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Americana at Christie’s

Lita Solis-Cohen | September 25th, 2013

This circa 1750 Queen Anne walnut compass- seat side chair has carving by a contemp- orary of Samuel Harding, who carved architect- ural ele- ments at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall). It sold for $579,750 (est. $200,000/300,000) to a phone bidder, underbid on the phone by New York City dealer Leigh Keno. From the estate of Martin Wunsch, a New York collector with a passion for American furniture, silver, and old master paintings, the side chair is similar to three chairs sold at the 1929 landmark Reifsnyder sale held at American Art Associates (later Parke-Bernet Galleries) that have crisply carved volutes and shells on their crests, egg-and-dart carving at the base of the splats, compass seats with incurvated and shell-carved front rails, leaf-carved knees, and ball-and-claw feet. The chair’s seat frame is painted with the name “J. Miller” and “J. [or F] C. George [illeg.] n.” Its slip seat is the only replacement, and its rich deep brown patina, figured wood, and sculptural form made it desirable to the market. Its front leg was once broken and put back in place. It is closely related to five sets of these fully developed Philadelphia Queen Anne chairs. At Christie’s in January 2002, a similar walnut chair sold for $666,000 to a private collector.

This Federal desk-and-bookcase, probably made in Baltimore, 1800-10, with 47 églomisé panels, a tour de force of crafts- manship, sold for $567,750 to furniture consultant Alan Miller of Quaker- town, Pennsylvania, bidding for the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee and underbid by a private collector on the phone. The interior is fitted with drawers and a central folio section. The lower drawers have lidded compartments. A clipping from Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser, Sunday, July 26, 1800, Philadelphia,is on the reverse of a panel. The central églomisé panel in the pediment is a replacement. This desk-and-bookcase was in the latest London taste and is related to Baltimore furniture at the Maryland Historical Society and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Martha Willoughby, in an essay in the sale catalog, suggests that the possible first owners were General John Peter Van Ness (1770-1846) and his wife, Marcia Burnes Van Ness (1782-1832), whose father owned 700 acres on the Potomac, much of which became part of the nation’s capital. Both John and Marcia Van Ness outlived their only child, and their estate was divided among John Van Ness’s three siblings and their children. One of John Van Ness’s brothers was Cornelius Van Ness. Cornelius’s daughter Marcia married a British diplomat, Sir William Gore Ouseley, who was posted in Buenos Aires, and they probably took the inherited desk-and-bookcase to Argentina. Dealer Ed Weissman of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, discovered it there and had it delivered to Leigh Keno’s stand at the 1995 Winter Antiques Show, where Jack Warner, the former chief executive of the Westervelt Company, bought it along with other furniture. Keno said the price to Warner was $385,000.

This brown-painted turned maple joint stool, Rhode Island, 1710-40, 22¾" high x 15¾" wide x 20½" deep, sold on the phone for $68,750 (est. $6000/9000) to David Schorsch and Eileen Smiles of Woodbury, Connecticut, for a client. The buzz in the salesroom was that Martin Wunsch had paid Israel Sack $75,000 for it.

This 1735-45 Philadelphia or Chester County figured maple high chest of drawers with its original brasses, 72" high x 42½" wide x 23½" deep, sold for $153,700 (est. $50,000/80,000) to a collector in the salesroom. With a rich old surface and an impressive provenance, the Morton, Smith, Wharton, or Fisher families to Thomas Robinson of Newport, it was consigned by a descendant of Robinson. The top board of the lower section is stenciled “Windsor Line Via Providence B.R. Smith, Newport, R.I.”

This Classical figured mahogany linen press, 96½" tall, probably made by Thomas Seymour (1771-1848), Boston, circa 1830, sold for $50,000 (est. $5000/10,000). Behind the cupboard doors are four sliding shelves. A rare example of Boston furniture in the Grecian plain style, it was discussed by Stuart Feld in his catalog for Boston in the Age of Neo-Classicism: 1810-1840 (1999).

This Classical parcel-gilt, ormolu-mounted, and brass-inlaid rosewood secrétaire à abattant, attributed to Duncan Phyfe, 1820-30, 59¾" high x 39" wide x 18¾" deep, sold to a collector on the phone for $129,750 (est. $15,000/30,000). The price was no doubt because of recent scholarship.

Christie’s, New York City

Photos courtesy Christie’s

Since 2011 the Westervelt Company has been selling art collected by Jonathan “Jack” Westervelt Warner, the 96-year-old former chairman and CEO of Gulf States Paper, a firm founded by his grandfather and now run by his son in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Using company, personal, and foundation funds, Warner bought American paintings by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Edward Hopper, Asher Durand, Daniel Garber, and many others, and furniture by Duncan Phyfe, Charles-Honoré Lannuier, Joseph Barry, and their contemporaries in the Federal and Neoclassical styles.

In 2002 Tom Armstrong wrote a coffee-table book about the Warner collection, An American Odyssey: The Warner Collection of American Fine and Decorative Arts.

Jack Warner lives with some of his collection at Whispering Cliffs, his house in North River near Tuscaloosa. Over the years, he housed some of his collection at the Gulf Paper headquarters, at the president’s mansion at the University of Alabama, and, after 2003, in a museum at the Anchorage Building at North River adjacent to the yacht club, where schoolchildren and the public came to see more than 400 paintings and decorative objects from the 18th to the 20th century. According to Andrew Holter, Christie’s head of Americana, the Westervelt Company kept a sampling of paintings and decorations that are displayed at its headquarters.

In 2011, in order to take advantage of a one-year tax window, Gulf States Paper, which by that time had sold the paper mill, changed its name to the Westervelt Company, diversified into a land management, renewable energy, and ecological services company, and decided to raise capital to benefit shareholders by selling off the collections that had been Jack Warner’s passion for 40 years.

After Jack Warner’s foundation lost the court battle that it brought against Westervelt for the art, the major paintings were sold privately. Frederic Church’s Above the Clouds at Sunrise, Daniel Garber’s Tanis, and Edward Hopper’s Dawn before Gettysburg were all sold by private treaties orchestrated by an art advisor. Twenty-nine lesser paintings were sent to Christie’s for its May 18, 2011, American paintings sale; they brought mixed results. They were expected to bring over $10 million, but just 13 of the 29 sold for $6.7 million. William Trost Richards’s Mackerel Cove, Jamestown, Rhode Island sold for $1,650,500 (includes buyer’s premium) to dealer Joe Caldwell of Manlius, New York, for a client. The price was a record for the artist. In 2011 the American paintings market was still in recovery after the 2008 economic crisis. Masterpieces held their value. Asher Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilization) and Thomas Cole’s Falls of the Kaaterskill reportedly sold for tens of millions, as did a Hopper, in private deals. The sellers did not want to risk auction.

When Christie’s got the nod to sell most of the Westervelt American furniture and decorations in 2013, Andrew Holter and John Hays were able to put reasonable estimates on furniture in restored, ready-to-go condition. They showed the collection in a stunning exhibition that attracted some private buyers, art brokers, and the trade.

The Westervelt collection became the nucleus of the September 25 sale at Christie’s; the auction was fleshed out with 18 lots from the estate of E. Martin Wunsch (1924-2013). Hays viewed this as “a toe in the water” market test for a single-owner Wunsch estate sale planned for January. Christie’s has been offering furniture from Martin Wunsch’s office over the last few years with good results; this offering was from Wunsch’s private collection.

Added to these consignments was a collection of Thomas Molesworth cowboy furniture made for Moses Annenberg’s Ranch A near Beulah, Wyoming, in the 1930’s and an assortment of other consignments that needed to be sold in this tax year. The sale was well received; of the 225 lots, 189 sold for a total of $5,836,375. That is 84% by lot and 96% by value. Holter said it was Christie’s highest total for a mid-season sale since 2008, and he saw it as a strengthening of the market for American furniture.

There were some exceptional prices and some real bargains. Carolyn Pastel, head of 20th-century decorative arts at Christie’s, said she was pleased that the Thomas Molesworth furniture brought a total of $355,125 for 21 of 28 lots offered, with lamps and seating furniture selling better than chests of drawers and beds.

The Westervelt collection accounted for $3,111,000, well above the $1,745,000/2,865,700 estimate. The total was pulled down by the poor performance of the Westervelt collection’s small American paintings that were largely ignored and should have been offered in an interiors sale or a second-tier American paintings sale. Furniture was the strength of this sale.

There was keen competition in the salesroom and on the phones for a Federal bookcase from the Westervelt collection; it sold for $567,750 (est. $150,000/300,000) to Alan Miller, furniture consultant,
bidding for the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee, underbid by a private collector on the phone.

“The grand architecture of the whole design makes it so compelling,” said Miller, speaking about the secretary after the sale. “It is a fluent and grand overall composition. The embellishment serves the whole design.”

Miller went on to comment on how the decoration is on the picture plane in the new Federal taste, reflecting the style of the Adam brothers, who popularized Classical ideas. He also pointed out the meticulous, labor-intensive craftsmanship of the highest quality.

Miller believes this masterpiece of a Federal bookcase was made in Baltimore where many Philadelphia craftsmen fled during the yellow fever epidemic in the 1790’s. The Philadelphia newspaper clipping found behind one of the panels does not mean it was made in Philadelphia. It relates to other furniture made in Baltimore.

The competition was between two phone bidders for Martin Wunsch’s Philadelphia Queen Anne compass-seat side chair with all the bells and whistles, including double volutes flanking a well-carved shell on its crest rail, egg-and-dart carving on its shoe at the base of its curved vasiform splat, an incurvated front seat rail adorned with a three-dimensional shell, leaf carving on its knees, and ball-and-claw feet. The buyer paid $579,750 (est. $200,000/300,000).

There was speculation in the salesroom on the identity of the buyer and the underbidder. Some said it must be another Bill Samaha versus Todd Prickett match, continuing the competition that has been responsible for many high prices in the last decade. Neither Prickett nor Samaha was in the salesroom. Reached by phone after the sale, Prickett said he was on the phone but did not bid. Leigh Keno, reached by phone after the sale, said he was the underbidder on behalf of a client.

Among the other strong performers was a little turned maple joint stool from the Wunsch collection, thought to have been made in Rhode Island 1710-40, that sold on the phone for $68,750 (est. $6000/9000) to dealer David Schorsch of Woodbury, Connecticut, underbid by another phone bidder. Its rich brown-painted surface and vigorous turnings made it a favorite in the salesroom.

For every strong price, there seemed to be a bargain. A Queen Anne compass-seat side chair made in Philadelphia, circa 1740, from a well-known long set made for Dr. Thomas Graeme of Graeme Park, a house that still stands in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and also from the Wunsch collection, sold for $40,000 (est. $40,000/60,000). This chair had two previous appearances at Sotheby’s auctions. In October 1983, it sold for $68,750, and in January 1997, it sold for $118,000 to Leigh Keno, from whom Martin Wunsch acquired it. Possibly 1730’s, it is an earlier chair than the fully developed Queen Anne compass-seat side chair with claw feet described above. Longtime market watchers remember when it had an old finish. Its naked surface affected its price in an erratic marketplace.

Boston mahogany compass-seat side chairs sold at much lower prices. One brought $9375 (est. $10,000/15,000), and another with stretchers sold for $3750, both to Frank Levy bidding on line for the New York City firm Bernard and S. Dean Levy. Levy thinks the chair without stretchers may have been made in New York, not Boston. Others disagree.

Levy also bought a Newport mahogany tray-top tea table, unadorned and with simple lines, for $27,500 (est. $20,000/40,000), although it was missing a bit of molding and a tip of a foot. At the height of the market, similar tables, once thought rare, sold for more than $350,000.

The New York mahogany turret-top tea table that New York dealer Margaret Caldwell bought for a client for $423,750 ($150,000/250,000) is thought to be from the same shop as the well-known Livingston family chairs with a cypher on the splats.

Federal card tables, on the other hand, are very affordable. A cherrywood and mahogany Massachusetts card table, the underside of the top signed “C.W. Woods, Quincy Mass,” sold for $2750 (est. $3000/5000), and a Rhode Island mahogany demilune card table sold for $1250 (est. $3000/5000). Another Federal card table, possibly by William Whitehead, New York, 1790-1810, sold for $15,000 (est. $10,000/15,000).

Federal Pembroke tables sold under expectations. A Baltimore Pembroke table with inlay sold for $6875, and a New York Pembroke table, possibly by William Whitehead, 1800-10, sold for the same price. There was something in this sale for every pocketbook.

Recent scholarship on Charles-Honoré Lannuier and Duncan Phyfe by Peter Kenny and his colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Hirschl & Adler exhibit and catalog on Phyfe and Classical furniture, may have brought more collectors to the marketplace. There was competitive bidding for some of Jack Warner’s Classical furniture. Not all of it brought more than he paid for it, but much of it brought respectable prices. Connoisseurs said conservation issues kept some prices down. Collectors like to find furniture untouched and do their own restorations.

A phone bidder paid $255,750 for a pair of caryatid card tables attributed to Duncan Phyfe, $75,000 for a Phyfe armchair en gondole made for New York merchant Luman Reed, $105,750 for a marble-top commode stamped by Charles Honoré-Lannuier, $93,750 for a pair of armchairs attributed to Phyfe that were owned by the Van Rensselaer family, and $75,000 for a Phyfe Classical cylinder-front desk-and-bookcase from another consignor.

Another private buyer paid $129,750 for an ormolu-mounted brass-inlaid rosewood secrétaire à abattant attributed to Phyfe, but a Philadelphia mahogany and figured maple secrétaire à abattant that sold for $23,750 (est. $15,000/25,000) seemed like a steal. In October 1989 at Christie’s, it sold for $46,200.

There is no question that prices for Americana have settled down to a lower level, but two clocks brought strong prices. A French Empire ormolu mantel clock with a figure of Washington sold for $219,750, a bit more than it brought in October 2007 at Christie’s. An Aaron Willard tall-case clock, the case documented to William Fisk, the dial probably painted by Spencer Nolen, and the Willard label engraved by Paul Revere, sold for the same hammer price, $95,000, that it brought at Christie’s in January 1985. With higher buyer’s premium, the price in 2013 was $117,750, 12.6% higher than 28 years ago. Another Willard clock, also with a Revere label, sold for $25,000 (est. $20,000/40,000), demonstrating the big price difference between the best and the rest.

The pictures and captions tell more of the story. For more information, contact Christie’s at (212) 636-2000 or on line at (

This pair of Classical parcel-gilt, verdigris, and brass-inlaid mahogany caryatid card tables, attributed to Duncan Phyfe, New York, 1815-20, 29" high x 35 7/8" wide x 18¼" deep, sold on the phone for $255,750 (est. $100,000/150,000) to an anonymous bidder, who made a number of judicious purchases. According to the catalog essay, Peter Kenny and Michael Brown attributed these tables to the Phyfe shop because their elements are similar to labeled, signed, or attributed examples, and they suggested the pair was made circa 1810. Phyfe’s ornamented Grecian style was influenced by Charles-Honoré Lannuier and published French and English designs. The carver may have been Alexander Slott, a Welshman who worked in Phyfe’s shop.

This pair of Classical part-ebonized, brass-mounted lyre-back side chairs, 1825-35, 33 1/8" high, sold on the phone for $47,500 (est. $5000/10,000).

This mahogany turret-top New York card table sold for $423,750 (est. $150,000/250,000) to New York dealer Margaret Caldwell in the salesroom, underbid on the phone. Bold gadrooning along the bottom edge continues around the top of the legs, which are carved in high relief. This swing-leg card table is believed to have been made in the same shop as the Verplanck accordion-action card table at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Van Rensselaer family pair of Classical mahogany armchairs in the Grecian plain style, attributed to Duncan Phyfe, circa 1835, each 38" high, sold for $93,750 (est. $30,000/50,000) to the phone bidder who bought the Phyfe caryatid card tables, the Phyfe gondola chair, and more. In October 1999 at Christie’s, the pair sold for $200,500. The armchairs appear in a late 19th-century photograph of the Van Rensselaer dining room in an Albany house that was published in the sale catalog. Another similar set sold at the Berry Tracy sale at Sotheby’s in February 1985 and remains in the Westervelt collection.

This Classical part-ebonized and ormolu-mounted rosewood worktable, 30" high x 21¼" wide x 17¾" deep, Boston, 1810-20, the top two drawers fitted with removable divided trays, sold on the phone for $43,750 (est. $5000/10,000). It was exhibited at Hirschl & Adler in 1999 in the exhibition Boston in the Age of Neo-Classicism.

This pair of Classical brass-inlaid card tables is attributed to Charles-Honoré Lannuier because of the similarity of the inlay to that on a pair of labeled Lannuier card tables in a private collection and another pair sold as part of the Manney collection in May 1981. According to the catalog, the four legs and swivel-top design also point to a Lannuier attribution. Moreover, the tables have a family history going back to the granddaughter of Abraham J. Berry, surgeon of the U.S. Army during the Civil War. She married a French merchant from the Varet family in New York. They could have bought them from Lannuier. The pair of tables sold for $117,500 (est. $30,000/50,000) to a private collector on the phone. At Christie’s at the Ronald S. Kane sale in January 1994, the tables sold for $101,500.

This three-tiered tazza is from a White House dessert service made by Edouard Honoré, Paris, and imported by Alexander Stewart & Co., New York, 1846, for President James K. Polk, who served 1845-49. It is 18" high x 9" in diameter and sold on the phone for $68,750 (est. $10,000/20,000). The buyer was the White House Historical Association.

This pair of armchairs by Thomas Molesworth (1890-1977), burled fir with upholstery, each 40½" high, sold for $52,500 (est. $20,000/30,000). It was the most expensive lot of Molesworth furniture offered from a group commissioned by newspaper publisher Moses Annenberg in the 1930’s to furnish, in the cowboy style, his Ranch A retreat in Wyoming. Dressers and beds brought less. Not shown, a pair of twin beds sold for $27,500 (est. $10,000/15,000); a pair of dressers, $2500 (est. $6000/8000); and a Molesworth sofa sold for $37,500 (est. $20,000/30,000).

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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