Published: October 23, 2001
By Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY – Dealers complained that there wasn’t much to buy at the fall Americana sales in New York; not much, anyway, that was fresh, exciting and reasonably estimated. Whether it was that or the outbreak of war just days before, sales were markedly off from last year’s boisterous high. Christie’s sparsely attended various owners sale on October 12 dropped 44 percent in dollar volume from a year ago, from $3,055,268 to $1,586,460. Even including the Crawford Collection, which warranted its own session and catalog, Sotheby’s sales were down 40 percent, from $5,604,735 to $3,363,660. The average price per lot at both houses dropped from $20,817 to $10,190.
But there was good news, too. “The market is still strong for great material, there just wasn’t a lot of great material,” said New York dealer Guy Bush. While others in the trade said that they had picked up bargains, New York dealer Frank Levy pointed out that important rdf_Descriptions that had been unknown to the market did quite well.
At Christie’s, that included a Philadelphia William and Mary chest of drawers of about 1720-30. Estimated at $30,000 to $50,000, it sold to Alan Miller. The Quakertown, Penn., furniture consultant and conservator bid $204,000 on behalf of a client. The chest is thought to be from the shop of John Head, a Quaker who is known to have created a high chest and dressing table for Caspar Wistar around 1726. The cabinetmaker’s account book remains at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
“We made a stab at buying it,” confessed Jack L. Lindsey, curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “A private donor agreed to bid to what we thought was a justifiable price. There is a group of four slant-front desks that all have that small bracket base and ball foot. One is promised to the museum. Two of those desks changed hands in the last five years for $95,000. There is a single maple chest of drawers of comparable period that doesn’t have the shaped bracket but does have ball feet. It sold in that range, too, so we couldn’t see going much higher.”
As noted in the catalogue, the maple top of the chest is affixed to a pine sub-top with screws. Four windows in the sub-top allowed the application of glueblocks. In addition, a tightly spaced row of glueblocks connected to the rear overhang of the top to the back of the chest. Given the ambiguousness of its construction, there were differences of opinion on the original intent of the cabinetmaker as well as on the current condition of the piece.
“I think the top is fine, but it has been off the chest,” argued Lindsey, whose book Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania is an essential reference. The curator believes that because the top was glued to the secondary wood, it popped off over time. “It looks like whoever tried to repair it cut four to six inch windows and used the cut-throughs as anchors for the glueblocks. That failed as well, so the piece was a little weird.”
Lindsey continued, “On the front board of the secondary top there was this unexplained series of secondary nail holes. When you upended the chest, there were nail holes on the bottom of the chest on a corresponding board. Not enough has survived from John Head’s shop to be certain that this single chest is by him. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a turned leg high chest and dressing table mentioned in his day book. They are the only documented pieces. There are nail holes on the inside drawer faces of the high chest. There are also are nail holes on one of the desks attributed to Head, so maybe Head was reusing lumber.”
Miller forwarded a different theory to explain the top. “Conceptually, the piece seems to be the base of a chest-on-chest. The dimensions are similar to a high-chest base by Head that my wife and I own,” said the conservator. “However, the piece we bought never had an upper case. The proof of that is that it never had an upper stage waist molding. So, I don’t know what happened when it was being made. Maybe the maker changed his mind, or maybe he simply decided to make a chest that was the size of a chest-on-chest base.”
The conservator continued, “The second question was whether the top was original. I did not think so. The reason has to do both with tool technology and with the wood. It was maple, but it looked different than the rest of the case.”
Miller said that, even with a replaced top, the chest warranted $204,000. “It is something we never would have imagined if it hadn’t turned up. The chamfered corners on the case add a sculptural quality to it that’s amazing, and the reddish maple and the brasses are very beautiful. We began to think that using other William and Mary chests as price comparisons was inappropriate. We think this is more on par with the Salem, Mass., chest of drawers that sold at Skinner in June for $189,500.”
There was also substantial interest in a blocked and shell-carved slant-front desk from Norwich, Conn. It fell short of its high estimate of $500,000, going to C.L. Prickett Antiques in Yardley, Penn., for what was nevertheless a substantial price, $314,000. “It is an important desk and a nice form,” Clarence Prickett said later. “The brasses aren’t original, but that’s not major. It could have gone for a lot more.”
Christie’s cover lot, a Philadelphia Chippendale mahogany dressing table attributed to Thomas Tufft, circa 1770, sold to an anonymous bidder for $132,500 (est. $60/90,000). The piece closely resembles a labeled dressing table belonging to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Leading sales of Boston furniture was a Boston Chippendale mahogany slant-lid desk with a blocked front. Made circa 1770-90, it descended in the family of the Bishop Hibbert Binney and Mary Bliss, both descendants of loyalists who emigrated to Nova Scotia in the second half of the Eighteenth Century. The handsome piece sold to an anonymous bidder for $47,000 (est $40/60,000).
A chest-on-chest with a swan’s neck pediment and fluted pilasters was a good buy at $23,500, selling to a collector against an estimate of $20/40,000. The Massachusetts piece of circa 1760-90 descended in the Chandler family of Worcester. A Federal mahogany veneered cylinder desk, possibly the work of John or Thomas Seymour, circa 1805, did about as expected, bringing in a bid of $19,975.
The most expensive piece of Boston cabinetry was an Aaron Willard tall clock with domed hood; a painted, moonphase dial; stop-fluted colonettes and fluted quarter columns; and a line-inlaid case over bracket feet. It sold to a collector for $70,500 (est.0 $60/80,000).
Two notable New York pieces included an Eighteenth Century New York easy chair with carved knees, ball-and-claw feet, and block-and-ring turned stretchers. It handily exceeded estimate, selling to the trade for $22,325 (est. $5/8,000). Ex-collection of New York dealer Carswell Rush Berlin, a giltwood looking glass (est $20/30,000), brought $17,625. The elegant example is surmounted by three urns, pinecone finials, and bellflower swags.
One of the sale’s biggest surprises was a Gothic Revival mahogany hall stand with pierced carvings, mirror plate, and brass ornaments. Though the maker is unknown, the piece shows some signs of being by either Meeks or Thomas Brooks, both New York cabinetmakers. The hall stand is known to have resided in Ravensworth, the summer home of General Charles Lane Fitzhugh in Coburg, Canada. This full-blown example of Gothic style easily exceeded expectations, selling to an institution for $39,950.
Post-1820 furniture included a Boston Classical carved mahogany sideboard, under the money at $9,400; and a stamped Herter Brothers tall chest that was vaguely Art Nouveau in flavor, $2,350 (est $4/6,000). More successful was a carved and veneered marble top center table attributed to Anthony Quervelle of Philadelphia, $15,275 (est $8/12,000).
Topping the paintings category was an rdf_Description of historical interest, “Assault on Fort Sumter, 7 April 1863. ” The 25- by 34 ¾ -inch oil on canvas by A. Grinevald sold to a dealer for $94,000 (est $40/60,000). The fort assumed strategic and symbolic importance after South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union in December 1860. Confederate troops had secured Fort Sumter in 1861. This painting depicts the Union’s attempt to get it back in 1863. Known locally, Grinevald advertised Carolinian views to a Charleston audience.
A portrait of a New Haven man born in 1738, Isaac Jones, sold to Alan Miller on behalf of a client for $28,200. Attributed to Joseph Badger, it had hung the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco from 1958 until consigned by a family member. The auction included a handful of ships’ portraits by Antonio Jacobsen. “Saratoga,” an oil on canvas of 1879, brought $19,975; “Cienfuegos,” dated 1903, fetched $14,000; and “Great Western,” one of six versions completed between 1911 and 1917, brought $10,575.
“Barn Dance,” by the Twentieth Century primitive painter Charles Wysocki was a startling success at $18,800. Also surprising was the appeal of a small pencil on paper study attributed to Edward Hicks. Found in a bible belonging to a member the Plymouth Meeting, the sketch of a lion and an ox left the room at $16,450 (est $10/15,000). A Pennsylvania tall clock with a flamboyantly inlaid case and a dial whose painted face was attributed to Edward Hicks sold for $9,400, far less than its $20/30,000 estimate.
Forty-two lots failed to sell. Among them was a Federal New York mahogany card table with a serpentine front, ovolo corners and fleur de-lis and crown; est. $30/50,000; an inlaid walnut blanket chest, possibly from Lancaster County, est. $20/30,000; a Pennsylvania cherrywood chest of drawers est. $12/18,000; a cherry tall-case clock, its dial signed by Nathaniel Mulliken of Lexington, Mass., est. $15/25,000; a Maryland cylinder desk-and-bookcase, circa 1790-1810, est. $20/30,000; and a New England slant front desk, est. $12/18,000.
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