Saturday, September 4, 2010

Roundabout Chair

I have discovered some rare and fine examples of antique furniture in San Diego over the years. As San Diego is not a very old town, compared to the cities on the East Coast, I have developed a theory as to why such important objects from the 18th century should exist here. I think that, as old money and old families decide to leave their East Coast homes, perhaps as a way to find better climates, they often choose between Florida and California. When they move they take only the best pieces in the house, leaving the rest behind, as they downsize. Thus, over the years, nice pieces of antique furniture have been transported West, away from the searching eyes of East Coast antique dealers.

That means that I have little competition for these wonderful objects when they become available on the local market. Since market forces are driven by supply and demand, the down side of this opportunity is that it becomes difficult to sell these early pieces at a good price here. The end result is I purchase and keep, until I run out of room. Fortunately, my workshop and residence are rather large, but also rather full.

An example of this is an estate sale I was involved with in the 80's. The person who passed away was a single lady, nearly 100 years old. She lived in a nice established neighborhood and had moved there around 1900. When she moved to San Diego from New Hampshire she brought the entire contents of her home, and everything was still in place, undisturbed. As I walked through the front door I immediately felt that I was in New Hampshire; it even had that Northern Yankee atmosphere of quiet, solid, conservative, practical and stability. The Grecian rocker sat in front of the fireplace. The wood works clock sat above the mantle. The rugs were hooked oval rag rugs, the candlestick sat quietly on the candlestand. An amazing experience.

The estate had been cleaned up and all the objects were priced for the upcoming sale. The sellers were relatives of the distinguished lady, and were also close personal friends of mine from high school, so I was there to do a favor and verify their pricing before the sale opened.

As I walked from room to room I was transported back in time to the 1790's. As I entered the back bedroom my heart stopped; next to the bed was the bottom half of a Dunlap chest-on-chest. The top was missing and in its place was a mirror so that the piece functioned as a dressing table. But it was impossible to not recognize the base as Dunlap, with the famous bandy legs and shaped apron. It had a price tag of $1100.

I immediately asked, "Is there a chest of drawers in this house?" The reply was "I think in the upstairs bedroom there is a chest." I ran up the stairs, not even breathing. At the back bedroom I found the top half of the Dunlap chest-on-chest, which was sitting on some simple bracket feet. It had a price tag of $800.

I informed my friends that these two pieces were not going to be offered at the sale.

Back at my shop I placed the original top chest on the original bottom chest and stood back to admire the most beautiful John Dunlap chest-on-chest I have seen outside any museum. Research later determined that the last such chest found was in 1952 in Texas, and this example was #29 or 30 of the 32 known to have been produced by Major John Dunlap. In addition, I found that John Dunlap's records included the name of the ancestor of our distinguished lady as the purchaser of this piece, completing the provenance.

It sold for $66,000 at Christies the next year, which in today's money is closer to $250K.

I received a nice commission for my work, and was able to purchase a corner chair and the candlestand (with the candlestick) from the estate. I made copies of both and sold the originals to a New York dealer.

The corner chair I produced was in curly maple, and a lot of fun to make. There is one difference in the copy from the original. The original included a chamber pot under the upholstered slip seat. Not a lot of people realize that the corner chair, and often the Easy chair were chairs of "convenience." These chairs resided in the bedroom and made it "easy" and "convenient" for the owners to relieve themselves in the middle of the night.

The deep apron on this chair was designed to hide the function. I would have included a chamber pot if I could have found the pot. Unfortunately, chamber pots do not survive in the modern age as much as you would think.

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