Auctions and Brokerage
Coachwork by Murphy
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Jessie McDonald, Los Angeles, California (acquired new in 1931)Don Ballard, Los Angeles, California (acquired via Bob Roberts circa 1938)James Foxley, Perris, California (acquired from the above by 1957)J.B. Nethercutt, Los Angeles, California (acquired from the above in 1957)William F. Harrah, Reno, Nevada (acquired from the above in 1963)Imperial Palace Collection, Las Vegas, Nevada (acquired from the estate of the above in 1985)Oscar Davis, Elizabeth, New Jersey (acquired from the above in 1985)Mark Smith, Melvin Village, New Hampshire (acquired from the above in 1989)Paul Lapidus, Great Neck, New York (acquired from the above in 1989)Robert McGowan, Branford, Connecticut (acquired from the above in 1993)Lee Herrington, Bow, New Hampshire (acquired from the above in 1996)John O’Quinn, Houston, Texas (acquired from the above in 2006)Current Owner (acquired from the estate of the above)
Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance®, 1998 (Second in Class)AACA Eastern Division National Fall Meet, Hershey, Pennsylvania, 1998 (First Junior)Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, 1999 (Breitling Watch Award for Timeless Beauty)
George Whittell has been called eccentric, which he was, and crazy, which he was not. He knew how things should be, how they should look, how they should move, and he could not resign himself to anything less; there is a certain genius to that. – J.M. Fenster, “The Private Universe of George Whittell”
The scion of a prominent San Francisco family, and later one of California’s wealthiest residents, George Whittell Jr. enjoyed a lifestyle that was truly without limits. In his heyday, this enigmatic, soi-disant captain owned several magnificent homes, tamed exotic animals, flew his own DC-2 airplane, and married three times, while entertaining a seemingly endless succession of showgirls.
Flush with cash in the midst of the Great Depression, Whittell, who had been an ambulance driver and an Army captain during WWI, freely indulged in his passion for the finer things. He possessed a particular affinity for custom-made vehicles and proved to be the single-most prolific customer of Duesenberg Inc., ordering six new Model Js, five of which were individually tailored to his extraordinary personal tastes by the Walter M. Murphy Company of Pasadena, California.
Between 1920 and 1933, Murphy created automobile bodies that were recognized the world over for their quality craftsmanship, technical brilliance, and inimitable style. Walter M. Murphy headed the endeavor with the assistance of Frank Spring and J. Gerard Kirchhoff, who supervised the projects of in-house designers and veteran freelancers. Their collective efforts resulted in a wide variety of body styles for the exclusive Duesenberg Model J, including the famous disappearing-top roadster, which debuted at the 1929 New York auto salon.
Several of Murphy’s finest achievements resulted from the collaboration of their VIP customer George Whittell and a young designer named Franklin Q. Hershey. One of the extraordinary automobiles included in their oeuvre is the car presented here, a long-wheelbase Model J Sport Berline bearing chassis no. 2305 and engine no. J-287.
The design of this body is especially notable for its innovative construction method, which used aluminum, rather than wood, to create the interior structure and exterior panels – a technique that was well ahead of its time. Utilizing cast aluminum supports and fabricated reinforcements, the Sport Berline was significantly lighter and stronger than bodies produced in the traditional manner. The inner structure of this car was so remarkable that Murphy took press photographs while it was still under construction to showcase their prowess. Aluminum was also of tremendous interest to Whittell, who regularly incorporated the material into the design and construction of his various automobiles, airplanes, and boats.
In terms of exterior design, the Sport Berline was compact and close-coupled, with a beautifully integrated trunk at the rear. Marvelous center-hinged doors – whose tops curved into the roof, creating a rounded, streamlined appearance – allowed for additional headroom during ingress and egress. This distinctive feature is shared with two other Murphy masterpieces: the Peerless V-12 Prototype and J-218, another sedan designed by Franklin Hershey for Whittell. Originally finished in a lovely apple green color, and distinguished by a dramatically raked windscreen, thin pillars, and narrow side windows, the Sport Berline was at once elegant, restrained, and a bit mysterious in its appearance.
Often referred to today as “The Mistress Car,” it is believed that Whittell ordered J-287 as a gift for a Jessie McDonald and had the car delivered to her in Los Angeles upon its completion in January 1931. While little is definitively known of Ms. McDonald and the exact nature of her relationship with Whittell, her name appears in many stage reviews of the period, indicating that she was an aspiring performer or actress. This theory is certainly consistent with Whittell’s oft reported predilection for female entertainers.
Following several years in Ms. McDonald’s ownership, J-287 was sold, through famed exotic car dealer Bob Roberts, to Don Ballard. Roberts’ dealership, located at the corner of Ivar and Selma in the heart of Hollywood, handled the sale of many important Model J Duesenbergs over the years, including Whittell’s one-off Murphy-bodied Coupe and several others with notable celebrity provenance.
By the mid-1950s, the Sport Berline had been sold to James Foxley, a resident of Perris, California. In 1957, J.B. Nethercutt learned about a unique Duesenberg that had been recently discovered by a local car hunter. That year, he purchased J-287 from Mr. Foxley, adding it to his growing collection of important antiques and classics.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Nethercutt sold the Duesenberg, along with several other cars in a package deal, to William F. Harrah. The Murphy Sport Berline was prominently featured in the famous Harrah’s automobile collection in Reno, Nevada, for over 20 years, until the dispersal auctions in the 1980s, whereupon it was sold to Ralph Engelstadt of the Imperial Palace Collection.
Over the next decade, the Duesenberg passed through the ownership of several noted collectors, including Oscar Davis, Mark Smith, Paul Lapidus, and Robert McGowan. In 1996, Mr. McGowan sold J-287 to Lee Herrington, who was then assembling an extraordinary collection of custom-bodied classics. During his ownership, Mr. Herrington commissioned marque expert Chris Charlton of Classic Car Services in Oxford, Maine, to perform a complete restoration of this Duesenberg, as he had done with several other classics, including the Duesenberg Whittell Coupe, Packard Dietrich Sport Sedan, and Mercedes-Benz Special Roadster.
Completed in 1998, and brilliantly finished in a striking violet over gray color scheme, The Mistress Car debuted at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance®, where it placed Second in Class. Shown selectively over the next few years, the Duesenberg continued its winning ways, capturing First Junior honors at the AACA Eastern Division National Fall Meet at Hershey, Pennsylvania, and the Breitling Watch Award for Timeless Beauty at Amelia Island. In 2006, Mr. Herrington sold the Murphy Sport Berline to John O’Quinn, who famously acquired more than 30 Duesenbergs during the height of his collecting. This Model J remained a focal point of Mr. O’Quinn’s expansive collection until his death in 2010, when it was sold to the current owner.
The appearance of J-287 at auction represents a significant opportunity for collectors. This magnificent, one-of-a-kind Model J is among the most admired Duesenbergs of all time, one of the most attractive closed automobiles of the prewar era, and a brilliant expression of the coachbuilder’s art. Built to the absolute highest standards, employing innovative, avant-garde construction methods, and possessing exquisite Art Deco-inspired details, this custom-bodied Duesenberg is a true masterpiece – the result of a successful collaboration between Walter Murphy, Franklin Hershey, and George Whittell Jr. Even in the exclusive world of Duesenbergs, the six Model Js commissioned by Whittell carry a special cache; they are all utterly unique, have always been owned by discerning collectors, and rarely trade hands.
Not only is this Duesenberg a particularly appealing example, it also retains its original chassis, engine, and coachwork, and benefits from a high-quality restoration performed by one of the foremost experts in the field. Furthermore, J-287 benefits from a well-documented history, with an impeccable provenance that includes some of the most famous names in car collecting: J.B. Nethercutt, Bill Harrah, Oscar Davis, and Lee Herrington.
Having known this magnificent Duesenberg for many years and admired its wonderful qualities, Gooding & Company recommends serious consideration of this Murphy-bodied wonder.