Art collection goes on sale in Absecon

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A group of 138 paintings by William E. Lee will be auctioned off by Absecon Public Schools Sunday, Feb. 24. A group of 138 paintings by William E. Lee will be auctioned off by Absecon Public Schools Sunday, Feb. 24.

ABSECON _ Local school district officials are preparing to auction off 138 paintings they received from a mysterious artist in the mid-1970s. “It’s a mystery,” explains current School Board Member and Absecon Historical Society vice-president Gerald Hoenes. “We just don’t know too much about him.”

In 1975, the school district received 168 oil based paintings from the estate of William Estell Lee, a recluse who spent the final years of his life painting and writing poems in a two-room cabin in the backwoods of Boone, N.C.

The public may view the paintings between 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, in the cafetorium of the AbseconPublic School complex, 800 Ireland Ave., Hoenes said. The auction begins at 3 p.m.

“We really don’t know why he left the paintings to the school district,” Hoenes said. “Why not leave them to Atlantic City? It’s a mystery to us.”

Clutching a folder bursting with documents, photos and letters, Hoenes surmised that Lee’s parents were from Atlantic City. His father was born in 1879 and Lee was born here in 1898. Soon the family moved to Michigan.

“I’ve done a Google search of him and nothing comes up,” Hoenes said.

The only clue could come from a photograph that shows Lee with a relative that came from an Absecon photographer at least 50 years ago.

The paintings range in scope from calendar-sized works to wall paintings, said Tina Davisson, school district business administrator. “They are paintings of people and landscapes.”

Lee crafted most of the paintings between 1966-1972 with a couple dating back to 1952 and 1959, Davisson said.

“People could be buying a masterpiece,” Hoenes said with a smile. “We just don’t know.”

“There is no record that Lee ever tried to see his paintings at a public sale,” Davisson said. “Who knows what he did with them while he was alive?”

Some of the paintings were hung inside the schools, while others were hung in the city’s other municipal buildings, including the library and city hall, Davisson said.

At one time, his work lined the walls of the school library, she said.

However, the paintings were kept in storage in recent years.

“If they remain there, they may deteriorate to the point that we will have to just throw them out,” Hoenes said. “So it’s better to sell them to someone who can use them.”

The school district needed to auction off the photos to comply with state laws, Hoenes said.

The paintings range in scope from calendar-sized works to wall paintings, Davisson said. “They are paintings of people and landscapes.”

They were appraised to have starting bids between $50 and $250, she said.

Lee always admired the arts, but never enthusiastically perused painting until late in life, according to Hoenes.

Much of what anybody knows about Lee was written by three of his students in the days after Lee died following a stroke in October 1974.

When he was 16, Lee joined the Marines and served in World War II. After a 16-year military career, he worked as a civil servant in Washington, D.C. He also toured Caribbean, taking the photographs that he would someday use as the subjects of his painting.

When he retired in 1958, he placed a red pin on a map of the United States. The map landed near Boone, N.C. and where Lee would spend the rest of his life.

The students wrote that Lee just wanted to be left alone to enjoy painting and write poetry.

After he realized that he would never be able to recover from the stroke to be well enough to paint again, he gave up the will to live, the students wrote. He died two days later.

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