Collection of Civil War-era paintings up for auction

Back in the 1960s, Winston-Salem artist Joseph Wallace King captured national attention for buying the world’s largest painting on canvas – a famous 1883 cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg.

This 410-foot, 360-degree panoramic painting put King in the Guinness Book of World Records and on the TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret.”

So great was his fascination with the cyclorama, King made far less fuss over five other monumental works that he acquired in the same purchase.

King – known internationally as the artist “Vinciata,” a painter of portraits, landscapes and nudes – spent his childhood in Greensboro. He died in 1996 in Winston-Salem at age 84.

His widow now plans to sell those five other works depicting Civil War-era subjects in an auction next month open only to pre-approved bidders.

Deborah King said she hopes to sell them to a U.S. buyer who will put them on display.

“They are really beautiful paintings, and they should be seen,” she said from Venice, Italy, the country where she and her husband spent most of their years. “I need to divest myself of these paintings just to get them seen and not have them rolled up in storage.”

It marks the first time that these pieces have been offered for general sale.

An attorney in Florence, Italy, will handle the auction. Registered bidders can see the paintings on Nov. 9 in Charlotte. Bids will be accepted by telephone, fax, email, letter and online from Nov. 2 to Nov. 30.

These paintings won’t fit in just any home or budget.

Two are more than 20 feet wide, one of them more than 14 feet in height. Another two are more than 10 feet wide and 7 feet tall.

All except a smaller, undated portrait of Union General Winfield Hancock have a “guide price” in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Guide prices are amounts that paintings are expected to bring at auction, said Phillip Jones, the attorney handling the sale.

Now stored in an undisclosed facility in Charlotte, these five paintings on canvas have fascinating histories of their own.

They were owned by Emmett McConnell, known as the “Cyclorama King” back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

McConnell arranged for artists to create panoramic paintings of famous scenes. French artist Paul Philippoteaux painted “The Battle of Gettysburg,” depicting Pickett’s Charge, the climactic battle on July 3, 1863. Ultimately, three more versions were created, the second one now on display at the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center.

In 1886, Theophil Poilpot and other artists painted the “The Monitor and the Merrimack,” also known as the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads in Virginia.

By 1965, McConnell was 96 years old and in a nursing home. When Joe King traced the first Battle of Gettyburg cyclorama to him, McConnell allowed his son to sell King that and other paintings, which had been stored in a fireproof Chicago warehouse since 1933.

Among them: a panel from “The Monitor and the Merrimack” cyclorama, depicting Union General Joseph Mansfield and his staff on horseback.

That section alone of the oil on canvas measures more than 21 feet wide and more than 14 feet high. It carries a guide price of $600,000 to $750,000, based on insurance value and the cost of replacement, Jones said.

A 1998 report gave its condition as “overall fair.”

“It needs some restoration because it has traveled the world,” Deborah King said.

Research seems to indicate that three other paintings are part of an 11-panel collection titled “Evolution of the Dreadnoughts of the U.S. Navy,” Jones said. They were commissioned by McConnell and painted by a company led by Edward James Austen, who lived in London and elsewhere from 1850 to 1930.

The undated works of gouache on gessoed canvas depict ship scenes titled “USS Bonhomme Richard and the HMS Serapis,” “Death Struggle Between Monitor and Merrimack” and “Fleets of the World Entering San Francisco Harbour.”

The latter lists a guide price of $600,000 to $750,000; the other two, $350,000 to $500,000.

Although “Fleets of the World Entering San Francisco Harbour” isn’t a Civil War painting, it could be considered a Civil War-era painting, Jones said.

The three ship paintings had been missing for 15 years. Last year, Deborah King and Jones tracked down the three pieces at the auction house in Hendersonville, near Asheville.

That’s when, Deborah King said, she decided to sell the five paintings.

Like McConnell and Austen, Joe King was a showman, his wife of 15 years recalled. “Isn’t it bizarre that these paintings have passed from one great showman to another?” she said.