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Rare New England Furniture Form Stars at Americana Sale

David Hewett | August 11th, 2013

This 23½" high chip-carved spoon rack with crusty black paint carried an estimate of $800/1200, but there was a lot of interest in the early accessories, and $9000 is what it took to buy it. Stephen Corrigan of Stephen-Douglas, Rockingham, Vermont, took it home.

Although it was clearly a good day at Skinner for late 18th- and early 19th-century country furniture and accessories, the price realized for this 19¾" tall baby tender surprised just about everyone. It’s of unusual form, and the worn blue-painted surface is exactly what collectors want to see. A drawn-out battle between phone and floor bidders stopped when it sold for $22,800 to a phone bidder.

Lot 314 consisted of two quarter-plate daguerreotype portraits of members of the Roswell Gleason (1799-1877) family and 19 other cartes de visite and a cabinet view. Gleason was a manufacturer of pewter and Britannia metal. Skinner’s estimate was $800/1200, but it sold to in-house bidder Dennis Carr, assistant curator of decorative arts and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), for $4800.

We asked Carr why the MFA went after this material. “One of the daguerreotypes shows a view of Roswell Gleason with his wife, Rebecca Tucker Vose Gleason, and their three children—Mary Frances, Roswell Jr., and Edward—in front of the Gleason house in Dorchester. The MFA has two period rooms from this house (circa 1840) on view in the Art of the Americas Wing, along with a large collection of objects from Gleason’s successful pewter (Britannia) and silver plate manufactory in Dorchester. The MFA is also the primary repository of Gleason’s business and personal papers. We are thrilled to be able to add these rare images to our growing collection of Gleasoniana at the MFA.”

Skinner, Inc., Marlborough, Massachusetts

Photos courtesy Skinner

It’s no accident that Skinner, Inc., the largest auction house in Massachusetts, chooses the Sunday following the closing of the last event held during Antiques Week in New Hampshire to hold its big August Americana sale. Look at the opportunities offered by that week. Thousands of antiques buffs swarm various Granite State events: a three-day auction; a festival and barbeque; a celebration at the fairgrounds; and four major shows drawing antiques enthusiasts from across the country, most looking for objects celebrating Americana.

Skinner, just over the border in the Bay State, offers those seekers the opportunity to linger one more day or, if unable to do that, to make the short drive down an interstate highway to Marlborough and leave bids on offerings during any of the three afternoons Skinner makes available during Antiques Week.

“We’re not blind to the fact that all those people looking for antiques are up there just over the state line,” said Chris Barber, deputy director of Skinner’s Americana department. “You have all those dealers making sales too,” Barber added, “and we hope they’re looking for some new inventory.”

It’s impossible to tell how many visitors took advantage of those options, but Skinner had a very active left-bid desk and phone bidders galore for its August 11 sale.

From the very first lot of the sale, a 1941 Ford V-8 coupe in shiny black paint with a moderate amount of hot-rod accessories that sold for $20,400 (including buyer’s premium) to a phone bidder, to the very last lot (653), a pair of 7'9" tall granite columns that brought $1230, left and phone bids played a very active role in the results.

There’s another option for a Skinner bidder too. Skinner calls its Internet bidding process SkinnerLive! and makes it available on the Skinner Web site. Bidders on August 11 could compete via that method if they chose. In addition, from August 5 to 13, some 369 added lots were made available only to SkinnerLive! bidders. “We were quite pleased with the results of that sale,” Chris Barber said. “It brought in roughly one-quarter of a million [dollars], right on target at the midpoint of our estimates.”

The auction on August 11 realized $1.53 million. The star of the sale was a very rare furniture offering, a William and Mary walnut escritoire or fall-front desk, that sold to a bidder in the room for $270,000.

The bidder was Dennis Carr, assistant curator of decorative arts and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). The escritoire he bought for the MFA may be the only surviving example of the form, which was made in New England. Because of the price and rarity, we asked Carr to comment on its purchase. Those comments (and photos) are in the sidebar.

Skinner offered a large number of early furniture examples in this sale, and some pieces greatly exceeded their estimates. One example was lot 185, an octagonal-form baby tender, a 19¾" high barred enclosure (or jail) for an infant just beginning to walk and reach for dangerous things. Skinner dated the blue-painted piece to the early 19th century and gave it a $400/600 estimate. Some observers thought it was much earlier. When it was offered, the bidding soared. It went to a phone bidder for $22,800.

Almost the same thing happened when lot 208 came up. The New England shoe-foot hutch table with a 48" x 50½" top was listed as in dark red paint and late 18th century, but upon inspection it appeared never to have been painted and with a uniform age-darkened and well-worn natural wooden surface. The estimate was $1500/2500. Vermont dealer Stephen Corrigan stayed on the piece from opening to next-to-last bid, but an equally determined woman, who appeared to be a collector, was the winner at $16,800.

When formal furniture was up for bid, bidders were very demanding. Only a few choice examples exceeded their estimates. Pennsylvania dealer Phil Bradley took a nice walnut dressing table with a $4000/6000 estimate for $18,000, but the prices of other brown wood examples remained quite weak.

Some of the art offerings went well over their estimates. For example, a portrait by Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) of a ginger-haired man on a 30½" x 20¼" canvas—a consignment directly from the family—did quite well. It carried a $15,000/25,000 estimate and sold for $45,000. Antonio Jacobsen’s oil on canvas portrait of the screw steamer City of Macon was offered with a $7000/9000 estimate and brought $31,200. A double offering of mid-size oil on panel paintings by Ralph Cahoon Jr., each 8¾" x 11¾", brought $12,000 (est. $800/1200).

Among the Americana and folk art that attracted Antiques Week attendees, a couple of pieces stood out. A very folky hooked rug with two roosters flanking a tree, all on a slightly variegated black ground, carried an $800/1200 estimate and sold for $7200. One other item deserves mentioning for its colorfully named provenance, if for nothing else. Lot 228 was a black-painted slat-back round-about chair of New Hampshire origin. The estimate was $600/800, but the chair, once owned by the Gooch family of Pickpocket Road in Exeter, sold for $2640.

For more information, visit the Web site ( or call Skinner’s Americana department at (508) 970-3200.

This portrait of the screw steamer City of Macon on a 22¼" x 36" canvas, signed and dated 1888 by Antonio Jacobsen (Danish-American, 1850-1921), sold in a period carved and molded frame. Skinner gave it a $7000/9000 estimate, but when it hit the auction block it soared to $31,200.

This portrait of a member of the British East India Company was by Chinese artist ­Spoilum, who was active circa 1770-1805. The 21½" x 18" oil on canvas had a $15,000/25,000 ­estimate and sold for $39,600.

This wool, cotton, and silk fabric hooked rug with two roosters and a tree or bush measures 23" by 37¼" and certainly had folk art charm. Skinner gave it an $800/1200 estimate. It brought $7200.

This mid-18th-century carved walnut dressing table is probably an eastern Pennsylvania piece. It has a recessed semicircle under the middle drawer, scrolled returns, and cabriole legs with ball-and-claw feet. It handily exceeded its $4000/6000 estimate and went to Pennsylvania dealer Phil Bradley for $18,000.

This scratch-built wood and tin “Peoples Line” trolley car is 27¾" long and has an electrified interior. In brilliant yellow paint with green accents, it carried a $600/800 estimate and sold for $7200.

This paint-decorated pine tall clock was made by Riley Whiting of Winchester, Connecticut. The paint on the hood is rather worn, but note the eagle on the lower panel. With David Wheatcroft provenance, the clock sold to a left bid for $21,140.

The purchaser of this walnut and walnut-veneered escritoire was present in the gallery. He is Dennis Carr, assistant curator of decorative arts and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His $270,000 bid won the escritoire for the MFA. We asked if other examples exist in this country and invited his comments on its origin and history. He answered in two installments, which we edited slightly for continuity:

“As to the family history of the desk, the secondary woods (chestnut and pine) and certain construction details suggest to us that this rare writing desk, or escritoire, was made in New England, probably Rhode Island, not Philadelphia, as the catalog stated, making it a rare New England example of this important English form.

“My colleagues and I examined the piece thoroughly before the auction, and what was most exciting was that we found 24 secret compartments hidden on the inside of the upper section of the desk. On some of the secret compartments were written in old script the names of members of the Child family of Warren, Rhode Island—Samuel Child, Nathan Child, and Rosabella Child (three siblings) and Gardner Child, likely a cousin. I have traced the direct line of descent from these Child family members in the eighteenth century all the way down through the family to the present consignors, who are still living in Rhode Island.

“I also found what I believe is a reference to the desk in the 1738 inventory of James Child of Swansea, Massachusetts, the grandfather of the Child family members whose names are inside the desk. We found an old Providence Gazette newspaper from 1825 used to line one of the desk’s chestnut drawers.

“Warren [Rhode Island] was a prosperous town in the eighteenth century, a major center of shipbuilding and maritime activity in the colonies, being situated right on the water. The town was originally part of Swansea, Massachusetts, but became annexed by Rhode Island in 1747.

“There was clearly a lot of interest in the desk at the auction, but I think many people were befuddled by it, because it is such a rare form, at least in the colonies. There is an example known from Philadelphia and one from New York, but no well-known examples from New England.

“The Philadelphia example is the one at Colonial Williamsburg marked ‘Edward Evans 1707,’ see Worldly Goods, p. 134, fig. 194, and p. 147, cat. 69. The New York one is the inlaid example at the Museum of the City of New York, see Doreen Beck, Book of American Furniture, p. 26, fig. 25. At the auction, they were talking about the Philadelphia secretary that sold at Sotheby’s as part of the Jeffords sale, October 28/29, 2004, lot 204—it’s certainly related, but you could argue that it is a slightly different form.

“I spoke to the family [that consigned the desk] right after the sale, and they said they were delighted to know that their treasured family heirloom was going to a museum. I don’t think they had any idea how much it would bring at the auction.

“We are very excited to be able to add this rare example of early New England furniture to the MFA’s collection.”

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

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