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Monday, January 16, 2012

Newport Furniture Symposium at Christie's

If the first night of Christie’s Newport Furniture Symposium was any indication of what Americana week holds, there are great things in store for the week ahead and interest in American Decorative Arts continues to grow.  It was a brutally cold evening in New York, yet despite this, people showed up in droves to preview the sale and attend the lecture by Patricia Kane, Friends of American Arts Curator of Decorative from Yale University.  Kane, who has been the driving force behind Yale’s Rhode Island Furniture Archive, gave a talk titled: “Following in the Footsteps of Joseph Ott: Even More Notes on Rhode Island Furniture.”  Ott, who served as director of the Rhode Island Historical Society from 1971-74, was a scholar and collector of Rhode Island Furniture who added greatly to the field by identifying makers previously overlooked.  As Kane noted, in Ott’s short tenure, he expanded the field of known furniture makers by 20%, bringing the total number of named craftsmen to just under 400. 

Thanks to Kane’s continued efforts, Yale’s archive now lists about 1800 makers, and her talk focused on the state of the field.  Of particular interest is the work beginning to identify other centers of production besides Newport and starting to establish the regional trends of areas like Providence, Warwick, and Kingston.  If, at first glance, these seem to be narrow distinctions useful only to connoisseurs and collectors, a second and deeper look is warranted.  This changes the regional history of the area’s furniture making, and with that there will be distinct differences in how the social and economic histories of Rhode Island (in general) and Newport (in particular) need to be told.  These discoveries, provided there are those continuing to incorporate them into their research and teaching, will reshape the standard models of colonial production history and allow for a richer and more complex understanding of the field.

Even before the lecture began, however, John Hays—Deputy Director for Christie’s America—had a surprise in store for the audience.  He invited up Joseph Ott’s son, who announced that in honor of his father’s memory they would like to donate two carved legs to an Institution designed for the study of decorative arts.  Nobody seemed more surprised than Wendy Cooper of Winterthur, when they asked her to come up and accept the donation.  “This,” she told the crowd, “is totally unexpected.”  It was a very sweet gesture by the Ott family and one that demonstrates the generosity of American Decorative Arts collectors and the general support of education and research by the collecting community.

The previews this week at both auction houses this week are exceptional, with fully half (three of six-known) of the signed works by John Townsend available for viewing.  As Pat Kane pointed out in an aside in her lecture: “What’s happening this week in the auctions in New York has to be some sort of a landmark.”

It was a great event, and nice to see so many familiar faces out and about for Americana week.  A few of the people in attendance last night warrant mention because they are always generous with their time to our students, and to demonstrate how important the week is to collectors, scholars, curators, and those in the industry:

(in no particular order)
Carrie Barratt, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Morrie Heckscher, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Brock Jobe, Winterthur
Nicholas Vincent, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Brandy Culp, Historic Charleston
Alexandra Kirtley, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Tara Gleason Chicirda, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Dennis Carr, Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Ron Bourgeau, Northeast Auctions
Elle Shushan, premier dealer in portrait miniatures

John Hays and Andrew Holter (one of our American Arts Course Alums, no less) deserve a lot of credit and gratitude for hosting such a wonderful evening.

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