Paintings of King Charles Spaniels and Other Treasures From the Estate of John McCain’s Late Mother Sold for Nearly $100,000 at Auction

Roberta McCain, who died at age 108 last year, was an avid collector of objects both expensive and cheap. 

Portrait of Roberta McCain (1912 - 2020) as she poses in her apartment, Washington DC, February 18, 2000. Photo by Ron Sachs/CNP/Getty Images.

When Roberta McCain, the mother of the late senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, died last year at age of 108, she left behind a lot of stuff.

Roberta McCain, it turns out, was an avid collector of antiques, trinkets, and art, most of which she collected during her travels (and, as the wife of a navy man, there were a lot of travels). Last Friday, 100 objects from McCain’s estate hit the auction block in the first of two sales at Sloans and Kenyon auction house, just outside of Washington, DC. Among the highlights were pieces of vintage jewelry (McCain preferred gold pieces with colored stones); silver (boxes, silverware, tea sets); and several paintings. 

“She bought what she liked, what spoke to her,” Stephanie Kenyon, owner of the auction house, tells Artnet News. “This is a woman who was well traveled and appreciated beauty in many different forms.”

All 107 lots from the auction sold, with 40 exceeding their pre-sale estimates. (Some buyers were on sight, but most bid online.) All told, the event brought in just over $97,000.

Stephanie Kenyon, of Sloans & Kenyon Auctioneers and Appraisers, auctions a collection of fine jewelry, silver and paintings that are part of The Roberta Wright McCain Collection on February 19, 2021. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The Roberta Wright McCain Collection on February 19, 2021. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Joe McCain, the youngest of Roberta’s three children, approached Kenyon with the idea of the sale last year. The auctioneer spent five days going through all of the late collector’s possessions. 

“It was a grand old Washington apartment,” says Kenyon, “but inviting, friendly. Very good vibes.”

By all accounts, McCain gave off the same impression: a product of Washington’s starchier days who was nevertheless unafraid to speak her mind or let her personality show. Just watch this tour of her home she gave to reporters in 2008, when her son was running for president. In it, she brags about the low prices for which she was able to score pieces of furniture, all but skipping over rare artifacts from Korea and China that were undoubtedly worth more. It’s like an episode of MTV Cribs filmed at your grandmother’s house.

“I bought that carpet over there for $20 in a junk shop,” she says at one point in the video. 

Anders Zorn, <i>Self-Portrait of Artist Painting Nude</i> (c. 1900). Courtesy of Sloans & Kenyon.

Anders Zorn, Self-Portrait of Artist Painting Nude (c. 1900). Courtesy of Sloans and Kenyon.

The priciest offering at last Friday’s sale was a small self-portrait by Swedish painter Anders Zorn, which the auction house estimated to be worth $50,000-$100,000. (Other paintings by Zorn have eclipsed the million-dollar mark at auction 16 different times, according to the Artnet Price Database.) It went for $21,300 to an Arizona man who bought it because he was a fan of his state’s former senator.

Paintings depicting Mt. Hood, Rome’s colosseum, the Scottish landscape, and a pair of King Charles Spaniels were also included in the sale, albeit at much lower price points. (Of these, the colosseum piece sold for the most—$2,500.)

A painting of the Colosseum in Rome by unknown 19th century artist. Courtesy of Sloans & Kenyon.

A painting of the Colosseum in Rome by unknown 19th century artist. Courtesy of Sloans and Kenyon.

The daughter of an oil baron, McCain left her home state of Oklahoma to study at the University of Southern California, where she met and soon married John S. McCain Jr., a young navy ensign who would eventually become a four-star admiral. The couple would spend the next four decades traveling throughout Europe and Asia with McCain Jr.’s job. along the way, Roberta made a habit of picking up souvenirs, which she would often stow on the command ship.

“She would go to a city, then go into an antique shop,” Joe McCain told the Washington Post.

After her husband died in 1981, Roberta again dedicated her life to travel, embarking on two weeks-long trips a year with her twin sister. She died last October at her home in Washington. 

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