Published: March 20, 2018
NEW YORK CITY – The top lot in Sotheby’s January 18-21 American furniture and folk art sale was an extravagantly inlaid clock case made by Nathan Lumbard, a cabinetmaker working in the Sturbridge and Sutton areas of central Massachusetts in the first decades of the Nineteenth Century. Prominently displayed in Sotheby’s galleries, and aggressively promoted in the presale advertising, the clock, which had associated works, was one of the highly anticipated lots to cross the block.
A showstopper in its own right, the clock’s case includes nearly the full vocabulary of inlays employed by Lumbard, from eagles and foliate vines to paterae and quarter fans. Of Lumbard’s overall output, few pieces are more abundantly inlaid and no clock by Lumbard surpasses it. After heated bidding that quickly outpaced its estimate, the clock sold to a phone bidder for $471,000. After the sale, Sotheby’s disclosed that the winning bidder was the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). The timepiece, acquired with the help of trustees, is the first piece by Lumbard to enter the museum’s collection.
Not unknown, the clock previously belonged to noted American furniture collectors Anne H. and Frederick Vogel III. It was included in the Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition “Skin Deep: Three Masters of American Inlaid Furniture” (November 22, 2003-March 2, 2004) and in “Sophistication in Rural Massachusetts: The Inlaid Furniture of Nathan Lombard,” an essay by Clark Pearce and Brock Jobe published in the Chipstone Foundation’s journal American Furniture 1998. It is also featured in the new book Crafting Excellence: The Furniture of Nathan Lumbard and His Circle, reviewed in this issue.
An American Masterpiece Comes Home
In speaking after the sale, Nonie Gadsden, the Katharine Lane Weems senior curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the MFA, said that while the museum had not been actively looking for a Lumbard piece, the sale of the clock provided an opportunity to fill a gap in the museum’s collection while simultaneously acquiring a masterpiece of American furniture. With its wild array of idiosyncratic, yet expertly crafted, inlays, Gadsden believes the clock will stimulate and engage museum visitors, something the museum continually strives to achieve.
She and her colleagues plan to install the clock in the Art of the Americas Wing in the coming months. They hope to develop future exhibitions and installations that will further highlight the unique characteristics of this piece and its relationship to other works in the museum’s collection.
When the Vogels acquired the clock, it had a replaced fretwork, finials and finial plinths, base molding and feet. They eventually commissioned Winterthur furniture conservator Mark Anderson to replace those elements with ones more in keeping with what Lumbard was likely to have made. At the time, no other clocks by Lumbard had been identified, so the Vogels and Anderson based their restorations on the features of the clock and designs of related elements on other forms by Lumbard. When the museum acquired the clock, Gadsden reached out to the Lumbard scholars for their advice on whether the Vogel/Anderson restoration was historically accurate.
“The new research by Clark, Brock and Christie has unearthed a tall clock signed and dated by Lumbard, as well as several signed by or attributed to his presumed master, Oliver Wight,” she notes. “Careful study of these clocks reveals that the earlier restorations to the clock’s pediment [fretwork, plinths and finials] are closely related to that on the signed Lumbard clock. The original feet, however, were probably quite different. Instead of the straight bracket feet copied from other Lumbard forms, the clock most likely had diminutive flaring French bracket feet, as seen on clocks by Wight and other forms by Lumbard. These more expressive French feet harmonize with the overall elegant quirkiness of Lumbard’s design. However, such feet would have been under-engineered for the weight of the clock – it is not surprising that the originals were lost!”
When asked what implications, if any, the new research had for the museum, Gadsden was happy to elaborate further.
“The most recent study of Nathan Lumbard provides key evidence that will help me and my colleagues assess and improve the historic accuracy of the restorations to the clock’s fretwork, plinths, finials, base molding and feet. Based on this new evidence, the MFA curatorial and conservation staff will work together to restore the original look that Lumbard created, while also providing enough support for the safety and preservation of this masterpiece. We are especially grateful to Clark Pearce for sharing his detailed analysis of these feet and guiding us in the right direction.”
The most current research on Lumbard is the new book by Jackson, Jobe and Pearce, cited above. Lumbard’s most iconic – and arguably most famous – work is a desk and bookcase in the collection of Winterthur Museum. While the majority of his pieces reside in private collections, several of his works can be found in public institutions, among them the Dallas Museum of Art, the Henry Ford Museum, the Layton Art Collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Old Sturbridge Village, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., the Carpenter Museum in Rehoboth, Mass., Yale University Art Gallery and the Worcester Art Museum.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
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