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Made In The USA—Mining Americana

Judd Tully
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

(continued from page 1)

Objects range from an engraved hunting horn inscribed, "George Morley's Horn, Roxbury Camp, December 17, 1775" and in larger script, "Liberty" (est. $8,000-$12,000) to a charming nineteenth-century anonymous watercolor of a pillared house set next to a fir tree (est. $1,000-$1,500). The estimates soar to six figures for the furniture, with a group of brilliant examples created in the decade before and during the American Revolution, the field's most sought-after period. Choice pieces include a Chippendale carved mahogany dressing table, Philadelphia, circa 1760 (est. $150,000-$250,000), a pair of Chippendale mahogany side chairs, New York, circa 1770 (est. $40,000-$60,000), a Chippendale mahogany tray-top tea table, Boston, circa 1765 (est. $50,000-$80,000) and a Chippendale carved mahogany armchair, Philadelphia, circa 1770 (est. $50,000-$80,000).

Chippendales don't always attract such blue-chip prices. Less stellar examples of Chippendale furniture, such as repaired or inferior pieces, have sold for a fraction of the above prices, such as the $6,270 (est. $700-1,000) that a side chair recently fetched at Sotheby's New York.

Keno is an adherent of the "do not touch" attitude that dominates the high end of the trade for eighteenth-century furniture; in other words, the closer to its original state a piece of furniture is, the better. Known as the "in the dirty rough" school, it was first championed in the 1940s and '50s by the late antiques dealer Jesse Patey of Bloomfield Heights, Michigan.

A mysterious game seemed to be in play during exhibition hours for last October's Americana sale at Sotheby's. Grown men and women in conservative attire crouched on all fours, and poked powerful flashlights inside drawers and behind cabinets. But it was really a treasure hunt to inspect dovetails or search for special maker marks or labels. Many of the furniture pieces were literally turned (gently) upside down to examine the secondary woods and take into account any repairs, whether recent or long ago. Similar to other collecting fields, Keno points out, the big four factors of quality, rarity, condition and provenance determine the ultimate market price.

"You want to make sure that not only the region's right but also whether all the parts are original to the piece or if there are some replacements," cautions Keno. "The stakes are very high." By example, Keno says a cherry-wood eighteenth-century New England tray-top tea table could be worth $200,000, "but if one leg is replaced, hypothetically it would probably be worth somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000. You really have to get to the bottom of a piece when you're spending tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Alternately, "a piece can sometimes be in multiples of what it might be worth if the finish is absolutely original." That's another reason why Keno urges beginning collectors to collect reference books on the subject and subscribe to periodicals like the Chipstone Journal and Antiques Magazine to increase their expertise.

Continuing his how-to pep talk on evaluating works, Keno adds, "You want to ask yourself, 'How rare is it? Are there three of these pieces or 300, and where are the other ones?' If 30 of these come up a year at auction, you don't have to jump at the first piece."

Condition is critical. "Does it have its original patina [surface] or is it essentially shiny and bright? It's sort of like an archaeological site that has not been touched. You don't want to know that there have been five bulldozers that have plowed through the depths of the thing. The patina is like a tape recording of its history."

Asked if a neophyte would need a fortune to win a work from his upcoming sales, Keno says, "Someone can collect on a shoestring budget, and I don't think it's that tough. But as in any business field, I think it's good to start a relationship, whether it is with a dealer or with an auction-house specialist. Part of our job is to advise buyers -- beginners or advanced collectors -- and help them narrow down their selections. I find myself saying more and more, 'This isn't for you' than 'This is for you,' because there may be a better one coming up in a future sale."

Judd Tully covers the New York art and auction scene for a variety of publications, including the London Antiques Trade Gazette.

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