Joseph Felcone

A small gem of an exhibition opens this Friday, September 28, at Morven Museum and Garden in Princeton. “Portrait of Place: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of New Jersey, 1761-1898, From the Collection of Joseph J. Felcone,” features fascinating New Jerseyana: prints, paintings, drawings, and ephemera collected by the prominent Princeton book dealer and collector.

“This is the first public appearance of Mr. Felcone’s unmatched collection of New Jersey graphic history,” says Elizabeth (Beth) Allan, the show’s curator. “It’s a visual iconography of the state made before photographs were used for images other than portraits. A fully illustrated catalog captures much of the important research Joe has done with respect to the cultural history of New Jersey.”

A visit by Allan to Felcone’s offices in Princeton precipitated the Morven show. Intrigued by the paintings she saw there, Allan and Felcone discussed the possibility of an exhibition. Ever the documentarian, Felcone was drawn by the idea of a catalog that would serve as a record of the material he had collected over decades. The catalog is a meticulously documented, a handsome volume designed by Jerry Kelly, “one of the top three in the business,” says Felcone, who should know. A year in the making, the catalog is published by Morven and funded in part by the New Jersey Historical Commission.

One hundred and nineteen pieces from Felcone’s personal collection are on view at Morven. Each is a “snapshot” of New Jersey history: historic scenes, buildings, places, and people. You will find depictions of Newark City Hall, Nassau Hall, the State Asylum for the Insane at Morristown, as well as scenes of Lambertville, Red Bank, Long Branch, Vineland, Egg Harbor, Atlantic City (with the Absecon lighthouse under construction), and Asbury Park, among others.

Besides legendary figures — such as Lieutenant James Moody, whose loyalty to the Crown during the Revolutionary War is told in an 1785 engraving; Elias Boudinot (Richard Stockton’s brother-in-law); and Henry Clay and Theodore Frelinghuysen — there are scenes of trotting and racing horses, the Essex County fox hunt, comic sketches, and an engaging circa 1860s advertisement for Crump’s Central Park Ice Cream Garden in Newark. Felcone notes the drama of Mr. Crump’s various business ventures with telling brevity.

Though Felcone says that he chooses items for their historical rather than their artistic interest, quite a number of items display both, such as the 1846 oil painting of Squan Beach, New Jersey, by George Robert Bonfield. Bonfield’s painting relates history as it happened. The “John Minturn” was a packet ship on its way to New York from New Orleans when it ran into a violent Nor’easter and was wrecked on this beach near present-day Mantoloking one freezing February day in 1846. In spite of brave efforts by the crew and local residents to save them, more than 30 people died including the captain, Dudley Stark, and his wife and children. The loss of life drove New Jersey congressman William A. Newell to introduce a bill for a life saving service. The Newell Act passed in 1848 and established the first unmanned life saving stations along the New Jersey coast, the beginnings of what would eventually become the United States Coast Guard. The painting has an special appeal for Felcone. “I spent my childhood on that very beach,” he says.

One curious work is a late-19th century painting of Princeton’s Nassau Hall (one of two views of the historic building) with a horse and carriage passing by and several people taking in the view. What makes it unusual is that is has been made on the fanned edges of the pages of an 1850 pocket bible. The image is not seen when the book is closed. Known as fore-edge painting, the technique goes back several centuries. In this case the artist is not known, but according to Felcone’s commentary in the catalog the image is copied from a circa 1860 lithograph published by Princeton bookseller George Thompson.

The exhibition is arranged so that images with similar subjects are clustered, providing an opportunity to compare various representations of a scene. There are three images of “Molly Pitcher,” five of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” and three of “Washington at the Battle of Princeton.”

Five versions of “Washington’s Reception by the Ladies on Passing the Bridge at Trenton, NJ, in April 1789” record the grand reception Washington received as he passed through the state capital on his way to New York to be inaugurated as the country’s first president. The hero is shown on horseback doffing his hat to a bevy of adoring women and girls strewing flowers in his path. Felcone notes in the exhibition catalog that a section of the triumphal arch shown in the scene is preserved in the Free Library at Trenton. Such snippets are meat to the historically curious and are typical of Felcone’s thoroughness.

Visitors will be interested in discovering local scenes from the length of the entire state from Sussex to Cape May County as well as bird’s-eye city views like that of Trenton, the largest piece on display measuring 28 by 35 inches. The dramatic explosion of “The Peace-Maker” on board the steam frigate “U.S.S. Princeton” is displayed alongside a portrait of the ship under sail. And there’s the “Terrible Conflagration and Destruction of the Steamboat ‘New Jersey.’” Don’t miss the delightful Tammany Hall, the building used by members of the Philadelphia social club, the Tammany Fishing Company, for fishing, bathing, and sailing activities on the Camden side of the Delaware River.

“The historical value of this collection lies in its contemporary documentation of homes, clubs, factories, schools, churches, and government buildings, not to mention entire cities and towns,” writes Allan in her introduction to the catalog in which Felcone includes a wealth of information: details, where known, of the artist, and records of buildings, who owned them, their purpose, whether they are still standing, and so on.

The Collector

Seated in his offices in Princeton, against a floor to ceiling backdrop of leather-bound tomes, Joe Felcone is the very image of the antiquarian book lover: white shirt, bow tie, horn-rimmed specs. He doesn’t own a television set. Respected in his field, he is recognized for several “finds.” In 2005 he helped the Archives of the State of New Jersey acquire important 17th-century New Jersey documents and maps, bidding on 11 lots at Christie’s for $656,760.

In 2008, while researching in the National Archives in Great Britain, he stumbled across a copy of the first printing of the Declaration of Independence that nobody knew was there.

“Around 1800 the British took all of their Colonial Office records and bound them together, and since this material isn’t cataloged, I was looking through page after page of 150 volumes. I found what I took to be a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Since I was focusing on New Jersey, I carefully folded it and put it back and moved on,” he recalls.

“Then it occurred to me to check when it was printed. I went back and discovered it was a first printing by John Dunlap. Since the last such had sold for $8.5 million, I brought it to the attention of the archivist.” Needless to say the prize was removed to the “treasure room.” It’s the 26th known copy, and one of only three in the British National Archives.

Felcone bought his first truly rare book in 1972. It was printed in Trenton in 1793, and he got it for $12.50 from a New York auction house. “I sent off my bid, and the book arrived in the mail with a bill,” Felcone says. “I was amazed. It wasn’t a lot of money, but I was impressed that they trusted me; these people are nice folks, I thought, and I had a book printed 200 years ago, and just down the street in Trenton!” He was hooked.

Forty years later, Joseph J. Felcone Inc. has clients throughout the world, and Felcone has written the definitive work in his field: “Printing in New Jersey 1754-1800: A Descriptive Bibliography,” published by the American Antiquarian Society.

Felcone’s expertise in New Jerseyana spilled over from books into a collection of visual images from which selections are on show at Morven. These are items from the walls of his offices in Princeton and the 18th century home in Greenwich, Cumberland County, that he and his wife, Linda, have worked to restore. He is quite handy, he says, and enjoys the work, even though he doesn’t have much time to exercise the talent, being preoccupied with book dealing and collecting. “I painted and my wife brought the entire garden back to life.” Inside, the couple is running out of wall space. “My wife is the daughter of two artists, and so she is very accommodating. My mother-in-law, Helen Schuyler Bailey, is an accomplished art restorer who has done stellar work for me. These are pieces that I love to see every day.”

Felcone is something of a Princeton personality. He was born in 1946 and grew up on the border of Hopewell and Ewing on the Delaware River. An only child, he went to the Lawrenceville School as a boarder. His father, Lewis Felcone, was a real estate broker, the only member of the Felcone family who didn’t go into the family law business. His mother, Gertrude, was a stay-at-home mom.

From a young age, he was a collector, starting with seashells from the Jersey shore and expanding into sea glass, bottle caps, baseball cards, stamps, and then coins. Reading Steinbeck set him on the road to book collecting. He remembers searching for items in Princeton, in the Witherspoon Bookstore, once located on Spring Street. A copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” he purchased for $35 is now worth around $3,500. For a time, Felcone, who graduated from Bucknell University and received his law degree from the University of Miami, followed family tradition and worked as a lawyer, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I spent my time reading auction catalogs and local history,” he remembers with a smile. “Now, everybody knows me in this business.”

From books to visual images of the state, was a natural progression, though he doesn’t deal in the latter. An oil painting by E.P. Knox, known as the “bicycle artist of the Pine Barrens” was his first purchase. He bid on it sight unseen after seeing it listed in a Baltimore book auction. As a collector, he is sharply focused, buying only items dating from before 1899 and only scenes that can be identified. “If I can’t identify it as NJ, I don’t buy it,” he says.

The 1830s pen, ink, and watercolor of the main street in Alloway, Salem County, he says, has everything he looks for. “It’s the earliest-known view of the town, predating the earliest photographs, as well as the earliest-known image of two of the most architecturally significant houses in the town, both of which still stand; the detail is excellent and the artist is identified.”

What Felcone neglects to mention, is the work’s charm. Artistic skill has little bearing on his choice, he reiterates. It’s all about history and documenting history. When he can he puts his finds in period frames. The Alloway street scene is on the front cover of the catalog which explains why artist William E. Tucker called his on-the-spot rendering “Oakland.”

While Felcone has paid up to $15,000 for an item in the show, he hesitates to put a value on the collection as a whole. He buys a lot of things in poor condition and revels in the accomplishment of bringing something back to life and to New Jersey. “What appeals to me most are the original paintings and drawings of structures that may or may not have survived until the present day, and I love rescuing these old watercolors.”

For most collectors, the motivation is to complete a set of items. Clubs, like the famed Grolier Club in NYC (of which Felcone is a member), produce series of 100 item lists, and completing a list is satisfying in the manner of gathering baseball cards. “A collector collects not as an investment but for the thrill of the chase,” says Felcone. “I collect to preserve, to study, to document, and to have fun,” he says. “I love every minute of it.” His one indulgence besides collecting New Jerseyana? “Most people need coffee in the morning, I need Doonesbury,” he laughs.

Portrait of Place: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of New Jersey (1761-1898) From the Collection of Joseph J. Felcone, Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Opens Friday, September 28, through Friday, January 13, 2013. Hours: Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4p.m. Opening reception Thursday, September 27, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. www.historicmorven.org or 609-924-8144.