Va. museum buys $1.5 million chest

A well-documented Japanned William and Mary High Chest which had been on the market since last fall for $2.75 million, was sold last month to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for $1.5 million by Israel Sack Inc., the New York dealers, according to an announcement made by the museum. It went on display on April 24 at the museum in Richmond.

"The purchase price, which will come from the museum's Adolph and Wilkins Williams endowment fund over the next two years, is the largest ever paid by the museum for any work of art," said Suzanne Hall, Virginia Museum spokeswoman.


It is not the highest price ever paid by a museum for a piece of American furniture. A year ago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art paid $2.2 million for a Philadelphia desk and bookcase in a private sale negotiated by Sotheby's.

"It is unusual for the museum to reveal the purchase price of anything we buy," Ms. Hall noted. She added that state funds are never used for the purchase of art, but all art acquired by the museum becomes the property of the Commonwealth.


Asked if every state agency is required by law to disclose the amount of purchases, she said the museum operates under the Freedom of Information Act, which does not require that prices paid be made public.

"The board unanimously approved the purchase of the high chest and was proud of [its] decision," she said. "Our collection of 18th century furniture is not large; we are building it now. The announcement is one way of letting people know what we are doing."

The board is in the process of raising $10 million to endow an American art purchase fund, and is already more than half way toward its goal.

David Park Curry, deputy director for collections and curator of American art at the Virginia Museum, acknowledged that "the piece was priced significantly higher when it first came on the market but a softening of the art market lowered the price."

Harold Sack, president of Israel Sack Inc., said the price paid by the museum was what the firm asked. "It was the highest price ever paid for any early 18th century piece," he remarked. "It was a business decision to sell it."

"We originally priced it before the invasion of Kuwait," Mr. Sack said. "The war in the gulf made everyone take stock. Faced with uncertainties, we decided that instead of holding it for three or four years we would sell it now and free up funds so that we could take advantage of opportunities to buy other pieces."

Mr. Sack said the museum had been considering purchasing a number of other pieces but decided to put all their funds in one masterpiece. "Small museums cannot compete in number of objects but they can compete in magnificence," he added.

It was the second time the Sack firm has owned the piece. In 1976 Sack bought the high chest from Connecticut dealer Nathan Liverant and sold it the same year to Linda H. and George M. Kaufman of Norfolk. He would not reveal the price 15 years ago but when asked if $300,000, the rumored price, was correct, he answered "less."


Mr. Sack also would not confirm that $1.3 million was the price he paid the Kaufmans for the chest, but volunteered that the price was as much as the firm had ever paid for any piece for inventory.

The high chest, made in Boston circa 1700 to 1730, is one of only half a dozen Boston chests with japanned decorations known to survive. It is painted with a black ground over which exotic Oriental scenes are built up in gesso and gilded to simulate Oriental lacquer work, a technique known as japanning. Each of its eight drawers is inscribed in chalk with the name Scottow, thought to refer to John Scottow, a Boston cabinetmaker. The painted, gessoed and gilded surface is attributed to the Boston japanner Robert Davis, who died in 1730 and who worked in the trade with his father-in-law, William Randall (active 1715 to 1735). Of extreme rarity are its faceted legs, not known on other American pieces but seen on English examples.

The Sack firm first offered the high chest at the International Antique Dealers show in New York in early October with a price tag of $2.75 million.

The firm then advertised the high chest widely, even illustrating it in color in a Japanese magazine. But there are few collectors of William and Mary furniture or japanned furniture, which requires careful conservation and maintenance. It is rare to find japanned pieces with their decoration intact.

With no one interested among the small group of private collectors who can afford such high priced furniture, the Virginia Museum was in a good bargaining position.

"The importance of the piece will serve as an anchor for the museum's American collections," said Mr. Curry.