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Helmut Schmidt, Published April 12 2012

Treasures within: Thousands of items collected by late James O’Rourke go on sale

If you go

What: Estate sales for James O’Rourke

Where: 316 5th St. S., Moorhead.

When: The first of three planned two-day sales will be held 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Parking: Will be available on surrounding streets, but Fifth Street is a one-way street on which traffic heads north.

MOORHEAD - Need a life-sized glass head? Beads from Egypt?

A Civil War-era soldier’s diary, Indian blankets, Persian tiles, a hide scale? How about a vintage banjo, violin or horns?

A meat grinder that looks like a Gatling gun would look really nice at your place. Or maybe you need vintage photos, posters, Batman and GI Joe memorabilia or massive Red Wing pottery crocks?

The list of items available today and Saturday in the first of three planned sales for the estate of arts patron and collector of all things James O’Rourke – which includes all of the above –reads like a cross between an antique shop and a corner toy store.

Chuck Marx of Marx Estate and Household Sales has worked since November to organize the items that packed O’Rourke’s home to the rafters.

Marx shakes his head in amazement at the myriad interests reflected in the collection – which touched all corners of the Earth.

“If one was great, a case of them was greater yet. That’s how he bought,” Marx said, pointing to rows of unopened toys, piles of posters and a wall of vintage photos.

O’Rourke died a little more than a year ago after a fall down a stairway at his home at 316 5th St. S.

The 77-year-old director of the Rourke Art Museum and Gallery left behind an extensive collection of art, which was quickly moved to the museum. About 1,500 pieces are being cataloged now. The remaining items – what did not go to his surviving family – will be sold to support the art museum and gallery.

Part one of the O’Rourke estate sale is confined to the east side of the first floor of his home and the yard, where a wrought iron gate, fencing, and an old well house sit, waiting for new homes.

Sale hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Everything for sale has a price listed, though bids lower than the marked cost can be placed on items more than $50 during the first day of the sale. Bids will be opened today at 6 p.m.

This first sale will involve a few hundred items. The next should involve a few thousand.

“This is one of my pride and joys,” Marx said, pointing to an old lightning rod with a ceramic ball – still in beautiful shape, standing next to a huge altar, saved from a church.

But O’Rourke had some clunkers, too, Marx said. In finding collectible gold in the packed rooms of the 1880-era home – known as the Franklin House – there was also a lot of dross.

Marx estimates five Dumpsters full of trash were tossed to make the first and second floors navigable.

“Then we’ve got some ugly stuff down there. Really ugly. It falls under the classification of ugly, ugly,” Marx said, pointing down the stairs toward the basement.

There are about 4,000 books that have to be cataloged and cross-checked on the Internet to be sure nothing valuable is sold for a pittance.

Other antiques and collectibles are also being cross-checked for proper pricing for the next two sales, Marx said.

“I think it (O’Rourke’s mind) was running 100 mph all the time. He had 14 projects going all the time,” Marx said.

The collecting and selling “probably affected his life. I think he was addicted,” to finding the odd and the beautiful, Marx said. “I’m impressed with the guy.”

John Rowell, an arts supporter and longtime friend of O’Rourke, is the personal representative of O’Rourke’s estate.

He finds the sale a bittersweet experience.

“Over the years, I went to lunch with him (O’Rourke) over 800 times,” talking art, architecture and O’Rourke’s time in the Army working with horses, Rowell said.

“What a collector he was. My, my, my,” Rowell mused. “He has a stuffed American eagle. Now individuals can’t possess them. Who else do you know has a stuffed armadillo and a stuffed iguana and a couple of human skulls? He had a little bit of everything.

“Think of James O’Rourke, one of the most distinguished patrons of the arts and promoters of the arts, and one of the most educated people one could ever imagine. And consider that parts of the sale will consist of action figures like GI Joe. Where did that come from? And “Star Wars.” Things I never imagined that he would collect. But there they are.”

Rowell hopes the three sales will clear “many tens of thousands of dollars” to benefit the museum.

So if you need an Arkansas Razorbacks red plastic pig hat, a wooden child’s bathtub from England, a 1920s “Hoosier” cabinet or a carved monkey end table, head on over to James O’Rourke’s old place.

And if you don’t see what you want this time, don’t despair.

“We aren’t done yet,” Marx said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583