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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Americana Week Wrap Up: Highlights from the Christie's Sale

As classes begin and my students are working again at the Winter Antiques Show it seemed like a good time to reflect upon what for me were the highlights of Americana week.  Christie's (where our alum Andrew Holter is head of the American Furniture dept.) had a particularly strong sale, and among the highlights were a stunning Townsend desk, an intact example of the earliest American-made porcelain, and an iconic piece of New Hampshire furniture.  The early part of the auction was a bit slow, with Audubon prints hitting at or near their estimates and a few lots that passed.  Followed by a selection of samplers, the early lots seemed designed for predictable sales with few fireworks--nice lots to be sure but not the cream of the crop.

The mood changed quickly with Edward Hicks' Penn's Treaty (estimated at $600-900K) that finally sold for $2.2 million.  The bidding was a bit erratic, with the final price appearing to reach 2.4 million amongst some confusion in the sale room.  Auctioneer John Hays quickly got control of the situation and backed the bids down to $2 million where bidding resumed.  Another surprise was lot 108
Frederick Kemmelmeyer's portrait of Washington which--after a flurry of early bidding--finally hammered for $300K, or 15 times its low estimate.  An exceptional Queen Anne chair attributed to John Haines finally hammered for $450K, a new record for furniture from New Hampshire.  The scrolled, carved arms, Spanish feet, and boldly turned stretchers, the chair is an iconic piece of New Hampshire furniture, one about which Albert Sacks remarked in 1950 "No price is too great for a chair of this quality."  Bidders seemed to agree, pushing the chair well beyond its $200-300K estimate.

In terms of furniture, the real star of the show was Lot 158, a remarkable Townsend desk that appears to have been twice signed: once by Jonathan Townsend and once by John Townsend.  Similar to a desk at the Metropolitan Museum (but retaining an older, less restored surface) Holter and Hays discovered that the top of the two desks have nearly identical grain, suggesting they were cut from the same timber.  Like all Townsend desks of this period, the lower portion of the feet were restored; this suggests that the feet on his desks were inherently weak and that the delicacy he achieved was at the expense of structural integrity.   The rarity of form, the two signatures, original brasses, and fine finish on the desk pushed it well above its $700-900K estimate (Hays began the bidding at $500K) to finally hammer at $1.9 million.

The American Soft Paste Porcelain bowl by John Bartlam was a delight to see.  Although in the catalog the form seems monumental, there is a delicacy and intimacy to the bowl (it's only 1 5/8 inches tall) that was surprising in person.  Bartlam was the first porcelain producer known in the Colonies, beginning in Cain Hoy, South Carolina about 1763 before relocating to Charleston about 1770.  A Staffordshire trained ceramist, little but Bartlam's basic biography is presently known and knowledge of his work comes mainly from patterns found in the archaeological evidence of his kilns.  Interestingly, all of the known examples have surfaced in England, suggesting that he must have brought some stock back with him when he returned in 1773.  Estimated at $30-50K, the small bowl finally hammered at $120K.

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