… Depends upon your point of view. For 30 years, during and after Sister Margherita Marchione’s tenure as Professor of Italian Literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Peter Sammartino was, in a sense, her mentor. He followed her career and activities very closely. Almost daily he would ring at 8:00 a.m. with suggestions, recommendations, or missions to be accomplished. Even for Sister, it was not easy to keep up with him.
According to Sister, there were all sorts of proposals: “Maggie, will you join Sally and me for dinner? I’d like to talk about several matters of importance.” The discussion might concern congratulations on an article or book, an invitation to join a new Italian-American organization, or instructions on particular tasks. Dr. and Mrs. Sammartino were also always concerned about the Filippini Sisters at Villa Walsh where Sister was the treasurer. They would frequently inquire about banking, maintenance problems, or the needs of the retired sisters. The list was endless.
One day, while Sister was visiting the Sammartinos at their Ridge Road home in Rutherford, Dr. Sammartino described a painting by Chinese artist Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), which he and Sally had decided to leave in Sister’s care for the benefit of the aging Sisters at Villa Walsh. Ever the optimist, he said, “I paid $10,000 for it, but you [Sister] can surely get $20,000 for it today. In fact, if you take it to Hong Kong, I bet it will bring $40,000.”
It was during the fall of 1991 that Peter and Sally donated their Palm Beach paintings and condominium to the Religious Teachers Filippini. Several months later Dr. Sammartino, who was scheduled to speak at the Italian Cultural Society of the Palm Beaches, asked Sister to substitute for him and, at the same time, to remove their personal belongings from the apartment.
That particular weekend Sister’s niece, Joan Messner Epstein, was also in Palm Beach. As she was about to fall asleep in the Sammartino condominium under the Zhang Daqian landscape, Sister related Sammartino’s prediction regarding a possible sale in Hong Kong. Her niece sat straight up and said, “Where are the bags? Let’s pack!” Sister told Joan she had no intention of travelling to Hong Kong, so Joan suggested the painting be looked at by Sotheby’s. The Palm Beach representative of the Company deemed the work of interest and it was delivered to the New York office. Experts evaluated it at $20,000 to $25,000.
Some quirk caused the painting to be overlooked in October 1992 during the auction catalog design. Sotheby’s, by way of a most gracious apology, placed the Zhang Daqian (at no expense, including a complete waiver of seller’s commission, risk of loss, and photography charges) in the next scheduled sale of Chinese paintings, June 1, 1993.
The catalog reiterated the estimate of $20,000-$25,000 and listed it as No. 96 to be auctioned.
An art dealer accompanied Sister and her niece, Joan, to Sotheby’s June 1st Chinese auction. Fearing the reserve was too high, both decided to lower it to $14,000! With just moments to spare, they hastily trekked to the third floor where they registered the new reserve figure. Much relieved by the decision to opt for safety rather than risk losing the painting’s sale, they took their seats near the front, prepared to listen patiently, and hoped for the best.
Sister prayed as she waited for lot number 96. David N. Redden, a director at Sotheby’s, wielded the hammer for the sale of Chinese paintings. He swiftly and skillfully drew bids from the audience and telephone bidders, reaching lot number 96 in less than an hour. As he noted the new reserve figure, he hesitated momentarily. The bidding started at $15,000.
Sister states the she was afraid to look around. What if no one wanted the painting? As she continued to pray silently, she heard the auctioneer’s voice confirm $15,000. At least they had made their reserve. Slowly the bid reached $18,000. Then $18,500. Everyone was silent when the telephones began ringing from Hong Kong. The auctioneer confirmed $20,000; then $30,000. Soon the bidding hit $40,000.
Two operators were documenting and monitoring the competitive bidders from Hong Kong. The auctioneer’s voice was baffling the audience. Sister could not believe what she was hearing! At $140,000, she dropped her head into her hands and prayed that it was all true.
Tension was growing in the audience. When the auctioneer lowered the hammer for the last time at $230,000, Sister thanked God for another of Peter and Sally’s gifts. Sister had joined the convent at age thirteen and taken a vow of poverty. Now at age seventy-two, she was still a witness to the power of prayer. This time it was in the form of “the miracle on 72nd Street!”
David Redden was pleased to learn that the painting was a Sammartino gift to the Religious Teachers Filippini. He recalled that Peter Sammartino served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees when he attended St. Stephen’s School in Rome, Italy.
During an interview with Associated Press, Redden remarked: “I don’t know whether Sister Margherita’s prayers inspired the bidding, but it certainly had that feeling. It’s nice in this case, if a miracle is going to happen… that it concerns something that is going to provide some real benefit to a good group of people.”
Peter and Sally’s gift sold for a miracle price at auction. Even after their death they were extending a helping hand as they had for decades. Little did the competitive bidders for Hong Kong realize that they, too, were contributing to a trust fund for the elderly Religious Teachers Filippini in retirement at Villa Walsh– a trust fund in memory of the co-founders of Fairleigh Dickinson University, Peter and Sally Sammartino.
This blog quotes extensively from interviews, conversations, and the writings of Sister Margherita Marchione, MPF. Sister has given explicit permission to be quoted or copied verbatim.