A one-piece walnut corner cupboard was the center of attention at the January 12 sale at Laughlin Auctions, Inc. in Edinburg, Virginia. Family history has it that the cupboard was built circa 1814 and was among the original furnishings of a home built by John R. Bruner.
Bruner had served as a fifer during the War of 1812. During that general time period, the Bruner family built a new home about three miles west of the town of Luray, Virginia, in what was then Shenandoah County. (The location is now in Page County.) The home still stands and without interruption has remained within the extended Bruner family.
The cupboard’s maker is not known with certainty, but oral history suggests that it was constructed by Bruner himself. Bruner did work as a cabinetmaker, but some believe that the degree of workmanship used in the cupboard’s construction suggests that a more experienced hand may have been involved. There is no argument, however, that the finished piece of furniture sat in the Bruner home for the next 188 years. A photograph of this cupboard, shown in situ, appears on page 66 of Old Homes of Page County, Virginia by Jennie Ann Kerkhoff, published by Lauck & Co., Inc., Luray, Virginia, in 1962. Hoyle Laughlin commented, “When we picked up the cupboard [to take it to auction], it may have been the first time it was ever moved.”
Notwithstanding the rarity of its unbroken family history, the cupboard is also unique in its design, construction, and decoration. The broken-arch cornice treatment is unusual. There is a central pediment between the arches. On each side, a single vertical post is attached at the intersection of the front surface and the side returns. Hoyle Laughlin referred to these projections as “horns.” One might expect to find a decorative finial atop each of the three horns, but it appears that was never the intention of the maker. There are no holes or any other indication of adornment to those pieces. The uppermost edge of each of the three projections was originally decorated with a crosshatch inlay of light-colored wood. The inlay is missing from the outer posts but is visible on the center pediment.
The upper portion of the cupboard is enclosed by a single 15-light arched door. The mullions are shaped and curved, giving the impression of a cathedral window. The glass appears to be original, though one piece is broken. The lower section of the case is enclosed with a pair of locking fielded panel doors. There is a scalloped skirt, and the feet are slightly flared.
The entire cupboard stands 94" tall and is constructed from solid walnut with the exception of the area of the case directly above the curved portion of the upper door. That section is walnut veneer. The secondary wood is yellow pine.
There are a total of nine individual inlaid images and designs arranged symmetrically on the cupboard’s surface. The center pediment displays a large urn with three protruding stems and a central flower with leaves on each side. Two oval inlays of covered urns with flame finials flank the arch of the door. Midway along each side of the upper portion of the case is an interesting yet puzzling bird figure. The bird is depicted standing upright, wings folded at rest. It has a distinctive “collar” that suggests a bald eagle, but the rest of its body and beak do not follow that line of thinking. Also, this “eagle” exhibits no patriotic adornments that might otherwise be expected. (See Alan Snyder’s article “Patriotic Eagle Inlays on Federal Furniture,” M.A.D., June 2010, p. 26-B).
At the cupboard’s waistline extremities are a pair of vertically placed oval fan-design medallions. The center waist features a proper left-facing spread-wing Federal eagle with a 17-stripe shield and holding a single olive branch with one claw and two arrows with the other. The three waist designs are connected by a ribbon of double string inlay. The center lobe of the scalloped base displays a shell design. The cornice and base are detailed with double string inlay and with what appear to be painted bull’s-eyes.
The cupboard is in exceptional condition, considering its age. The surface is dark and dirty but appears to be undisturbed. The varnish is dry and alligatored. The cupboard has shrinkage cracks, one broken pane of glass, some minimal separation in the veneered area, and some missing inlay, as mentioned above.
The cupboard was hotly contested. Bidding reached the $50,000 level with four bidders still in contention. At $60,000 there were two bidders. The hammer fell at $80,000, and the cupboard sold to a prominent Virginia collector bidding on the phone. Laughlin Auctions, Inc. does not charge a buyer’s premium. Let’s hope that the buyer turns the Bruner cupboard into a research project. There is a lot to be learned from this one.
For more information, contact Laughlin Auctions, Inc., (540) 459-8383, or e-mail <email@example.com>.