New Brunswick

Furniture locked in rural New Brunswick home fetches tens of thousands

How a treasure trove of mid-century furniture ended up in New Brunswick has to do with a progressive couple from Chicago and a connection to the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Daughter 'really had no idea' of the value of her parents' estate

A early 1960s chair by the Danish designer Hans Wegner, pictured left at the June 1 auction in Saint John, and, at right, in the livingroom of the Roberts home in Forest City. (Mike Heenan / Submitted by Key Auctions)

Tiny Forest City, N.B., south of Woodstock, is a rural outpost best known for its proximity to nature and the U.S. border.

Few would have guessed a home there, locked for nearly a decade, was filled with precious furnishings by internationally-famous designers. 

The contents of the Roberts home were auctioned in Saint John on June 1 by Key Auctions for an undisclosed sum. 

A single chair fetched $16,500.

Bonnie Roberts-Sabo of Bangor, Maine, was "stunned" to hear the value of furniture, purchased by her parents, Stewart and Elizabeth Roberts, in Chicago in the 1960s.

"I really had no idea," she said.

'Normally when I’m in an estate I don’t pry for too much information,' said Jared Steeves of Key Auctions. 'But certainly there was some intrigue on my mind as to how these items got here in the province.' (Mike Heenan / CBC)

How the treasure trove of mid-century furniture ended up in New Brunswick has to do with a progressive couple from Chicago and a connection to the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Cheney House

The Roberts — who met through work in the book publishing industry — were "ahead of their time," Roberts-Sabo said.

They were back-to-the-landers who protested segregation and the Vietnam War.

When it came to furnishings and design, the couple had a strong sense of "what was good —what was going to be valuable," Roberts-Sabo said.

"They were fairly wise that way."

Steeves said he was 'shocked' to uncover a box of black-and-white photos depicting the furniture in the Roberts home. (Submitted by Key Auctions)

In the 1960s, the Roberts lived in Cheney House in Oak Park, Chicago, originally built in 1909 for Edwin and Mamah Borthwick Cheney — who later left her husband for its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Roberts filled Cheney House with art and furniture by iconic Danish Modern designers, like Hans Wegner, Borge Mogensen and Arne Vodder. 

By the early 1970s, the couple was "sick of the rat race," Roberts-Sabo said, and left Chicago for rural New Brunswick. 

After Stewart Roberts died in 1983, Elizabeth remarried. 

Expensive furniture designed by mid-century icons was locked up in a New Brunswick house for a decade. 1:06

When her second husband passed away, the contents of the house remained in limbo.

"We didn't know which side it went to, our side or the stepfather's side. We had to leave it until things got settled," said Roberts-Sabo.

Box of old photos

The house sat locked and empty for nearly a decade.

"It was just too much to try to take it back into the United States and dole it out piecemeal," said Roberts-Sabo said.

Once the estate was sorted out, she contacted Jared Steeves of Key Auctions, who described the lot as a "stunning selection of mid-century modern." 

It was "a pretty special day," he said. 

A 1960s Arne Vodder teak desk sold for $4,000. (Submitted by Key Auctions)

"Normally when I'm in an estate I don't pry for too much information. But certainly there was some intrigue on my mind as to how these items got here in the province."

While cleaning out the house, Steeves said he was shocked to uncover a box of "black-and-white professional photographs taken in the 1960s of this beautifully-designed house, decorated phenomenally."

"I started looking closer at the pictures, and I saw the chair that I loaded an hour earlier," he said. 

Jared Steeves of Key Auctions called the contents of the Roberts home a 'stunning' collection of mid-century modern furniture. (Mike Heenan / CBC)

Exceptional auction

On June 1, the pieces were auctioned at the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre. 

Key Auctions fielded inquiries and bids from across Canada, New York, California, Boston, and London, U.K. 

"Some of the family certainly understood the magnitude of the lot, and there had even been some talk of getting it south of the border to these large auction houses that do feature mid-century quite regularly," Steeves said.

Roberts-Sabo said she and her siblings were thrilled with the unexpected value of their parents' estate. 

"The furniture was wonderful," she said.

"Now someone else can enjoy it."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Information Morning Saint John host

Julia Wright is a lifelong Saint Johner and the host of Information Morning Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.

With files from Mike Heenan

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