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Friends, students gather for auction of minister’s treasures

Sale brings back memories of the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Harvard minister’s antiques were on sale at Grogan & Company.

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

At an auction of the Rev. Peter J. Gomes’s antiques collection, people inspected his china.

DEDHAM - The crowd - in bowties, horn-rimmed glasses, and tweed jackets - mingled amid the empire giltwood mirrors, classical busts, silk upholstered settees, and oil portraits of British royalty.

These were the items that the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the renowned Harvard minister, orator, and theologian, spent a lifetime acquiring, as he haunted the antique stores of Beacon Hill, Essex, and Groton, and made the occasional road trip to Hudson, N.Y.

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For years, they filled Sparks House, his home in Cambridge, and the site of his cherished Wednesday afternoon teas with undergraduates, and Oceanside, his home in Plymouth.

On Saturday, they were sold at auction, in an event that was part Harvard reunion, bittersweet memorial service, and tribute to an unabashed Anglophile’s lifelong passion for history and collecting.

“It’s very odd to see all this because you expect to see Peter sitting in that chair, saying, ‘Come. Sit down here,’ ’’ said Trevor Potter, a former student of Gomes, who, when not perusing Victorian armchairs, is the lawyer for Stephen Colbert’s super PAC.

The auction, at Grogan & Company, drew friends who had known Gomes as a child in Plymouth, former students who had listened to him preach at Memorial Church, and a few who had no connection to the man but wanted a piece of his estate.

Or, as Alison Clarkson, a former student and friend of Gomes, said upon bursting into the auction house: “Gomes’ groupies! Gomes’ groupies are here from Vermont!’’

‘[Gomes’s] guiding philosophy was: no matter where you looked in a room, your eyes should fall on something lovely.’

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Clarkson, a state legislator from Woodstock, said she had her eye on a few items for her children, particularly her son, Ward, who had been baptized by Gomes.

“We’ve lived with these things for many, many years, and so it’s surreal,’’ she said. “Our children, they all want a little piece of Uncle Peter. So they want bowties, they want busts, or Victoriana. Uncle Peter loved Victoriana.’’

Gomes, who died last year at the age of 68, was known as a boundary-breaking figure: a gay, African-American minister and descendant of slaves who reveled in Colonial history and called himself an Afro-Saxon.

The items he collected - Georgian clocks, silver tea service, inkwells, Oriental rugs - reflected his fascination with British and early American history, an interest that was sparked in him as a boy growing up near the fabled landing site of the Mayflower in Plymouth.

“I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in things and their arrangement,’’ he wrote in an essay, “Unruly Passion for Things,’’ that was published in Nest magazine. “For all my sentient life, I have entered a room and rearranged it according to my fancy and, alas, I tend to judge people at first sight, not upon their manner, physical appearance, or the quality of their discourse, but rather on how they arrange the space in which they live.’’

He rejected the idea that there might be a conflict between living a holy life and surrounding oneself with sumptuous antiquities, writing that “it is beauty that affirms the presence of God.’’ And, he wrote, “collecting is the ultimate redistribution of wealth and beauty.’’

Daniel Sanks, the former executive director of Memorial Church, and a frequent companion of Gomes on his antiques-hunting expeditions, said wandering amidt 19th-century furniture and artwork was, for Gomes, “about discovery.’’

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

Robert Doer of Bedford looked over the guide book for the Gomes auction.

“His guiding philosophy was: no matter where you looked in a room, your eyes should fall on something lovely,’’ said Sanks, who is now the executor of Gomes’ estate.

“He once told me, ‘If I wasn’t a minister, I might have liked to have been the head of the decorative arts department at the MFA,’’’ said John Blondel, a managing director at Goldman Sachs and former chairman of the visiting committee at Memorial Church.

Blondel, who showed up at the auction with his yellow lab, Rollo, was among those who recalled what it was like, as an undergraduate, to visit Gomes at Sparks House.

“He had joy when people came into the house,’’ Blondel said. “Hundreds and hundreds of students over time remember Sparks House.’’

Sanks said one of those former students, Governor Deval Patrick, visited Sparks House last May, immediately after testifying in the federal corruption trial of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi.

Patrick, who had eulogized Gomes a month earlier, wanted to soak in the man’s spirit one last time before his furniture and art were carted away, Sanks said. “He walked around and was teary-eyed,’’ Sanks said.

Many Saturday were also emotional as they watched Gomes’s lamps, vases, and candlesticks sold off, one by one.

“It’s hard, and it’s upsetting, but I know it has to happen,’’ said Linda Tassinari, a lifelong friend, who clutched a framed photo of her and the reverend as first-graders at Mount Pleasant School in Plymouth.

The auction raised about $350,000. Gomes - the consummate man of Harvard - requested that the proceeds be donated to Bates College, where he studied as an undergraduate.

Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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