Published: March 23, 2004
Robert Francis Fileti, one of the nation’s leading conservators and authenticators of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century furniture, died of cancer at home on Sunday, March 14. He was 53 years old. He remained active in his field up until the day he died, going to the January Americana sales and on Saturday, March 13, traveling with Leigh Keno of Leigh Keno American Antiques, New York City, to Pook & Pook in Downingtown, Penn., to look at an important Philadelphia Chippendale tall-case clock. He spent his last active hours doing something he loved to do: getting out his light, taking things apart, looking closely at joinery, finish and other details, and checking the reference books. The clock turned out to be a good one. Sensing his time had run out, Fileti said a few goodbyes that evening.
“Bob was one of the best conservators in the field. He had an incredible eye and incredible passion,” said longtime friend and business associate Keno. “He was one of the most honest and honorable men I have known. He was respected by his peers,” said Keno, who noted the great number of curators, restorers, upholsterers and others in the trade who paid their respects at the March 16 wake. A funeral mass took place at Immaculate Conception, North Fullerton Avenue, Montclair, N.J., on Wednesday, March 17.
Born in Orange, N.J., to Robert and Christine Morrissey Fileti, Robert Francis Fileti lived most of his life in Ridgewood and the last 20 years in Glen Ridge. He was a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. Fileti coached soccer for many years at the Glen Ridge Athletic Association.
Robert Fileti started out making furniture under the tutelage of Douglas Campbell of Newport, R.I., and Denmark, Maine. During this apprenticeship, he strove to make each piece representative of the best historical standard. Fileti was a superb craftsman, using time-honored techniques and tools for furniture making and restoration that were appropriate for the piece.
In 1977, he opened Robert Fileti Antique Furniture Reproductions, which he ran until 1984. Fileti then joined the staff at Israel Sack Inc as the manager of antique conservation and restoration, something he did for more than ten years. Some of the finest pieces of American furniture came under his care.
Albert Sack, son of Israel Sack, said, “The thing that stands out to me is his integrity and his passion and thirst for knowledge and for Americana. He constantly studied to perfect his art. He loved to give and teach. We had a great relationship. He handled some of the great pieces that we owned; in particular he worked as conservator on the Nicholas Brown Secretary, a $12 million secretary.” That secretary is in a private collection.
Sack continued, “He was very conservative. He wanted to preserve integrity so he went out of his way to see that things were properly conserved and not overdone and not made like new. He was dedicated to conservation and the furthering of our knowledge always. He was a great conservator, always improving his methods. He was in a class by himself. It is a great loss to the field.”
“With the passing of Bob Fileti, a valued professional in the growing field of conservator/consultant has departed our realm. Bob’s intense dedication, his meticulous skill and knowledge, and wonderfully sensitive, caring nature will be missed by the many friends and colleagues whose lives he touched,” stated Wendy A. Cooper, Lois F. and Henry S. McNeil Senior Curator of Furniture, Winterthur Museum.
Furniture restorer and consultant Robert Lionetti, Griswold, Conn., said, “I can’t say enough about Bob. He was a warm kind person who was highly respected in the trade. The irony of his personality was that he had this soft-spoken humble façade, yet underneath he was one of the most knowledgeable people in the field. He had extremely high standards regarding authenticity, integrity and proper restoration practices. If he had an opinion or view on something you would know it. That was the interesting thing about him. He was very generous with his knowledge and always hungry to look and continue to learn. I think the trade lost a lot more than a great restorer or consultant. In my opinion it lost one of the finest people to have ever been in this game. He was a good friend and I’ll miss him.”
In 1995, Fileti became an independent conservator and consultant. He was in demand as an authenticator and conservator for dealers, auction houses and some of the leading collectors of American furniture. Fileti also participated in vetting American furniture at the Winterthur Antiques Show in recent years. He advised museum curators and many collectors on acquisitions, helping build some of the finest collections of American furniture in the country.
Collector Burn Oberwager of Philadelphia remembers Fileti as “a man of great integrity, judgment and fairness. There was highboy at auction in New York about two years ago. Bob liked it a lot and I wanted to have it. He took a look at it but he couldn’t remove the rosettes from the top of it to determine if they were original. We knew that the finials had been replaced but we couldn’t tell about the rosettes. In the antiques circle we sort of concluded that they were original. After I bought it and he had it back at his shop he removed those rosettes and decided that they had been replaced. And he was so upset that he made the most stunning flame finials to replace the rather weak reproductions. He insisted that he just give them to me. He felt he should have known and insisted that I not pay him for his work. Of course I did. Imagine a guy in this day and age who wouldn’t want to be paid for that work.”
Collectors could sleep well at night if Fileti had authenticated their furniture. “When he went into consulting he inspired a lot of collectors,” said Albert Sack. “They used him for authenticating and judging things. He was a scholar as well as a conservator. He was always studying the work of the masters of the Eighteenth Century and learning their techniques and all so that he could better judge the pieces. It is very, very rare to see the integrity that he followed. Thank God we weren’t fakers because if something needed restoration, and he put a new part in there he wouldn’t distress it to blend in with the old because he couldn’t stand doing anything that imitated the old. The thing that stood out to me about him is that you get a craftsman as good and capable as he was and they are interested in craftsmanship, they are not interested in studying the philosophy of the art and the theories.”
Fileti hated fakes. When he went on a 1997 excursion with Leigh Keno to a Tacoma, Wash., auction to inspect a promising blocked, shell-carved Newport kneehole desk with a Townsend label, he helped prevent an industry debacle. If authentic, the desk might have fetched between $3 million and $5 million. Fileti was quoted in this paper, “In real simple terms, we could have gotten back on the plane in 30 seconds if the plane was just outside. Anyone could have built a better kneehole desk than this. The dovetailing was really crude. The underside was an abomination of stuck-on pine glue blocks and everything else. Nothing gave you an inkling that this was remotely close.” The auctioneer subsequently removed the questionable lot from the sale and called the consignor to task by dramatically wheeling it out at the sale with a can of gasoline on top of it.
Oberwager remembers Fileti’s excellent eye and memory for antiques. “About two and a half years ago I bought a chair at Pook & Pook and after he brought it back to his shop and examined it he said ‘You know Burn, I recall a similar chair – an identical chair – that sold at auction at Christie’s two or three years ago.’ So we went back to the catalogs and sure enough it was very, very similar. So we approached Christie’s and asked if the person who bought that chair would be interested in selling it. To make a long story short we reunited those two chairs and they are definitely out of the same set. Instead of having one chair we now have a pair. It was just this infallible memory he had for antiques. Once he saw a piece he just didn’t forget it. He would pore over the catalogs, go back and was able to find comparables. He was a true scholar.”
Oberwager also valued Fileti’s sense of humor. “Even when I was outbid for something and was incredibly disappointed he would come up with something to make us laugh. He was always such a positive guy, looking at the next opportunity.”
Students at New York University have benefited from Fileti’s expertise. For the last five years he was an adjunct professor at NYU, lecturing on antique furniture construction at NYU’s program in antiques and appraisal, inspiring the next generation of furniture conservators and appraisers.
He is survived by his wife of 23 years, Donna Lifson, MD, son Michael and daughter Laura Fileti. He was a brother of William of Michigan, Christine Aderhold of Ridgewood, Thomas of California, Marybeth Luptowski of Georgia and Alison Milus of New York. He is also survived by 16 nieces and nephews and two great-nephews.
The Robert Francis Fileti Endowment at Winterthur will be established with private gifts to benefit the annual Winterthur Furniture Forum. “Fileti wished to have his dedication to American furniture remembered with some type of educational program, and he loved Winterthur,” said Leigh Keno, who is helping to establish the endowment. Those wishing to contribute to the endowment may call 302-888-3017, or send their gift to The Robert Francis Fileti Endowment, c/o Winterthur, Winterthur DE 19735, attention Kathy Mori.
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