Published: October 12, 2004
One of the finest pieces of furniture to have crossed the auction block over the course of this past year, a rare Boston-made bombe desk with single-family history, surfaced unexpectedly in this small New Hampshire town. The virtually untouched desk, sold at Archie Steenburgh’s auction on Tuesday, October 5, captured the attention of all of the serious American furniture dealers and collectors nationwide.
A huge crowd packed its way into the auction hall with every seat in the building taken and people were standing three-deep around the entire room. They were there, not only to watch the impressive desk sell, but to also vie for a great selection of fresh-to-the-market Americana, silver, dolls, vintage clothing and ephemera. Steenburgh, as he was about to get the sale underway, quipped to the amusement of all, that everyone was “invited to come to our on sale Saturday featuring chamber pots and commodes.”
The first lot to be offered was a three-drawer miniature dresser in original brown paint that was quickly knocked down at $1,320. A small yellow Shaker wooden pail was next at $330, followed by an exceptional Chinese export soup tureen and underplate that brought $1,210.
It was not long before the crowd readied for the bombe desk to be sold. Anticipation was high and three of Steenburgh’s workers positioned themselves in key locations on the stage where shaky cell-phone reception seemed to be best.
The desk had come down through the family of prominent Boston merchant and Revolutionary War figure John Rowe and passed eventually to descendants in the Webster family.
“I have known about the desk for about 20 years,” commented Archie Steenburgh. “It belonged to Mrs Webster, a 98-year-old New Hampshire woman who has been giving me good antiques to sell for many years.” The auctioneer commented that the desk came from her unassuming residence, which he called an “unsuspecting little bungalow.”
While Archie had known about the desk for quite some period of time, his son and co-auctioneer Joshua was floored when he saw it. “I went into the living room and couldn’t believe that something this good had remained hidden all these years,” he said.
“We took it all apart,” stated Archie, “went though it and examined it, and even with our somewhat limited knowledge of how true something is supposed to be, or should be, there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with it.”
All who examined the desk concurred. The desk was in theoriginal finish and retained the original bold brasses andauthoritative side bale handles. It was repeatedly called “as closeto all original as it could be.” Some minor repairs had been madeover the course of the last two centuries, such as the nuts beingreplaced on the back of one of the brasses, but little ofconsequence had been done that would affect the price.
The lot was accompanied by a copy of John Rowe’s diary, edited by Anne Rowe Cunningham and reprinted in 1903 by WB Clarke Co. Specific chapters in the diary referred to John Rowe having dined with John Hancock and George Washington; other chapters discussed dealing with British troops invading his store. “The history is just unbelievable,” stated Joshua.
Family lore had the desk being made in Canada by John Rowe’s brother, a Loyalist, and later shipped back to the United States when the families reunited. “I never try and dissuade people of that age,” stated the elder Steenburgh, but it was definitely a Boston-made desk.
The desk was first put on display at Steenburgh’s Labor Day auction and word of it spread like wildfire. As the ads hit the trade papers, calls from all over started coming into the gallery from all the prominent dealers. “It got attention from everywhere you would want it to,” stated Johua, and the question of the day was ‘”what are you estimating at?’ I was underselling it,” stated Archie, “and when they asked I told everyone it was going to go on the floor at $50,000 and that it would do what it would do.” The auctioneer later commented that he “honestly thought it was going to sell between $200,000 and $300,000.”
Bidding opened on the floor at $50,000 with a quick bid coming from the rear of the room at $60,000. From there the desk took off with several in the gallery getting in on the action. Pennsylvania dealer Kelly Kinzle, standing on the front right side of the room bid rapidly against two in the rear of the hall. Bids progressed in $10,000 increments and moved quickly to the $300,000 mark, where it stalled momentarily. At this point a woman in the rear of the room stepped into view and hit the lot with it bouncing back and forth till Kinzle dropped from the action at $350,000.
Three phone bidders were poised as action slowed in the hall with Woodbury dealer Wayne Pratt, New York City dealer Leigh Keno and a Greenwich, Conn., private collector all bidding by telephone. Pratt jumped into the fray and the piece was off and running again. At $400,000, Steenburgh jumped the advances to $25,000, and once again the tempo never slowed. Pratt said he “bid strongly,” but he came up short in the end as the Greenwich collector took over. Final bids bounced back and forth between the woman standing in the doorway at the rear of the auction hall and the telephone with the Greenwich collector ultimately claiming the lot at $605,000, including premium.
When told of the price the desk realized, Mrs Webster quipped, “Well, when you said it was good, I knew it was good.”
John Rowe’s red painted leather fire bucket was also included in the sale, but it was of no interest to the buyer of the desk with it selling at $2,200 to a bidder in the room.
Other rdf_Descriptions of interest included a nice cleaned Chippendale chest-on-chest that sold at $8,800 to New Hampshire dealer George Speicker of Fine Americana, a nice round-top chair table in a gray-blue paint went out at $6,490, ands a classical mahogany extension table with seven leaves realized $5,830.
A small group of Egyptian funeral urns from the McDonald estate attracted a great deal of interest. The pieces were sold along with a diary that discussed how they had been brought back to this country in 1860 by a McDonald relative. Bidding on the lot was brisk with it selling at $7,150.
A couple rdf_Descriptions that had come from Nantucket realized healthy prices with a stereoview with 40-plus cards of Nantucket scenes sold for a strong price of $2,860, and a very nice wooden bucket with lollipop handle in great old blue over white paint brought $770.
Dick Withington was active from his front row perch buying a nicely decorated porcelain pitcher and bowl at $330, and a large Staffordshire platter at $220.
Other rdf_Descriptions included a Chinese export bowl with tiger decoration at $2,420, a banjo clock at $2,310 and two documents relating to Fort Ticonderoga at $2,200.
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