D.G. has a chest of drawers from her mother's house in Upstate New York; her mom bought it in the glory days of
collecting American antiques of the Classical period, in 1940. American Classical furniture hearkens back to 100 years before, to the early- to mid-19th century, especially favored by craftsmen from the great growing cities of the East Coast from 1810-1840.
I had the pleasure of studying the collections at Winterthur Museum in Delaware, where I fell in love with the austere designs of the N.Y. maker Joseph Meeks and Sons. Another classical designer and maker to watch for is Duncan Phyfe, a cabinetmaker who designed for the shipping classes in Manhattan. A small good Phyfe table will set you back $350,000; I have attended the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory and seen such transactions.
American Classical furniture is confusing as a name, because even my mother in Illinois thought she was furnishing our 1960s home in the American Classical style; it was, in fact, Neo-Colonial style. Then my newly married aunts in the 1980s furnished in the American Classical style, which to them meant knockoffs of Chippendale or any
kind of dark mahogany future.
One style only is American Classical. If you have a chance, you can see the richness and elegance of the style at the newly opened (2012) American wing of the MET, with a cross section of a New York Westside brownstone dining room.
By many other names, the decorative arts world will know American Classical, and they are all partially correct. Late Sheraton, early to mid Hepplewhite are slight misnomers because the designs they reference are English: America looked to England for taste in design.
American Classical is easy to spot, but hard to value. That's because, by the early- to mid-19th century two important events took place: the rise of very fine American cabinetmakers (not British) and
the rise of imitations for the upper middle class by virtue of growing machine-made technology. Yet the handmade cabinets by the best East Coast makers command the big bucks.
Common design elements I look for are:
Another clue to the era is the unusable nature of many of the forms of the furniture in a house today. I mentioned the dawn of machine-made furniture in this era. That event made pieces more affordable, so, by 1830-40, parlors featured "occasional" pieces such as the flip- top game table, and the drawered box on a stand for sewing, called a
work table. The box-y looking commode held, well, a commode.
Most of the era's design was perfectly symmetrical, so, if on both sides of D.G.'s chest we see turned twisted column, we also will see round pairs of symmetrical pulls centered by equal escutcheons (holes finished for keys and locks).
The key to the value of D.G.'s chest is the identification of the cabinetmaker. My advice is to look to the library at Winterthur, where, online, she will find copies of the antique "cabinet maker's guides" by the New York designers. Some of the designers to search for are Quervelle, Roux, Meeks and Sons, and Phyfe.
Notice the feet on any American Classical piece of furniture, whether it be tables or chairs, sofas or dressers, or a mirror stand. That's because the style was famous for the "hairy paw" foot, a claw-shaped foot with toes and hair, much like a large dog's or a lion's, which will be the terminus of many a sabre-shaped leg. How this came to be
is the commensurate discoveries of the time of Roman and Greek furniture excavated, modelled on natural "stands" such as a dog on four legs, or the more noble lion. Sometimes the form sinks a little into the ridiculous — as I have seen Bovidae or Suidae feet (cows and pigs).
Animal feet are a sure sign of a reference to the Ancients, which is where American Classicism aimed to be. If you are unsure, compare the form to an imposing old city-banking establishment, which was no doubt also classically inspired. Just like D.G.'s chest, that building had serious weighty mass.
Estimated value without a definitive maker's mark attribution? $1,000 to $2,000, on a good day.
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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