Published: October 22, 2002
By Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY — Seth Thayer came to the fall Americana sales in New York to buy one key lot but left with another. “I was in the right place at the right time,” says Thayer, a Northport, Maine-based decorative arts consultant who at Christie’s acquired a robustly carved Delaware Valley high chest of drawers for $119,500 including premium, well below its presale estimate of $200/300,000.
Thayer had an added edge in that he was only one of about two dozen bidders attending the October 9 auction of furniture, silver, prints and folk art, which generated $1,352,806 on 277 lots offered, leaving 84 lots, or 30 percent, unsold. The mixed reception and scattered prices, some dramatically higher and others lower than expected, pointed up both weaknesses and opportunities in the marketplace.
“This is a selective market. Collectors are buying carefully,” acknowledged Andrew Brunk, head of Christie’s department of American furniture and decorative arts. “People are looking for top-level property. Finding it is the challenge for dealers and auctioneers. We’re still selling things in the middle market, but it’s the great pieces that generate great excrdf_Descriptionent in the auction room.
“We are not going to a one-sale auction season,” Brunk continued, discounting the suggestion that October and May sales could disappear altogether as January becomes increasingly important. “People need to sell things for different reasons. Timing is an issue for some but not for others. Some objects benefit from the extra attention they might receive in a spring or fall sale. In January, so much more comes to market.”
Brunk’s apt observation certainly described the sale’s top lot, a pair of beautifully articulated Philadelphia Chippendale mahogany side chairs dating to 1760-80. Acquired by the late Milwaukee collector Stanley Stone from New York dealer John Walton in 1953, the chairs, from a set illustrated in Horner’s Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture, were recently deaccessioned by the Chipstone Foundation, founded by Stone and his wife. Estimated $100/150,000, the chairs sold to a dealer bidding by phone for $130,500, a little less than some in the trade expected. “They may not be museum chairs, but they are top of the line collector chairs,” said one dealer who attended the sale. “They have gone in the $150/175,000 range.”
Jonathan Prown, Chipstone’s executive director, explained his institution’s decision to sell. “Because we are small, we are trying to grow the collection as responsibly as we can. We already have a number of Philadelphia chairs and this particular carving hand is represented in our collection. We acquired a chair in 1975 that is very similar in design.” Last spring, on Chipstone’s behalf, Christie’s sold a Federal side chair attributed to Langley Boardman for a record $207,500. This coming January Christie’s will offer another 25 to 30 rdf_Descriptions deaccessioned by the institution, Brunk revealed.
While a first-hand look changed Seth Thayer’s mind about the piece he had originally hoped to buy, close inspection also convinced him that the Cox Family Queen Anne carved cherrywood flat-top high chest of drawers was a pleasing, authentic example, well worth its $119,500 cost. The highboy’s distinctive characteristics include a double-height, shell carved drawer in its upper case; sunflowers and a large carved and applied scallop shell on its lower case; cabriole legs ending in shell carved knees; trifid feet and, unusually, a built-in desk disguised by a drawer front. Two similar high chests, without the butler’s desk, are in private collections; a third is at the Rhode Island School of Design.
“It’s probably by a Philadelphia-trained artisan working outside Philadelphia. I think it’s from New Jersey. It’s got just that touch of quirkiness,” said Thayer. “It’s far more beautiful than the catalog photo. The trifid feet are among the best I’ve seen — they have a very fluid motion to them — and the punch-work on the upper drawers is wonderful. I came down expecting the desk portion to be later, but it’s original: same wood, same craftsmanship, same dovetails, same design. I had a client interested, but not at $200,000 to $300,000. In this market, an estimate of about $80/120,000 would have been right.”
If some of the top furniture lots brought less than expected, one whimsical piece of folk art sold for far more. A carved and painted Nineteenth Century wooden trade sign in the form of an elephant sold to Massachusetts dealer David Wheatcroft for $113,525 ($30/50,000.) Connecticut dealer Allan Katz was the underbidder. Measuring 57 inches high by 79 inches long, the elephant wears boots and carries a banner advertising John M. Dyckman Boots & Shoes. By oral tradition, Dyckman was a Peekskill, N,Y., retailer.
“I think it is fairly unique in the trade sign world and it is certainly iconic. It seems to have been modeled after a print, possibly a circus poster. There were posters of Dumbo, the Ringling Brothers elephant, hold a flag in the same manner,” said Wheatcroft.
“It’s a nice, big, punchy piece and a wonderful example of folk art sculpture. It may very well be an auction record for a trade sign, as opposed to a inn or tavern sign, or a trade figure,” noted Allan Katz. In June, Rushville, Ohio, auctioneer Mike Clum sold a circa 1850 sign for Western Inn, decorated with turkeys, for $154,000. Wheatcroft recalled paying $310,000 for a Nineteenth Century inn sign depicting an eagle.
For those who missed Christie’s October sale, January is just around the corner. “We have lots of exciting things coming up,” said Brunk. The list he ticked off included a single-owner collection of Pennsylvania German folk art belonging to John and Rose Anne Koler of Ohio; a world-class Sheldon Peck painting deaccessioned by a museum; an outstanding Edward Hicks canvas; and, of course, a range of pieces from Chipstone Foundation.
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