Published: January 9, 2001
A Risky Deal at Sotheby’s Goes Right
NEW YORK CITY – In a welcome story of a risky deal gone right, the discovery of bills of sale and other important evidence has confirmed the arguments of a leading scholar and rewarded the American furniture dealer who bid with conviction.
It was just about a year ago that catalogues began arriving in the mail for Sotheby’s Important Americana auction of January 20 and 21, 2000. Collectors thumbing through the back of the book were no doubt struck by 15 lots from a single consignor, the Beekman Family Association.
Among the property that had descended in one of New York’s most illustrious Anglo-Dutch families were two matching Classical sofas and 16 armchairs. According to the catalogue entry, the sofas had been made circa 1825. The date of the chairs was put at the second quarter of the Nineteenth Century. All had been on long-term loan to the New-York Historical Society.
Though the pieces had, over the years, sometimes been attributed to Duncan Phyfe, the unusual seating furniture was not what most people associated with the city’s best known cabinetmaker. For one thing, they were upholstered in French tapestry. Only a few other similarly covered pieces are known, including a pair of Federal sofas with Livingston family provenance, also at the New-York Historical Society.
In the days before the auction, many experts passed on the Beekman chairs and sofas. “I really didn’t look at them, but I don’t think they’re period,” a leading dealer confessed. Others thought that the robust pieces with lion’s paw feet, lavish gilding and ormolu mounts were, at best, a daring taste in a market where adventurousness is not always rewarded.
There was little activity in the salesroom when the Beekman suite crossed the block on Saturday afternoon. Upholstered in red tapestry, the first sofa sold to Frank Levy of Bernard & S. Dean Levy for $25,000 plus premium, a relatively modest price in a world where a documented equivalent by Phyfe or Leaner might have brought ten times as much. Having won the first sofa, the Manhattan dealer persisted, purchasing the second sofa, upholstered in green tapestry, for $15,000. Six lots later, Levy had acquired all but two chairs, for $250,000 plus premium. The remaining two chairs sold to another buyer, a well-known New York collector of Nineteenth Century furniture, for $60,000 plus premium.
“We were thrilled with sale results,” says Leslie Keno, a senior vice president at Sotheby’s. “These were cutting-edge pieces. They made an extremely bold statement. I think they did really well. Still, this period has a lot of room to grow.”
Levy had first inspected the Beekman furniture in the New-York Historical Society’s warehouse in the mid-1990s. “I was intrigued by what I saw,” says the dealer. “First, I was struck by the fabric, then the form, and the amount of carving. They sort of floored me. I believed they were Phyfe or a contemporary, but later, maybe 1830-40.”
Levy thought that the Beekman pieces were wonderful and confidently hoped to buy them. “We were prepared to go to $100,000 for the first sofa, so when we got it for $25,000 hammer, I thought I might as well go after the rest. The first lot of four chairs had new underupholstery. We bought them for $90,000. The next set of four chairs had original underupholstery and went for $45,000. The last pair we bought went for $74,000. The numbers were bizarre. Herd mentality kicks in on pieces as different as these.”
After the auction, 14 chairs and two sofas were removed to the Levys’ warehouse. Investigation resumed on the group that several years before had been studied by Philip Zimmerman, an independent curator and furniture broker from Lancaster, Penn. Hired by the New-York Historical Society in 1992 to evaluate its decorative arts collections, Zimmerman had since 1993 been arguing the importance of the Beekman suite. He was sure he was right.
“The suite had been looked at by a series of curatorial experts. Basically, they had no idea what they were,” says Zimmerman, recalling his first encounter with the chairs. “We knew that they were Beekman family and assumed that they were Nineteenth Century. Esther Singleton had illustrated them in The Furniture of Our Forefathers (1913), where they had been misidentified as being about 1760.”
“I believed that they were early Nineteenth century and that their French tapestry covers were original,” Zimmerman continues. “I started on that premise and began to look into them a little more carefully. I didn’t have time to do the manuscript research. I was in charge of the deaccessioning program. Others were hired to go through the institution’s records scrupulously, to establish ownership.
“My recommendation was that the Beekman sofas and chairs be kept,” the consultant says. “I thought then, and still think, that they are important and should be worked into our understanding of furniture history. I have always used the date of 1820. There was a family recollection in the New-York Historical Society files that I read with credibility. It was a date that, from my perspective, fit everything physically in the chairs.”
Another who had grown interested in the furniture was Elizabeth Bidwell Bates, a cultural historian who is most widely known as Jonathan Fairbanks’ co-author on the 1981 book, American Furniture: 1620 to the Present. Today Bates is an independent scholar living on New York’s Upper West Side, an adjunct professor at the Parsons School of Design and a museum consultant. Bates is the kind of avid researcher upon whom decorative arts scholarship relies. Since 1984, she has been working with the Morris Jumel Mansion. “They are just about to finish a room that George Washington actually did sleep in. I’ve researched it to a fare-thee-well.”
Over the years, Bates has become intimately acquainted with New York’s leading families, including the Jumels, the Morrises, and the Livingstons. “I was working my way through all the papers. All the good stuff you get from primary sources,” she says with unconcealed gusto.
“Last January, the Beekman furniture came up for sale and the pooh-poohing was resounding. Everyone was standing around talking and no one was looking at the darn chairs. I raced over to the New-York Historical Society and starting checking the various card files for the Beekmans. They were squirrelly, but rich. I thought I’d find something.” Several weeks after auction, Bates had not only confirmed the date of the furniture as 1819-1820, but had identified its maker, John Banks of Beekman Street in New York.
“I started backwards as is my custom,” the researcher explains. “My first real break was 1898, when the Beekmans bought tapestries from an Italian firm that was obviously shipping to the nouveau houses in New York. The next document I found was from 1847. James W. Beekman had the tapestry sofas repaired. Then there was a huge fight in the family. I dove into the legal papers and, sure enough, James claims he was defrauded of a tapestry sofa, eight chairs, and three pink silk curtains. This was in the early 1830s. Then I went back to James’s records and found the bill for the construction and upholstery of the first set of furniture, in 1819.”
Beckman’s order was for a square Grecian sofa and eight chairs. Tapestries had been purchased at auction in 1818 and the furniture was made to fit. Bates found a second receipt, for the partial payment for a second set of sofa and chairs, also by Banks. The receipt is dated January 1820. The furniture was all purchased around the time that Beckman was building an octagon wing on his grand country house, Mount Pleasant.
Beckman died without issue, leaving the furniture to his nephew, James W. Beckman. James the Inheritor, as Bates has dubbed him, put a new dining room on his house in the 1850s and threw a lavish party for his daughter Katie on her eighteenth birthday. But despite extensive records of his expenditures, there is no evidence suggesting that the tapestry furniture sold at Sotheby’s was any other than that made in 1819-20. Bates’ last piece of evidence was a transcribed note from Katie Hill, who went to work for James and Lydia Beckman in 1817. “She notes the tapestries and says the chairs were made to fit them,” Bates says with satisfaction.
“I feel very confident that we have documented these pieces,” says the researcher, for whom a few questions remain. For one, what became of the upholsterer William Denny, who is listed in the directory for 1819, but not in 1820? Who upholstered the second set of furniture. What became of John Banks, who is remembered for a labeled, stenciled table at Winterthur; a piece at the Huguenot Historical Society in New Paltz, N.Y.,and a third rdf_Description auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1981.
Zimmerman, meanwhile, had made an interesting discovery of his own. In February, accompanied by conservator Ridgely Kelly of Maryland, the consultant had four chairs x-rayed and discovered doweled construction in them all. “On one set, dowels are used to secure the crest rail to the rear stiles. It is the roll of the crest rails that I have postulated as one of the reasons for needing dowels instead of tenons. On that set of chairs, we also found dowels joining the arms to the arm supports. On the other set, we found another dowel in the arm to the arm support, but none in the crest rail. This is new woodworking technology in American furniture,” Zimmerman says.
After the auction, some of the chairs were sent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for study. The furniture is of interest to curator Peter Kenny, an expert on New York craftsmanship who organized “Honore Lannuier: Cabinetmaker from Paris” in 1998. Kenny hosted a furniture study day on December 12, inviting members of the Met’s curatorial and conservation staffs, plus a few outside scholars, among them Phil Zimmerman and Elizabeth Bates, to present their findings. The day focused on early Nineteenth Century New York seating furniture with tapestry showcovers, their makers, and their owners.
“The most striking thing about the two sets, which are very similar at first glance, is that different carving hands are clearly distinguishable,” says Marijn Manuels, a MMA furniture conservator who spoke to the gathering. “The techniques used in the construction, but also for the carving, gilding and vert antique that are part of the decoration of each set, confirm that they are definitely two separate entities. What is fascinating is that the Beekman furniture is a very well-documented example that the working methods within a single workshop can be very inconsistent, even when the pieces are produced so closely together in time.”
The use of dowels, says Manuels, “forced us to adjust our prior opinion. What experts have generally said is that if you find dowels in furniture it could not originate from before the mid-Nineteenth Century. Here we find an example from 1819 or 1820 that incorporates dowels as original structural elements.” He adds, “The use of dowels this early in the Nineteenth Century is not unprecedented. You do find that Phyfe used dowels as early as 1810 if the construction asked for it, as we have documented in his curule-based chairs.” The early use of dowels is also supported by published sources, among them an 1818 New York price book , an 1828 Philadelphia price book , and an 1831 Washington, D.C. price book.
Larger questions remain about the tapestry showcovers, which are difficult to date with precision and which may or may not be the first set applied. An earlier set of nail holes and later underupholstery on some of the furniture are possibly explained by the bill that Bates found showing that the furniture had been repaired in 1840. On the other hand, Bates also found records of two tapestry purchases, in 1818 and 1898.
Nancy Britton, an upholstery conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has resisted coming to any quick conclusion. She cautions that she has only looked at four chairs and her battery of physical testing is not yet complete.
“The tapestries were confusing to me,” she admits. “It became clear that there were two sets of furniture. The underupholstery had been completely redone on some of the chairs, sometime post-Civil War. Not only were there two sets, but the red and green tapestry had been mixed across them.”
Britton believes that the red tapestries were not original to the Beekman furniture. “One of the red tapestries was on one of the chairs that was completely redone. And there is only one set of tack holes in the red set. I can see that the red set was cut down,” she notes. “The green tapestry is a little trickier. I’m feeling more and more that it is not original, though it may have been the remains of the first set.”
As Zimmerman sees it, the Beekman furniture raises three general questions. “The first is about chronologies based on technique, the whole issue of the dowel. The second question is about the presence of different sets of furniture in the same living space. For years I have been developing information on historical pairs, as opposed to identical pairs. We see historical pairs in the Cadwalader commode card tables, the Livingstons sofas, the Beekman card tables, and the Beekman chairs. What did consistency mean to the owners of this furniture as opposed to people today? The third question this raises is about French tapestries, namely, how do you date them?”
Help dating tapestries are sometimes found in studying their design sources, as Starr Siegele, an expert in prints and drawings, demonstrated in her presentation. “It is in itself an area of immense study,” notes Britton. “The backs of the red and green sofas are almost identical, but their borders are very different. I have research letters out to colleagues in Europe to get their views on these two sets. We are also doing dye analysis. Many people don’t realize how complex textiles are.”
The fascinating tale of the French tapestry-covered furniture made for a wealthy New York family by a little known cabinetmaker is one that scholars who participated in the recent study day would like to see in print. “We want to produce a book that documents the tapestry covers and illustrates construction details, bills of sale, and the finish stratification,” says Zimmerman, who has secured the interest of a non-profit publisher and is now looking for funding to support publication costs. He encourages anyone interested in supporting the project to call him at 717/390-9818.
In honor of their 100th anniversary in the field of American antiques, the Levys recently made a gift of one of the Beekman chairs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The chair is a ringing tribute to the prominent family that commissioned it, to the furniture consultant who took an interest in it, to the dealer courageous enough to buy it, to the researcher who plowed through papers to document it, and to the curators and conservators whose learned contributions have opened a complex topic for further discussion.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm