicago Arts & Crafts silver. One of his favorite pieces is an elevator grille designed by Louis Sullivan for the lobby of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building.   Produced in 1893, the grille is a striking piece.  

“It has an unusual row at the bottom that you don’t normally see,” he said, “because it was used in the lobby, which had higher ceilings than other floors. This was one of the first items you saw on entering the Dillof house. It was mounted on the wall right at the entry.”  

At 67 inches wide and 71 inches long, the piece has an estimate value of $20,000-$30,000.

Rare opportunity

The Elaine and Robert Dillof Collection will be a part of the Toomey Gallery’s wider December auction, which will feature over 1,000 prominent fine and decorative artworks, including furniture, paintings, pottery, sculpture and lighting. Highlights include works by African-American artists Palmer Hayden, Hale Woodruff and Bob Thompson; fine art by Andy Warhol, William Turnbull and Gertrude Abercrombie; and modern design by Sam Maloof, Pierre Jeanneret and George Nelson. Amidst these big names, Toomey anticipates that the Dillof Collection will be one of the biggest draws.  

“Local people, Chicago people, don’t have much opportunity to view this kind of collection,” he said. “This is a great opportunity. We’ve had clients fly in from Texas to view it and people coming in from New York. There’s definitely a buzz about it.”

Public preview for this auction will be held at the John Toomey Gallery, 818 North Boulevard, Oak Park, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., December 1-5. 

For more information on all of the works included in the auction, please visit www.johntoomeygallery.com.

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