The Unreproducible Pennsylvania Prize — Dower Chests

The antique dealer Thurston Nicholes from Breinigsville, PA didn’t intend to scare buyers away by placing a price tag of $285,000 for a Pennsylvania-painted chest last week at the Stella Antique Show.  Thanks to Pook & Pook, the Donald Shelley sale in 2007 and the Richard Machmer sale last October have shown that Pennsylvania German folk art and furniture are in such high demand that they still fetch higher prices in a shrinking antique market.

Berks County Dower Chest (A record breaker)
Berks County Dower Chest (A record breaker)

In Shelley’s sale in April 2007, a Berks County painted dower chest, dated 1803, with the top and front decorated with tulips, parrots, and stars on a blue background, with hearts at the corners and parrots on the sides,  was sold for $561,600 (est. $125,000/175,000) and broke the record for a dower chest made in Skinner’s sale in 2006.

By the time of the Machmer’s sale, bad news about financial sectors didn’t deter the passion of the potential buyers even though Philip Bradley observed that “it was not another Shelley sale.” The dealer who owns a store near the auction house in Downingtown, PA successfully bid on some major items including a walnut blanket chest circa 1780 for $12,870, which was close to its low estimate.

But in the same sale, a dower chest dated 1780, with the front decorated with birds, fish, and tulips was sold for $76,050. The real prize went to a dower chest from Lehigh County dated in 1785 with the front decorated with two green hearts. It was sold for $140,000 to Olde Hope Antiques.

Top: a Leigh County dower chest; bottom: a chest illustrated in two books
Top: a Lehigh County dower chest; bottom: a chest illustrated in two books

Even though I wouldn’t spend so much on something that may only work as a TV table, it is interesting to think it through and answer the question as to why “Pennsylvania German folk art and furniture?”

I can think of three reasons.

First, overall the early art and furniture are gaining more momentum for their simplicity and sincerity. This is reflected by a large number of dealers offering early Americana antiques at the antique show last week.

Second, Pennsylvania German art and antiques have just recently surfaced from regional interest to the mainstream market. The first generation of avid collectors such as Dr. Donald Shelley and Richard Machmer is passing away (both collectors died in 2006).  Rare and exceptional objects are coming onto the market after decades of sole ownership. More importantly, both collectors have left a legacy of Pennsylvania German Art appreciation by organizing shows and exhibitions in their lifetime and fostering the next generation of scholars and researchers who carry on their passion.  For example, the  Philadelphia Museum of Art bought the Shelleys’ Lancaster, PA, Schrank for $351,000, an auction record because Alexandra Kirtley, assistant curator at PMA pinpointed that it is the earliest dated Schrank known, is considered the best of a group and has a regional vocabulary of decoration. Thus, through a world-class museum, such artwork can influence and educate a broader range of visitors in the near future.

Third and most importantly, from the collectors’ point of view, a Pennsylvania dower chest is unique and unreproducible. By definition, a dower chest is a chest made for the daughter for her future marriage. It is usually made when the girl is only 9 or 10 years old and will be filled with linens and clothing. Such a family gift is made to last forever, thus the quality of craftsmanship, though simple, is in general very good. Pennsylvania Germans were keen to commemorate important dates. Thus, besides highly decorated motifs such as tulips (symbolizing union and love) and hearts, the girl’s name and the year were usually painted with the chest.

Known it was owned and treasured by some families as one of the most important personal pieces is emotional and powerful concerning collecting. It makes a seemingly materialistic collecting practice more personal. Outside of the Pennsylvania German furniture, it would be rare to find something that you can track the ownership, the year and thus to own not only the objects but also the memory and history of it. Not only ownership can be traced, but also makers can be found with a fair amount of accuracy. The wood, the hinge, and most importantly the artistic styles make the identification of makers a fun and rewarding research activity for scholars.

That Pennsylvania German dower chests have never been mass reproduced in modern times and probably would never be, distinguishes them from other more refined types of furniture such as Duncan Phyfe chairs or Lannuier side tables,  both of which you can find their not-so-cheap and no-so-well-done modern reproductions. Thus, antique collectors can say Nietzsche was wrong when he insisted that in a world of objective meaninglessness, one must fall into nihilism unless one acts as if one’s acts recur eternally.

Those Pennsylvania prizes may never come around again, so treasure them while you can.

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