If Only the Best

Boston Classical carved mahogany sofa, attributed to William Hancock circa 1820, sold for $9,500

The three days Francis D “Skeeter” McNairy Estate sale at Charlton Hall culminated last Sunday. The result is clear: There is no absolute “in” and “out” style in decorative art. The buyers are there, trying hard for the best. Sorry for the struggling middle market.

A month ago, Geo spotted an empire sofa sold at Doyle New York for less than 500 dollars. Perhaps New Yorkers, limited by their apartment size, hardly need another  classical-looking sofa. But when a sofa, attributed to William Hancock, appears in the South, nearly identical one collected in MFA, Boston (The catalog also mentioned that Met has a piece with identical crest attributed to Hancock), it became THE sofa to have.

The catalog reads:

Boston Classical carved mahogany sofa, attributed to William Hancock circa 1820, cylindrical crestrail ending with foliate carved finials resting upon an upholstered back having armrests with carved vasiform supports on plinths decorated with fluted roundels, the upholstered seat resting upon flame mahogany veneer paneled seatrail, raised on tapering Ionic legs and carved ball feet with casters; upholstered with Scalamandre Moire and Scalamandre wide silk tape above seatrail.

A New York Classical mahogany worktable circa 1825
A New York Classical mahogany worktable circa 1825, sold for $8,000

The sofa was sold for $9,500, well above the high estimate of $8,000. If the impressive crestrails and plinths may look too much of a statement for some collectors, lot 1088 – a New York classical worktable showcases the elegance and timelessness of the best classical furniture. However, the most surprise came from a single chair, which tend to be sold low in most auctions as single chair scares away decorators and cools perfectionist collectors .

Lot 1098 features a single rare form American harp-backed carved mahogany side chair. It was estimated between $2,000 and $4,000. At one time, I was attempted to bid, but the description of the catalog is vague:

19th century, carved molded crestrail over harp-shaped splat flanked by reeded stiles continuing as seatrails flanking padded slip seat on carved hairy legs with lion-paw feet.

Geo commented there was a huge difference in collectibility (and hence values) between a 1820 classical-period chair and a 1890 chair with classical form. Although the auction house did not date it precisely, there are quite a few pictures available online to show the details in case bidders may not be able to attend the preview (in West Columbia, SC). The hairy legs were carved with naturalistic precision and the lion-paw feet are stunning to look.

A rare form American harp-backed carved mahogany side chair
Is this a Duncan Phyfe Chair?

The experience is quite a  typical conundrum for online bidders. When the best are available, one has to be ready to be aggressive as no one will overpay a true masterpiece in long term. You are either 100 percent in, or 100 percent out. However, knowing that one maybe score something big, but not quite sure because of the absence of personal examination, an online bidder may only go as much as 50 percent high as he would have gone if on-site. Unfortunately the results seldom turns in favor of such an approach.

The single chair was sold for $10,000 (without premium). Such a jaw-dropping result pushed me to check my antiques furniture book reference. Then here it is, (and it never fails that the book  information only comes afterward to validate the fierce bidding, not beforehand when one was still in doubt about the authenticity.) Wendy Cooper, in her book “Classical Taste in America 1800-1840“, illustrates a similar chair attributed to Duncan Phyfe. She wrote:

The earliest documented American manifestation of the scroll back chair seems to have been made in New York by 1807. In that year, cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe billed William Bayard of New York for a total of thirty-two “Mahogany chairs”; ten side chairs and two armchairs owned by Bayard and believed to be among those recorded on the bill are now in the collection of the Winterthur Museum. These scroll back chairs have double cross bannisters in their backs and reeded front Grecian (saber) legs. They represent one of many variations on this popular form of new style chair derived from Grecian models often seen on antique grave stele and vase. Other version of New York scroll back chairs substituted either lyres, harps, eagles, or foliate cornucopias for the cross bannisters. Additional embellishments included “Preparing the front legs for lion’s paws” — a suitable Roman treatment — and a variety of carved motifs ornamenting the crest rail, ranging from cornucopias to bound fasces or wheat, tied with a bowknot.

At least, some bidders must seriously consider it as fine example of Duncan Phyfe’s work and hopefully have examined the chair in person.

A rare form American harp-backed carved mahogany side chair
Excellent craftsmanship shown in hair leg and paw foot

Note:  In Wendy’s book, the chair is from George M. Kaufman collection. Linda and George assembled one of the finest American furniture collection. In 1977 they established the Kaufman Americana Foundation to administer grants in support of exhibitions, publications, acquisitions and scholarships in the decorative arts. Linda Kaufman joined the Winterthur’s Board of Trustees in 2002.

Lastly, Charlton Hall has greatly improved the quality in their cataloging photographs. Less than half a year ago, their online photos looked extremely saturated and perhaps overly photoshopped. Check the photo below, then you will understand why I would not bid with confidence online back then. True, perhaps that only a tiny percentage of lots go to online-bidders. But in auction business, every bid counts.

Now, let’s hope the Met can get together that exhibition on Duncan Phyfe.

3 thoughts on “If Only the Best

  1. These results are cited without the 15% Buyer’s Premium.

    Also…on the internet buying note. I recommend clients always request additional photographs be sent to them. Most auction houses should oblige their requests if made within a reasonable amount of time. However, for serious purchases nothing beats previewing in person. Internet bidding is just for convenience and should not replace sale attendance for serious buyers/collectors.


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