War hasn't hurt prices of top American furniture


The war in the gulf brought forth a burst of flag-waving patriotism that translated into some patriotic paddle-raising at Sotheby's and Christie's Americana sales held during the last week of January. The market for Americana is still alive!

Sotheby's managed to get $1,045,000, its low estimate, for a very fine Philadelphia card table made circa 1760. A superb carved and gilt Philadelphia girandole mirror sold for $96,250, nearly three times its high estimate and a record for a girandole mirror.

Christie's set three new records. A marble-top brass-mounted pier table supported by carved caryatids branded by the French emigre craftsman Charles Honore Lannuier, circa 1815, brought $704,000, a record for neoclassical American furniture. A record for an American firearms lot was realized when a cased set of two Colt revolvers sold for $352,000. The pair, inlaid with gold and engraved by Gustav Young in 1853, were bought by English dealer Peter Finer, below their low estimate. The previous record for a lot of American arms was made in May 1987 when the Colt Peacemaker 1 sold at Christie's East for $242,000 -- still a record for a single American gun.

Also at Christie's a collector paid a record $44,000 for a Currier and Ives print, "The National Game of Baseball."

While many feared the sales would bomb because of the weak economy and the gulf war, the results were not so bad in trying times. The sold total was a little more than $10 million for the week: $7.5 million at Sotheby's and $3.3 million at Christie's. Roughly 75 percent of the 1,500 lots offered at the two houses -- 1,100 at Sotheby's and 400 at Christie's -- sold. This turnover is well below the record $24 million week last year when the Americana market peaked.

The record Philadelphia card table made its reserve or minimum acceptable price, and it became the eighth piece of American furniture to hit the million-dollar mark. It descended in the family of Thomas Willing, a Colonial mayor of Philadelphia, Supreme Court Justice and banker. It spent 70 years in a bank vault until it was discovered in a crate in 1965 by a Philadelphia banker and Willing heir, whose three children consigned it for sale.

The buyer was the Chipstone Museum, a foundation for the decorative arts, in Milwaukee. Chipstone's director, Luke Beckerdite, who knows as much about 18th century Philadelphia carvers as anyone, proclaimed "the Willing table is beyond argument the greatest surviving Philadelphia card table in the early rococo style."

Mr. Beckerdite went on to say that turret-cornered card tables were always expensive, pointing out that a Philadelphia lumber merchant, Benjamin Lehman, in his 1772 manuscript price list valued "mahogany card tables with Round Corners . . . Claw feet . . . leaves on the knees & Carv'd mouldings . . . [and] Carved Rails" at 10 pounds, nearly twice the amount assigned to the most elaborate tea table on the list and more than any lowboy.

A market depends as much on sellers as buyers and some would-be consignors held back this year, waiting to see what would happen in the Middle East. There was also a shortage of wealthy private buyers. Texas billionaire Robert Bass, bidding through Israel Sack, the New York firm, had been fueling the market but apparently he is not buying now. There are so few TTC players at the $1 million level that the departure of one changes the game.

There were, however, 10 lots that topped the $100,000 level: four highboys (of which one, made in Massachusetts circa 1750, made $245,000); a chest of drawers; two mirrors; the two record tables; and a weather vane in the form of an Indian, which brought $137,500.

On the other hand, a collector of New York federal furniture who bought his furniture at auction in 1988 and 1989 and consigned it to Christie's, took big losses, with many items selling for less than two thirds of what he paid for them and some lots failing to sell at all. And at Sotheby's, the collection of more than 100 items consigned by the Rosen family to fulfill the terms of a trust was only 68 percent sold, bringing less than $1 million instead of the $1.5 million to $2 million estimated.

"You must look at the sales in two ways," said John Hays, who recently was elevated to head of Christie's American Furniture department. "The good news is, the top of the market is still strong. The Lannuier pier table sold for over $100,000 more than its mate brought in 1988. The bad news is, given the world situation and the uncertain economic times, the middle market is extremely selective."

If the froth is off the Americana market, no one could tell from the size of the standing-room-only crowd at Christie's that applauded when the Lannuier table was knocked down to New York collector Peter Terian, who was standing in the back of the sales room. Mr. Terian was vying with New York dealer Stuart Feld, who was bidding from his booth at the Winter Antiques Show at the Seventh Regiment Armory just a few blocks north on Park Avenue. Mr. Terian had been the underbidder in October 1988 when Mr. Feld bought the mate to this table at Sotheby's for $594,000.

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