CLIFTON FORGE, VA. — Every antiques dealer, collector, curator and antiquarian dreams of finding a diamond in the rough. Nicely’s Auction Company did.
On July 19, the firm gaveled down a Shenandoah Valley of Virginia food safe for $102,500, a record at auction for the form, to New Market, Va., antiques dealer Burt Long. The safe was subsequently acquired by Kurt C. Russ, co-curator of “Safes of The Valley,” an exhibition on view at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley through March 2015, and private collector Richard Neel.
The auction drew a crowd of more than 400 people. According to Nicely’s, there were nine active bidders — four on the phone and five in the room.
“This punched tin and paneled cupboard is the earliest, best documented and, most likely, the most historically important food safe in America,” Russ told Antiques and The Arts Weekly. A former director of Washington and Lee University’s Anthropology Laboratory, Russ learned several months ago that the iconic piece had resurfaced and would be sold. It needs some minor conservation (some moldings were poorly replaced) and overall cleaning, he said. Russ had hoped to spend considerably less but was nevertheless delighted with the acquisition.
The saga began when Nicely’s Auction was asked to appraise property from the estate of Hattie M. Knick by Knick’s daughter, Lana Harlow. After listing all items inside the farmhouse, Nicely’s co-owner Gail Nicely and staff member Sheila Staggs proceeded to the outbuildings. There they found the safe.
The cabinet dates to the 1820s and is from the Kahle-Henson shop of Lexington, Va. It had been known to antiquarians since at least 1938, when Marion Nicholl Rawson wrote about it in Candle Day Art. Rawson described the cabinet as having been made for George Armentrout, owner of a tavern near Covington, Va.
The graceful piece with delicately tapered legs survives in relatively untouched condition. Made of yellow pine and poplar, it retains its old, dry surface of blue paint. Twelve white-painted panels initialed “JH” are punch-decorated with profile portraits of Andrew Jackson and the inscriptions “G. Armentrout” And “Hero! of Orleans.”
Jackson defeated the British at New Orleans in 1815, a pivotal battle in the War of 1812. Armentrout expressed his support and admiration for Jackson during his 1824 presidential bid by commissioning and displaying this bold, unique item, a precursor of modern campaign memorabilia.
In addition to organizing “Safes in The Valley,” Russ and Jeffrey S. Evans are the authors of The Kahle-Henson School of Punched-Tin Paneled Furniture, published by Chipstone Foundation in the 2012 volume of American Furniture. According to the authors, cabinetmaker Matthew S. Kahle (1800–1869) and London-trained tinsmith John Henson (active 1819–after 1831) worked together in Lexington, Va., and are known to have made several similar pieces. One safe by the men is decorated with an image of Lady Liberty. Several bear the likeness of George Washington.
Nicely’s, which does not charge a buyer’s premium, is based in Eagle Rock, Va. For information, www.nicelysauctionco.com, 540-862-0714 or 540-968-2568.