For nearly a century, Vernon Russell Regal pursued his unbridled passion for collecting, selling and restoring art, antique furniture, Chinese porcelain, tapestries and rare books.
While he never succeeded in establishing a decorative arts museum at the B.F. Jones Jr. mansion on the North Side, Mr. Regal, who died of cancer in October at 97, amassed a collection that's attracting international attention. The last of three auctions of his eclectic treasures will be held May 16-18 by Dargate Galleries.
The decorative arts fired Mr. Regal's imagination in the way competition inspires athletes.
"He had a real, true love of the object, how it was made and the history," said Dan Zivko of Cleveland, an investor in Dargate Galleries.
Some of the best pieces were sold in March when a bidder from Hong Kong paid $361,000 for a Chinese Famille Rose Boys vase at a Doyle New York auction in Manhattan. Overall, Mr. Regal's collection of Asian art fetched $1.7 million.
Boys vases "are very hard to make and very hard to find. You'll probably see one every five to 10 years," said Marley Rabstinette, an Asian art consultant to Doyle.
This particular vase was made between 1736 and 1795.
"That was a real high time for Chinese porcelain production. There are all these little boys crawling all over it. Vernon and his parents had a good eye. They bought good quality pieces," Ms. Rabstinette said.
Mr. Regal was a thin man who stood about 5-foot-8-inches tall and usually wore a suit jacket and hat with a brim to protect his fair skin from the sun. He never married. The advantaged young son of a family that operated the successful Butler Business College, Mr. Regal learned how to play classical music beautifully on a grand piano and pipe organ, restored his family's maroon Rolls-Royce and possessed a photographic memory.
From his mother, Florence Guise Regal, he inherited a love of Chinese porcelain; the two often took buying trips to New York galleries. Sometimes, the Regal family traveled by car to Florida, stopping at the homes of collectors and dealers, said Larry J. Cygan, a friend of Mr. Regal for 35 years.
When major Pittsburgh mansions were torn down in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Mr. Regal was running an antique business in the city's East End and eagerly acquired remains of the city's Gilded Age. He purchased mirrors, paintings, lighting and furniture from Lyndhurst, the Thaw family's East End mansion, as well as furniture from Helen Clay Frick's Massachusetts summer home, Eagle Rock in Pride's Crossing.
In 1958, when the Carnegie Museum of Art de-accessioned some of its collection to raise $5 million for a new copper roof, Mr. Regal bought as much Chinese porcelain as possible, Mr. Zivko said.
At the time, he was living in the B.F. Jones Jr. mansion on Ridge Avenue on the North Side. In 1973, he was forced to leave when the home, now known as Jones Hall, became part of the Community College of Allegheny County.
From a female heir of Ebenezer Denny, Pittsburgh's first mayor who served from 1816 to 1817, Mr. Regal purchased a Lannuier gaming table. He later consigned it to Christie's for auction, but it did not meet the minimum bid. Stuart Feld of Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York later bought the table and in 1987, resold it for hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Carnegie Museum of Art. The gilded table, made circa 1815 of rosewood veneer, ebony and brass inlay, is now on exhibit in Scaife Gallery No. 3.
"He was so amused by the fact that it came back to Pittsburgh," Mr. Zivko said, adding that Mr. Regal told him, " 'They never would have bought it from me. But they bought it from that other dealer.' "
Mary Hulton Phillips, a collector of Asian art who founded the Maridon Museum in Butler, met Mr. Regal at the Butler Antiques Show several years ago. Aware of her interest, Mr. Regal called her one Sunday afternoon and invited her to Elm Farm, the rented Valencia mansion that served as his workshop and warehouse.
Mrs. Phillips was agog at the variety and quality of Mr. Regal's treasures, which filled the three-story home.
"There wasn't a path more than a foot wide," she recalled during a recent interview. "That made me feel like my things didn't amount to anything. And I had enough to start a museum."
Through Dargate, Mrs. Phillips purchased two elaborately decorated Baroque-style Meissen ewers from the Regal collection for the Maridon Museum.
Mr. Regal's formal education ended in the 10th grade, but he read constantly from his large library of books on art and antiques. A compulsive keeper, he hung on to old auction catalogs, antique fabrics he used to re-upholster Louis XIV, XV and XVI chairs, flocked wallpaper and parts of lamps, chandeliers and old picture frames.
"There wasn't anything he didn't collect," said Mr. Cygan, who was 18 and working at Bortmas Florist in Butler when he arrived at Elm Farm in 1973.
Initially, Mr. Cygan worked on the outdoor gardens, traveling to a greenhouse in Fredonia, N.Y., to buy three truckloads of salmon-colored geraniums that Mr. Regal used to fill large urns on the estate. He also helped Mr. Regal move out of the B.F. Jones Jr. mansion.
Gradually, Mr. Cygan became an apprentice in art restoration. Over time, he became Mr. Regal's eyes and hands, learning how to gild picture frames, upholster furniture, restore paintings and mend porcelain. As a teacher, Mr. Regal was opinionated and blunt, Mr. Cygan said.
"Vern could be stern, even rude. He knew what he knew. He was strong-willed and temperamental. Most people would find him very difficult. He was frustrated by other people's lack of knowledge," he said.
A secretive loner, Mr. Regal rarely allowed anyone inside Elm Farm except for family members. Each year, when he needed money, Mr. Regal sold large pieces. In a 2003 Dargate auction, "he had a fireplace from Lord Chesterfield. I remember we had 11 phone bidders on that. That went for $18,000," Mr. Zivko recalled.
"Then he had some light fixtures and sconces out of the Thaw mansion," Mr. Zivko said, adding that the dark black pieces were made by Caldwell, a top lighting manufacturer.
"A few of them brought $20,000 apiece. It was shocking. Looking at them, you thought, 'Ah, you might get $500 or $1,000 for that,' " he said.
In the 1980s, he visited Mike Malley's Oakland antique shop on Clyde Street. Mr. Malley attended the earlier two Dargate auctions of the Regal collection.
"You can almost tell a person's personality by what they have in their home. He was a worldly man of eclectic taste and probably eclectic behavior. It looked like he had a good time," Mr. Malley said.
Viewing hours at Dargate Auction Galleries, 214 N. Lexington St., Point Breeze, are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday. The auction begins at 10 a.m. Friday, next Saturday and May 18. Contact Dargate at 412-362-3558 or www.dargate.com . Post-Gazette staff writer Marylynne Pitz may be reached at 412-263-1648 or email@example.com .