Charles Thiele Jr. remembers tagging along as his parents combed through rustic East Coast antique shops in the days when their dark, musty corners often yielded genuine treasures.
So what was this family, whose house on River Road in Lewiston commanded a splendid view of the Lower Niagara River, searching for so far from home? Why, even more splendid views of the river and Niagara Falls in prints, books and plates made by some of the first artists to have seen the mighty waterway.
Over time, Thiele, an original partner in the architectural firm that became Cannon Design, and his wife, Helen, both now deceased, bought about 150 engravings. Some prints date from the 1700s, making them among the earliest known renderings of the falls and the river from Buffalo to Fort Niagara.
About 126 of them will go on the block at 7 this evening in the R.W. Bronstein auction house, 4049 Delaware Ave., Town of Tonawanda. The collection will be available for viewing at 6. There is also a Web site: www.Bronstein.net/Engravings.
A Niagara Falls native who now raises and trains thoroughbreds in Fort Louden, Pa., Charles Jr. wanted to return the prints to their point of origin. He plans to donate 10 percent of the net sales to the Niagara County chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
The river and waterfalls were seldom drawn before the Erie Canal opened in the early 1800s, Charles Jr. noted. "It was basically a wilderness," he said. "Getting there was a difficult journey few people made."
Most pictures of the Niagara before that time were rendered by artists who had never visited the area, from descriptions provided by others.
"That's why in some prints you get very strange-looking trees sloping at a weird angle," he said. "The artists showed them all bent over because they had been told the wind blew very hard all the time."
Once canal packet boats and railroad passenger trains began bringing artists in for a firsthand look, the distortions disappeared and the vistas were accurately captured by such painters as W.H. Bartlett, Amos Sangster and Frederick Church.
The most intriguing prints in the Thiele collection are Sangster's. Only one known book of his Niagara works was published, in 1886. Fewer than 1,000 copies were printed.