New York — At an auction Saturday morning in Manhattan, Diana Atwood Johnson landed the bird she was looking for, an illustration of tree swallows by the famous naturalist and illustrator Roger Tory Peterson for $2,200.
The swallows, Atwood Johnson of Old Lyme explained, were especially prized by her because the birds are native to the lower Connecticut River and nearby Goose Island, where they gather each August before they migrate for the winter.
Atwood Johnson, who formerly owned the Old Lyme Inn where Peterson and his wife were regulars, said that it was Peterson who alerted her to the swirling motion the flock of swallows make during their migratory preparations.
"It's like a tornado of swallows," she said.
It was that love of Peterson, whose famous field guides helped to popularize the hobby of birding and advanced the conservation movement, that drew a crowd to the Arader Galleries on the Upper East Side for an auction of his paintings, drawings and other items from his estate.
Approximately 40 people attended the auction, facilitated by Guernsey Auctioneers and Brokers, but several others bid online or by proxies over the telephone.
"It is a privilege to do this, I want you to know that," Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey, told potential bidders before the auction. "This is more than just business as usual."
Graham Arader, the gallery owner, was effusive in his praise of Peterson, and told the room of bidders to take note of the history being made Saturday.
"This is something you'll tell your grandchildren about," Arader said. "This will never happen again."
Linda and Mimi Westervelt, Peterson's stepdaughters, put his collection up for auction — which included some of his first paintings done as teenager, as well as his cameras and binoculars — but not without controversy.
The Roger Tory Peterson Institute in the artist's hometown of Jamestown, N.Y., where 65 percent of his work resides, objected to the sale. But a 2009 court case decided the Westervelt sisters owned his collection.
Representatives from the Peterson Institute told The Day last week they hope some of the winning bidders will bequeath their purchases to the institute.
Bidding got under way shortly after 10 a.m., with auctioneer Joanne Grant launching into her mesmerizing cadences, asking for $1,000 for a drawing of two ducks, that launched up to $4,000.
Grant injected a moment of levity in the auction when several bidders noted that one piece, dubbed appropriately enough, "Confusing Warblers," was misidentified.
"One thing is for sure," Grant said. "You all know for sure."
Some of the pieces in Peterson's collection, such as the warblers drawings, sold for $10,000.
A striking depiction of California condors sold for $8,000.
Peterson's binoculars and camera sold for $800 and $500 respectively.
Ettinger said a grand total of the auction's sales would not be available on Saturday.
Peterson's connection to Old Lyme, where he lived from 1952 until his death in 1996, was cause for several local residents to make the trip to New York Saturday.
Atwood Johnson, who also purchased a plate of an osprey, said she got to know Peterson when he would come for dinner at the Old Lyme Inn. She recalled him as "focused, intense" man.
"He was tall with a great shock of white in his hair," Atwood Johnson said.
Atwood Johnson's husband, John Johnson, chairman of the local organizing committee for the region's OpSail celebration this past summer, also attended, looking for Peterson pieces to display at his Gallery at Firehouse Square art space in downtown New London.
"It's a pretty unique sale," Johnson said. "It would be good for New London to have something of Peterson's prominence there."
Kristen Widham of Waterford said it was the Peterson field guides that enhanced her love of the natural world.
"I have a deep respect for him," Widham said.
Peterson also was a key influence on local wildlife artist Robert Brawnfield of Hadlyme, who purchased a plate from "Birds of Mexico."
Brawnfield said that Peterson was active at a fortuitous time, when personal use of cameras and binoculars started to become common, which added to the popularity of birding.
"It was a confluence that happened at the right time," Brawnfield said.
He said he enjoyed talking with other Peterson enthusiasts at the auction.
"We all grew up with him," Brawnfield said. "We all had his book in our back pocket, so when you see a plate of 'Confusing Warblers,' it's iconic."