A.M. from the 805 writes me that he has a vitrine that at first glance looks to come from the court of Louis XV. A closer look reveals the metal stripping which has been gold-plated is not the quality we'd expect from the 18th century. What is this thing? It is a thing to hold things.
I have a theory that people who are “stuff” people differ from “non-stuff” people. “Stuff people” invariably end up living with “non-stuff” people. You are on your way to marry a “non-stuff” person; when dating, visiting your little stuffed apartment, the experience is, for him, delightful, a peek into another world. He marvels what you can cram into such a small space, yet keep it all bright. He’s charmed that you know where everything is (my partner, one day, in my overflowing kitchen, asked me for a tiny eyeglass screwdriver, and I could find it immediately). He is thrilled that you have every book you ever read, filled with yellow Post-It notes, testaments to your intelligence and delightfully busy mind. Then you marry him and all of a sudden one weekend day he announces that he hates it all.
A.M.’s cabinet is made for a “stuff person” in the first quarter of the 20th century ladies liked to fill these displays, called vitrines, with little bits of “truc” (French for stuff) such as porcelain boxes, figures of glass birds, small powder vases, little souvenirs and bits of clay made by “early potter” kids. “Non-stuff” people have no idea why any of this exists, let alone achieving pride of place behind ceremonially locked glass doors. “Every object tells a story,” the “stuff person” will say. “Every object must have another home,” the partner pouts.
These vitrines were very popular during the first quarter of the 20th century when the interior decorating style was French. We inherited that taste from the Vanderbilts of Newport, RI. That was the style of the early 20th century upper class, and mediocre copies of furniture of that style trickled down the income ranks during a 20-year period.
This style called vitrine originated in the 18th century with the transformation of the Venetian standing sedan chair, a little elevator-sized vernis-martin (a technique of French lacquer finishing) and bronze mounted case in which the wealthy were carried through the muddy Venetian streets. Of course, so that rich attire could be seen, the conveyance was amply glazed with windows. When these were retired, the shape was discovered to be perfect for shelving and for display of stuff. The effect was Rococo and delicate and ornate. The bottom panels were painted with scenes of well-gowned coiffed ladies and foppish gentlemen. The original sedan chairs are worth quite a bit if they have their original little seats made for just one rear-end per trip, going at auction for $7,000. But once the style was converted to a tall display case, shelved, and reproduced in the late 19th to early 20th century, the style became hackneyed, to explain this transition as a fitting pun.
Today at auction, these French style late 19th early 20th century vitrines are worth only $300-400, if you can find a buyer. Few collect small billebots for display, or if they have, their partners complain so much about the clutter that they end up where my little billebots ended up – at Goodwill. Why is it that people, especially male people, claim they cannot think clearly in the presence of ubiquitous “stuff?” This speaks to me of the inadequacy of the male brain, dare I say. Such a flimsy instrument, that brain, to be thus confused by exterior “matter.”
But the male brain is not the only protestor. We have a new calling, the professional clutter therapist. Books such as Marie Kono’s The Life- Changing Magic of Tidying bestselling pride of space-taking at Chaucer’s checkout counter, enters the moneymaking self-help department. Trend forecaster James Wallman says the problem is Stuffocation, springing from the current obesity epidemic. Yet when I find myself moving into a new space, like the tide, the walls fill, the cupboards cram, the bookshelves impregnate. When my minimalist partner can’t take it anymore, attempts to give treasures to my late 20’s son meet with his screwed up “FaceTime” face and the new young negative: “Meh."
K.G. from the 805 is downsizing, and writes me that an antique table needs a new home, and, in my opinion, it should find a home that has a great respect for American history.
The table has a label verso that states: “This table belonged to Maria Morris, the daughter of Robert Morris,” the financier of the American Revolution, “and Maria’s husband Henry Nixon,” son of John Nixon, an American brigadier general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. I hope my genealogical research as follows is correct, as it helps to date the table to the last quarter of the 18th to first quarter of the 19th century.
Henry and Maria had a daughter, Ellen Cora Nixon, who had a daughter also named Ellen, who married into the famous wealthy mercantile clan, the Wahl family; when Mr. Wahl died, Ellen married another fantastically wealthy Philadelphian, Charles Harrison. They lived in a grand mansion on Locust Street near Rittenhouse Square. Charles served as provost of the University of Pennsylvania from 1894-1910. Ellen’s granddaughter inherited this table in 1940.
Historians say the Revolution would not have happened without Robert Morris’ cleverness with money and a knack for pirating. He was the main financier of the Revolutionary War; his ships “borrowed” loot from other vessels to add to his formidable wealth, which he loaned to the government. When his friend George Washington was ensconced as the first President, Morris’ house became our nation’s first White House; Morris moved next door. Today you can see the foundations of The President’s House a few steps away from the Liberty Bell on the Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Perhaps, of this table, we can say, “George Washington breakfasted here?”
Now, aside from the fact that this table is traced through to two of our great Revolutionary War heroes, through to some of the 19th century Philadelphia main line elites, a nice provenance for sure, the VALUE of the table lies in this one question: is it English or is it American, late 18th century to early 19th century? English 18th century furniture is generally slightly more refined in construction: taking the example of an English chest of drawers, the drawer blocks that hold dust shelves in place are made smaller and with more precision, as well as the smaller more precise dovetailing. Extra English care was taken in artisanship due to the more experienced craftsmen of England. On a dresser the extraneous panels between the drawer cavities are called “dusters” – you will see those on 18th century English furniture.
In New England of the late 18th century the demand for furniture was growing, and American furniture was produced quickly. American furniture, even though sometimes not as well made as English, is valued today at higher prices because it is more rare.
I believe K.G.’s table is indeed American, although this form, a tilt-top breakfast table, originated in England. I suspect an American origin, firstly, because two Revolutionary War patriots and their families would not have purchased “English,” and, secondly, because the mahogany used for the tabletop are two boards of mahogany, two wider boards being easier and faster to cobble than many smaller boards. The edges are molded, the top rises upon a baluster carved pedestal, supported by four down-swept sabre legs, raised on brass-capped animal claw foot casters. The joinery boards under the top which are not meant to show (the table, when tilted vertically was meant to stand against the wall) are solid mahogany. Chances are, because this form was rare in America, to show off American craftsmanship a more expensive wood was used as “secondary” supporting wood, when typical supporting wood would have been American white pine.
The mahogany would have been exported to the US from Santo Domingo. The table was perhaps made in Baltimore, a great import center for imported wood, known for furniture craftsmanship in the late 18th to early 19th century If we knew the maker, the table may be worth more than my estimate of $2,000. In my opinion, it should be worth more because of its provenance, but the general market for “Brown” 18th century furniture is very low today. To research the maker we need the experts at Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
One lucky guy from Santa Barbara, B.R., tells me that his daughter's friend in Beverly Hills, upon a visit through a nice neighborhood, found two incredible exotic chairs, obviously midcentury. He threw on the brakes and loaded them up, eventually giving them to B.R.
I myself would have done the same; these two chairs are so inspiring. These fall in to the category of midcentury design that I like the best, called Hollywood Regency. Those who have read this column know that this is my style, which I call (when added to rich colors and oversized cushioned furniture) Early Brothel.
At first glance, they look Chinese, but the 1950-60s had a taste for Asian, albeit imagined as fantasy oriental: chinoiserie. Throughout history, when the geometric lines of a certain era became too restrictive and severe, the swing of the pendulum went to the grace of Asian designs. This happened in the 18th century and again in the 19th century. And here we see it in the 20th century.
B.R. tells me that he suspects the chair's designer is the notorious James Mont, the bad boy of midcentury furniture design, and I think he's right.
Why bad boy? Darkly handsome, mysterious, with an unidentifiable foreign accent, James Mont was born Demetrios Pecintoglu in Istanbul in 1904 to an artistic family. In 1920, the family moved to Brooklyn, and Demetrios landed a job in an electrical supply shop, where he dabbled in designing lamps. One of his lamps was purchased by the local mob boss. We don't know the back story, but from that single lamp, Boss Frankie Yale was inspired to ask James Mont (now his new name) to design Yale's house. James caught fire, and became the mob's fave designer, making houses for Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano.
The road was short to Hollywood aristocracy from there, and James Mont designed for Bob Hope, Irving Berlin and Lana Turner, who also cavorted with the mob.
James Mont is today a sought-after designer for his luscious designs in that Hollywood Regency style, that peculiar mix of kitsch and elegance, modernism and classicism; think mirrored, sleek, hand-rubbed furniture, gold and silver highlights, bold statement colors, and white shag. Think huge rooms, deep black velvet sofas with long low backs, think a whole side of a room as a bar, think glamour.
Of course, when James Mont began designing for the mob, we didn't drink, because of Prohibition. Prohibition meant we shouldn't drink, so James designed foldaway portable bars in the Chinese or tropical taste and desks with secret drawers, all gleaming with that lacquer finish we see on B.R.'s chairs. This became a signature, and high society loved the wit of it.
Other famous Mont finishes include that wonderful midcentury look of sand-blasted oak rubbed with a hint of pastel over gold, silver leaf, or hand-rubbed chalk finishes. He loved the accent of a smoked mirror, animal skins and royal velvets. His designs were often whimsical, they often moved, such as his lamps on a giant spring, or his designs were both unlivable and impractical, such as oversized breakfronts in the tiki taste or white on white upholstery, or costly blood red mohairs.
Mysterious, brilliant, well connected, he had, of course, trouble with women. His first marriage ended 29 days in when his own Korean-born wife was found dead, apparently of suicide, but since James had a fiery temper, and mob friends, no one found out. A year later, his attractive female lampshade designer accused him of assault, and was so humiliated that as James awaited trial for "5 to 10" years, she, too, committed suicide. Of course, all this talk of Sing Sing added to his panache as a designer and a bad boy, and a real tastemaker. And being a tastemaker is a rare thing, especially when such a man as James Mont started from nothing, but had good looks and talent oozing from his pores.
Once you have seen a Mont design, you'll not forget the look. You can put any Hollywood icon in one of his chairs, or set any overweight mob boss at his tables, or see any aging society lady pushing guests into her oversized dining rooms in Beverly Hills. You'll recognize the large scale, the fab finishes, the glamor and the humor. And in Miami, in Palm Springs, in L.A., and in my house, you'll find Mont.
B.R. got lucky; his pair of chairs is worth $800 — at least.
E.V. from Montecito owns an old and fragile Japanese screen with a fabulous provenance. The artist signature in the chop reads Tosa Hironobu; Tosa is also a specific style of late 18th to early 19th century screens. She would like to have the delicate paper, which I suspect is mulberry-plant based, restored.
50 years ago, E.V. and her husband built a Japanese style home in Beverly Hills. Her architect took a buying trip to Japan in 1966 and returned with this 6-panel screen from Tokyo, from the 1830’s, by the imperial artist. I know this because the screen bears the royal mark of the Chrysanthemum. The screen portrays a dance under maple trees in the Royal Garden with emperor and empress attended by court musicians. E.V. sends the export certificate. Thus, E.V. and I have two subjects to discuss: the export certificate and my quest for a paper restorer for her screen.
First, the Japanese art market has been independent and flourishing for thousands of years and the opening of the market to the West is 100+ years recent. Japan has never experienced long-term foreign rule, so Japan’s cultural patrimony has been relatively secure. The Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs oversees dealers, museums and collectors. Preservation laws limit artworks exported out to government discretion. The Ministry of Education designates important cultural property. Over 10,000 objects are protected and can’t be exported under threat of imprisonment.
If a Japanese citizen wants to sell internationally, and the object is in a protected class, a collection of experts decides on a fair price and buys it for the state, or arranges a sale to a Japanese museum. Of course, some fantastic art was unfortuitously exported during the American Occupation. Another unfortunate time for Japanese exports was the late 19th century, when Japan opened to Western culture. In 1870-80, the American philosophy professor Ernest Fenollosa, at Tokyo University, saw treasures shipped away, and organized Japan’s first National Census of Artwork, assembling his own large collection that is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Art.
Notably, for E.V., during the 1960’s, when this screen was exported, an American connoisseur couple, Jackson and Mary Burke, were building a large collection of Japanese art, working closely with the Japanese government to permit certain (presently unexportable) artworks to be exported. E.V.’s architect may have benefited from this temporary lack of rigidity when he purchased this screen for E.V. in 1966. In conversation with E.V. she owns another screen brought back with the same architect, which also pictures a theme from a Japanese legend.
The second question of who restores such a treasure locally is more difficult. I turned to Winterthur Museum where I studied briefly, remembering the crack team of paper conservators. Michelle Sullivan was lately on that team: she is now at the J. Paul Getty Conservation Institute. The Getty does not provide conservation services for private clients, but I learned that Michelle Sullivan is a director of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) which has a researchable directory of private conservators. Locally, my old colleague Scott Haskins of FACL is a member; he is listed as an expert on painted surfaces; however, I have known him to undertake any challenge with expertise. Patricia West of SB is also a local conservator listed for her expertise in ceramics, gilding, paintings and woodworks. Chail Norton, in SB, is listed as an expert of art on paper, specifically non-Western art on paper. Her bio states that she worked in paper conservation at LACMA for 15-years and is now in private practice.
E.V., just to put the icing on the cake, I researched the value of your screen. A similar Tosa School 6-panel screen in ink, colors and gold leaf with gofun highlights on paper depicting a scene from Japanese legend “The Tale of Genji" by poetess Murasaki Shikibu, (which is the subject of E.V.’s other screen) portrays a delightful moment; the princess’s cat upsets the blinds that shield her beauty from suitors. This sold for $2500 at Neal Auctions New Orleans. Another Tosa School late 18th century screen, also 6-panels, depicting legendary poets from the “Thirty Six Immortals of Poetry,” ink on silver leaf, sold at Skinner’s Boston for $2500. A certificate (which adds to the value) accompanied this screen. E.V.’s screen is more valuable than the two comparable screens above, because neither of these two has artist’s signatures, and would put its replacement cost closer to $10,000.
A.S. has a suggestive table lamp that was tested in the early 20th century by Underwriter Labs Inc., as we see on the label affixed to the top of the lamp. Those certification labels by U.L. have been around for a hundred years, so they are not helpful in dating the lamp. What is helpful is understanding the history of indoor lighting — and this lamp itself tells that story.
You'd think the end of that history naturally should be the triumph of the electric table lamp. But electricity brought to your desk at night was not the immediately acceptable course we assume today. For a period of about 20 years, the civilized world went back and forth between oil, gas, candles and electricity. If you are my age, your parents were the first generation to take indoor lighting for granted. Next time you turn on your table lamp, understand the true gift it is of the lit world.
Let's start at the beginning: 4500 B.C., when oil lamps were invented. Oil remained the staple of indoor lighting for the next 6,370 years. A Scot, in 1835, showed a gathering of citizens in Dundee his light bulb electric lighting system. In 1875, Henry Woodward patented the electric light bulb, and in 1880, Thomas Edison patented the carbon thread incandescent lamp. This could burn for only 40 hours. So indoor electric lighting is a recent invention. In 1926, the fluorescent lamp was invented; halogen in 1935; and LED filaments in 2008.
Prior to 1901, most indoor light sources could only spotlight a small circumference; a chandelier or sconce on the wall could only light a room so much. After sunset, you'd need a candle in a bracket or an oil lamp. In 1890, postcards of fashionable hotels show candleholders, oil lamps — no electric lighting. Surprisingly, these exposed flame devises had decorative silk or paper shades. The candle was made from tallow, smelly animal fat poured into forms, in lower-income homes. Nicer was the beeswax candle, but it didn't hold up in hot weather, as did the candles made from whale oil.
At about the same time as folks were lighting candles at night in the late 1890s, electric lighting was pioneered, and the modern paraffin wax candle was invented.
Thomas Edison is responsible for bringing the first electric lamp to a home, Craigside, in Newcastle, England. But worldwide, the candle and the gas line were responsible for interior lighting until after World War I.
The Illuminating Engineering Society's website states: "the competition between gas and electric lighting was fierce (at the turn of the 20th century) for 20 years it was not clear at the time what would become the dominant form of 'artificial light,' and the question of the most efficacious and economical source was far from settled." A battle, indeed, waged between the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the American Gas Light Association. The two groups could not agree on a standard of luminous intensity.
If you were interested in electric lighting in 1905, you'd have to go to the "Central Station," the building with the steam-powered dynamos; the stations also owned the wiring, and sold the lighting appliance to their customers. No retail lighting existed.
In 1906, 25 men in the dueling lighting world dined together at New York's Hotel Astor for $1 per plate to hash out the future of lighting; undecided, they formed a society to publish technical details and discussions on all areas of lighting, which is still in existence today.
Electric lighting was never a "given." And since candles had been used for 5,000-plus years, even with electric lighting, users associated lighting with candles.
Hence, A.S.'s lamp is electric, but has six brackets for candles. The lamp also has a finial that supports a shade. The last thing A.S. should do is affix a shade and light to those six candles. The design of this lamp, made in the 1920s, shows a definite nostalgia for "antique" forms of lighting, not only in the reference to candles, but also in the shape of the baluster. The rounded middle is a reference to the bulging shape of oil lamps. The bronze material is another reference to old oil lamps of the past.
Many of these "referential" lamps exist today and are confusing to those of us who simply expect a base and a bulb with a cord. A.S. wonders "why candleholders?" Because most people dislike change, electricity was not inevitable. The value of this lamp is $100.
C from San Francisco has two wonderful hippie—era cases that he purchased from furniture maker Evert Sodergren in Seattle in 2010. These pieces have excellent provenance, as C has the signed receipt from the craftsman himself. Since the Western world is experiencing a craze for midcentury modern, I thought I'd share my thoughts about what's going to be hot next. And this American craft furniture, dating from the 1970s to the 1980s, is it.
The other term for this style is West Coast regionalism, and specifically, because this is so redolent of Seattle style, Northwest regionalism, circa 1960—70. If you've visited Seattle, you have witnessed the landscape from which these pieces sprang. Northwest regionalism is known for its interpretation of forests, views, water and rain, and plenty of free—form atmosphere. As early as the 1930s, Pacific Coast regionalists looked to Japanese—style architecture, which traditionally embraced natural woods, rocks and pieces for the landscape. The 1930s saw its own regionalism, California regionalism, including the state's ranch and Monterrey furniture and architecture.
All regionalism movements owed a debt to the previous generation of Arts and Crafts architects and designers, who thought simple and natural was best. But the Northern California and Pacific Northwest designers were influenced greatly by the craft tradition of handmade Scandinavian furniture, which used natural woods. A blend of simple wood, handmade elegance and Japanese aesthetic can be seen in C's double chests.
Thus, the landscape movement in architecture married Scandinavian handmade design with Japanese elegance, and a regional "look" emerged. Sodergren (1920—2013) was a leading artist, designer, craftsman and teacher (30 years at the University of Washington) whose studio furniture is worth thousands today, and rightfully so. It was exquisitely made.
The artist worked out of his house on Lake Washington, designed by himself and Ralph Anderson in 1972. It recently sold for $1.7 million. For the sake of the new owners, I hope the house was sold furnished: An early and rare Evert Sodergren "sculptured" chair, 1955, is listed for sale at $25,000.
Since we are experiencing high prices for midcentury modern at auction, I predict that the market may soon dry up; there's only so many pieces from the 1950s—1960s out there. I predict our next style craze with accompanying high values will be the American studio craft movement objects of the 1970s. Think flowing natural wood organic lines, heavy hand—thrown ceramics and studio glass, tones of browns and ochres, and rough textures — all those pieces you sold at your yard sale in 1990.
True, C's cabinets are at the top of the heap in regard to execution and design, but the whole market for American studio will be hot in a few months, so be on the lookout for anything 1970s.
Two other designers to look for in this style: George Nakashima and Arthur Espenet Carpenter. Their furniture is worth six figures today, but lesser known studio furniture designers will soon be hot and joining the auction room. American art furniture of the 1970s has entered the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery, The Museum of Arts and Design in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. So watch out.
C's pieces are reminiscent of Japanese tansu chests, and it's a skill he taught his apprentices up till the year he died. He instructed designers on the furniture of his heritage (his family immigrated from Sweden). Sodergren followed in the footsteps of Scandinavian modern designers of furniture such as Hans Wegner, Bruno Mathsson and Finn Juhl.
Sodergren's wife, Edith Fairhall, was also a free—form Seattle artist, and her canvases painted between 1970—1980 hung in his studio and are now in the process of being sold. I predict good paintings by regional American artists of the 1970s and 1980s will rise sharply in value because the artists of the 1950s and 1960s are becoming either too expensive or too geometrical and cold. Simply put, soon we will see the midcentury modern market being overbought and overwrought.
So, C, you have two treasure boxes, about to be valuable and continuing to increase in value to the tune of $40,000 for the pair. C is interested in selling these pieces and I have recommended contacting David Rago Auctions in Lambertville, N.J., a premier auction house in the sale of mid— and late 20th century designer material, as well as Arts and Crafts objects.
D.P. has two bound copies from two illustrious American newspapers, The New York Sun from January of 1947, and The Boston Globe from July of 1929. Newspapers were, in those days, not digitalized, and what D.P. has is an example of how newspapers were archived in libraries. Thus, I am assuming that the two bound copies exist in D.P.’s family because something important and related happened which affected her family, OR that something important happened in the world that lead to someone in D.P.’s family keeping these two specific dates.
Let’s look at what happened in January of 1947 and July of 1929 that would be news of a similar nature, and then let’s assume that because these papers relate to specific cities, that this news would have had an impact on Boston and/or New York. This method of research is intuitive: jumping off into a hypothesis that something related happened in both times that caused someone to hand on to these for 69 and 87 years resprectively.
Looking at the news in these months in these years, we find one TYPE of news common to both dates having to do with current events taking place around ports of transportation. In 1947-8 the New York Sun featured a momentous series of articles in “Crime on the Waterfront” by Malcolm Johnson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this story. What he discovered happening on the waterfront of Hoboken was the basis for what is arguably called the best American film ever produced, nominated for 12 Oscars, winning 8, voted the 8th greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute, On the Waterfront.
The facts of life on the Hoboken docks in the 1940’s, uncovered by Johnson’s exposé, involved the murder of a New York dock hiring boss, the New York court’s Waterfront Commission, and the whistleblower, longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo (played as Terry Malloy by Marlin Brando in the film). “A mans gotta do what a mans gotta do,” immortalized in Elia Kazan’s movie, galvanized the story of organized crime and corruption. Critics attribute Johnson’s 1947 articles with the transformation of the New York Harbor as well as Kazan’s controversial testimony before the 1950’s (equally power-driven) House on Un-American Activities Committee, after he made this movie.
The Boston Globe in July of 1929 also dealt with a scandal involving a port, the Boston Airport, called Logan later in its history. In 1928, the Boston Airport was owned by the U.S. Army who passed it to the Massachusetts Legislature. In 1929, the city took control of the airport with a 20-year lease under Boston’s Parks Department. The Parks Department reclaimed 200 acres from Boston Harbor, and at great cost of men and money, added buildings, runways, access roads, and landscaping, all for an industry that was thought “never to get off the ground.” This took place scenting the storm clouds of the devastation to be wrought by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Nevertheless, aviation won: air travel proved to be a moneymaker for Boston: international flights and flying celebrities from Charles Lindbergh to Amelia Earhart flew in and out of Boston Airport.
Perhaps I am stretching to find a common theme of port activity to the ownership and retention of these two particular newspapers. Although the Hoboken Harbor story is compelling for my choice of these in 1947, the year 1929 in July also held huge events that may have had nothing to do with interests in portside news. D.P.’s relative might have been a sports buff in 1929, reading about the 42nd Wimbledon tournament, or St. Louis’ 2,10-run innings, beating the Phillies 28-6, or, the Pirates and the Phillies 9 home run hits, one in each inning, and most incredibly, the New York to San Francisco footrace ending after 2 ½ exhausting months with the winner being a Mr. Monteverde at 60-years of age! Perhaps he was reading that at the Davis Cup in 1929 of that month, France beat the U.S. in Paris, and a Belgian rider took the Tour de France.
If D.P. were to sell these two volumes, she might receive as little as $20 each. Unless, of course, the provenance help that D.P. was the relative of the great journalist who uncovered the “on the waterfront” story in 1947, or that D.P. was related to the 60-year old who won a 2 ½ month race across the country. In those two cases, we would be talking irreplaceable value to D.P.’s family.
As far as “important” watches and clock go, J.J.’s is not so important: a Time Clock by Simplex Time Recorder Co., Gardner, MA. But this clock is connected with one of the largest of all corporations of business: IBM. Here, I contrast J.J.’s Simplex Time Clock with a magnificent antique clock of which there are only 12 examples, recently sold. Both clocks tell a story of their time, and in fact, J.J.’s clock, from the standpoint of material culture, tells the more “valuable” story.
J.J.’s clock is heavy – in side that oak case is machinery for punching time cards: a fully mechanized metal recording stamp engaged with the time card in the slot activated by the lever. Simplex was known for its heavy mechanized clocks: another model from the 1930’s featured an RCA radio built into the middle of a grandfather clock.
The interior has a cylindrical recorder that prints out the time on a roll of paper for the boss. J.J.’s has an original key, once pinned on the waistcoat of the boss so that an employee could not get into the machinery of the clock.
This clock is indicative of the way time was held by your employer; time was HIS indeed, and would be from this invention forward. So although it is not an “important” clock in the parlance of the auction house, it is historically valuable.
On the other hand, the Duc d’Orleans’ clock was a thing of opulence, the Breguet Sympathetique, a creation of a French master clockmaker, Abraham-Louis Breguet, a great architect (1835). Only 20 were made for the grand palaces of the European royalty in the last grasp of royalty in general.
The grand clock was an engineering marvel. At the top crest, a pocket watch set in a gilded “docking port,” auto-wound by the main clock. When we think today of auto-sync, that feature wouldn’t impress us. But royalty used to sit up until three in the morning when the master clock synchronized the pocket watch.
Such a clock was commissioned in the 1830’s by the young Duc d’Orleans for this Paris Pavillion de Marsan, and it lived there for a very short time, because, although the clock entered the Duc’s life on his 22nd birthday, he died at 32 in a carriage accident.
In the mid 20th C., the clock made its way to Rockford, IL, not such a glamorous place. Seth G. Atwood (1917-2010) founded the Time Museum of Rockford, and hired a celebrated horologist to find him that Breguet Sympathetique. Dr. George Daniels found it in a Paris antique store in 1974, but the unique dual winding system was damaged. It took Daniels years to figure out how the original clockmaker did it: the clock lived in Rockford until 1999 when Atwood sold the museum. Today only 12 Sympathetiques exist.
The grand clock sold for $5 million: that is not the same figure J.J. should expect. Many exist and the workings are so simple that even J.J.’s boyfriend can repair the time puncher. But the very invention of a machine to ‘clock-in’ a human worker is monumental: the system for doing so was invented by Willard LeGrand Bundy of Auburn, NY where each worker punched his card by turning his unique key.
Bundy and his brother Harlow formed the Bundy Manufacturing Company in 1889: by 1900 the Bundy’s merged with other companies to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR), which later changed its name to IBM.
Yes, I mean THAT IBM, in the business of making time clocks under their equipment division from 1900-58, when the IBM Time Equipment division was sold to the established time clock makers, Simplex.
The “buddy punch,” which was found to be a problem, necessitated the development in the 1970’s of a card swipe or a scan technology. Today a time clock is a “smart clock” which takes the employee’s photo. No longer is a weighty clock like J.J.’s of usable service. Today’s time clocks do more, as in more oversight, such as the biometric reader to identify a unique feature of the employee. For this, the employee is required to give away the configuration of the iris of an eye.
J.J., if you want to spend more than the $300 your clock is worth, you can buy a ticket to New York to visit the inventor’s home in Binghamton, a house museum dedicated to the Bundy brothers, who set the wheels in motion for the biggest company in the world responsible for ‘time computing,’ IBM.
C.R. sent me a photo of a piece of furniture for sale at the Unity Shoppe that she has been eyeing for weeks. She is wondering what it's worth. She says the flamboyant piece will fit nicely in to her dÄcor, which she calls "early brothel." This painted little bombÄ commode, with one cabinet door, abundant in floral decoration, should be a perfect addition.
C.R., the style is not traditionally called "early brothel" but rather Venetian rococo, the choice of many a female socialite over the years. Other terms for the style include Venetian Baroque or Piedmontese. The style has a definite connection with early Santa Barbara: One of the biggest fans of it in the early 20th century was James Deering, chair of the Deering Harvester Co., who was a colleague of the McCormick family, whose business, the McCormick Reaper Co., merged with Mr. Deering's to become International Harvester. Riven Rock here in Santa Barbara, home to the McCormicks for a time, was rivaled by Deering's fabulous Miami-based Villa Vizcaya (built 1914-1922), which is now a museum. Mr. Deering was a great collector of Venetian furniture.
The late 19th century craze to collect such Italian furniture parallels the importance of Venice as a style destination, when wealthy connoisseurs visited and bought up the Apennine Peninsula on 19th and early 20th century Grand Tours. Whole Venetian palaces were ransacked and brought to mansions in the U.S., and although the style is not in favor today, it has a certain following.
Antique Venetian furniture is difficult to price, C.R., because there's not much intrinsic value in the craftsmanship. The point of the style is to extrinsically delight the eye, not to subtly suggest refinement. So a piece of Italian furniture can command six figures at auction, or three figures. It just depends who wants it badly enough. Many 20th century craftsmen did not brand their pieces with their workshop labels, so no famous cabinetmakers are known. In addition, this style is built of insubstantial light wood frames: beech, poplar, pine. They are known for falling apart. And let's face it — it is all about the look anyway. These pieces are not built to contain anything.
The secret of these scintillating pieces is not in the execution; they are simply constructed. But the paint surface finish is all about polychroming. The painting is exuberant, over the top. The background colors are mustard and a certain green I call Italian Green, a cross between pea and leaf, cut with light rose. You'll see pinks and reds and gold and occasionally blue. The floral cartouches (molded, raised frames into which a design is painted in reserves) are often candy box colored.
The forms are curvilinear, bursting at the seams, and heavily carved. The carvings on the legs and moldings are not delicate and refined; rather, they are fun, and usually topped with gold paint. In these days of the primacy of mid-century modern, not every home decorator wants to use such a piece. Functionality just is not the plan here; drawers and cabinet doors don't completely fit, adding to the dishabille charm, which also suggests a grander age, a "broken down duchess" look.
Italian furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries is based on French furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries, especially the massive neoclassicism of Louis XIV furniture (Baroque), and the more delicate organic forms of Louis XV (rococo). The Italians put their own touches on French forms, expanding the curves, for example, emphasizing the explosion of the bombÄ form into a little mushroom cloud, as we see in the piece C.R. hankers after.
This furniture is perfect in a faded velvet-draped tall-windowed, slightly shabby "piano nobile" (the upper room for the noble people), where it is always slightly dusty, with motes of sunlight reflecting off the canal below, and half-dead roses in the dry vase in the corner. That's the native interior setting.
You must have a high tolerance for decadence to love this style. Many collectors of these romantic ruins have been found in the past, although not so much today. A piece last winter sold at Sotheby's for $180,000 from the estate of philanthropist Dodie Rosekrans of San Francisco, as well as the collection of an artist of 1960s fame, Cy Twombly.
C.R., I would say that a price under $500 is fair for such a bombÄ. Viva "early brothel"! I would go out and buy this; your dÄcor is finer than most others in Santa Barbara for such a lonely old Venetian.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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