Published: February 7, 2012
When the hammer fell for the last time on Sunday, January 22, Sotheby’s had grossed $17,900,261 in Americana Week sales. One of its cover lots, a circa 1765 Rhode Island block and shell carved, short chest of drawers attributed to John Townsend, passed in the room at $900,000. A private-treaty transaction completed soon after the auction brought the York Avenue auction house’s total to more than $19 million, its best Americana Week haul since 2007.
Rhode Island High Chest
By divine providence, New York City was awash in Eighteenth Century Rhode Island furniture this year, with outstanding offerings at both Sotheby’s and its rival Christie’s. Collectors were captivated here by a previously undocumented high chest of drawers with four open talon claw and ball feet and a fully developed carved shell. Dated 1756 and signed by Newport cabinetmaker John Townsend, who was 23 at the time, the case piece was ordered by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver and Mary Arnold of East Greenwich, R.I., on the occasion of their marriage. It descended in their family for 255 years before selling in the room just over estimate to dealer G.W. Samaha bidding on behalf of a collector for $3,554,500, setting an auction record for an American high chest. Leigh Keno was the underbidder.
The chatter began last summer when Sotheby’s American furniture specialists Leslie Keno and Erik Gronning received an email inquiring if they would be interested in seeing a treasured family heirloom; one, in fact, signed by John Townsend.
“Because there was no phone number, I wrote a fairly extensive letter to him including our history of selling signed Townsend furniture. When an email came back with a photograph, albeit one that looked like it was taken underwater, our jaws dropped,” said Keno.
“We couldn’t tell if the talons were open, but we could see the amazing shell carving on the skirt, the striped grain of the wood and what looked like original finish. We caught the earliest train and were met by two of the nicest people. The family knew that the piece was special, but decided that it was too valuable to have in a house with young children.”
Keno says few finds of his career have been more exciting. “This high chest of drawers is a masterpiece beyond compare. The lines are perfect and it has original finish, finial and brasses. All the others have basically been refinished. Many have had at least one replaced talon. So this was a chance of a lifetime.”
Collectors can look forward to reading more about the high chest of drawers, one of the two earliest known works by Townsend, in an article that Gronning is writing for Chipstone’s 2012 American Furniture annual.
With so many pairs of eyes looking over every lot that crosses the block during Americana Week, it is no wonder that discoveries are made.
One involved a circa 1760 Philadelphia mahogany chest on chest with ornate carvings attributed to Nicholas Bernard on its pediment, finial and prospect drawer. First owned by Richard Stockton, the case piece was retailed in the Twentieth Century by dealers C.W. Lyon and Israel Sack, Inc, and in 1950 belonged to the collector Norvin H. Green. This round, it nearly doubled its high estimate to sell to Quakertown, Penn., conservator Alan Miller for $230,500. Closely related chests on chests are in the collections of Winterthur and George Parker of Janesville, Wis.
During preview, Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, the Montgomery-Garvan associate curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, discovered the inscription “G. Claypoole” and what appeared to be a letter with the number 8 on the inside interior of the shell drawer, Erik Gronning reported.
“It thrilled us because now we know the maker of this piece and that of its near mate at Winterthur. We will probably see an article on the maker soon,” the specialist added. Asheville, N.C., auctioneer Andrew Brunk published his research on cabinetmaker George Claypoole in his article, “The Claypoole Family of Joiners of Philadelphia: Their Legacy and the Context of their Work” in American Furniture 2002.
Yale curator Pat Kane’s discovery of an inscription on the back of a drawer of a mahogany block and shelled carved chest of drawers propelled it beyond its $6/10,000 estimate. Now confirmed as an Eighteenth Century case piece, probably from Rhode Island, it went to an absentee bidder for $122,500.
“The only source for these really early pieces are church collections. It’s almost impossible to find them in private homes, so it is a very exciting thing that they should come on the market,” Sotheby’s silver consultant Kevin Tierney said of 18 lots of silver †including beakers, tankards, a pair of standing cups, a two-handled cup and a baptismal basin †consigned by First Parish Church in Dorchester, now a neighborhood of Boston.
The site of the first town meeting and the founder of the first public elementary school in the United States, First Parish Church dates to 1630. Dorchester’s fortunes have waned since then. After concluding that the church’s historic meetinghouse needed $5.2 million for restoration and expansion and wanting to expand its community mission, First Parish Church decided to sell its silver, unused for much of the past century. Featured in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ pioneering 1911 church silver display, the Dorchester collection had been on loan to the MFA since 1938.
The centerpiece was a pair of magnificent standing cups embellished with gadrooning and engraved with the arms of Governor William Stoughton, who bequeathed the cups to the church in 1701. Made by Jeremiah Dummer, the vessels sold within estimate to former Sotheby’s silver specialist Ian Irving of Ian Irving, Ltd, for $1,082,500.
Irving stepped up again to claim the following lot, a pair of Seventeenth Century beakers made by John Hull and Robert Sanderson Sr, for $459,500. Thomas and Alice Lake gave them to the church in 1679, not more than a year after they were made.
Other highlights included the Ebenezer Withington cup, made by William Cowell Sr of Boston around 1710 and sold to an absentee bidder for $62,500; the Deacon Hopestill Clap tankard, made by Jacob Hurd of Boston circa 1748, brought $43,750; and the Sarah Preston tankard, made by Paul Revere Sr of Boston around 1745, realized $34,375.
In all, the First Parish Church silver garnered $1,721,313. Eight lots were passed. Sotheby’s dispersed silver from the Church of the Presidents in Quincy, Mass., and the First Church in Milford, Conn., in 2001 and 2005.
“We were absolutely thrilled about the results of this series of sales. We feel that the market is energized and that we are seeing new buyers out there. Other buyers are stepping up,” said Leslie Keno.
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.sothebys.com or 212-606-7000.
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