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Archive for December, 2012

Early George III Chest on Chest

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

It seems like on every trip we find one truly important and beautiful piece of English Georgian furniture in addition to a vast array of fine chests, chairs, tables, etc.  Not in any way to denigrate the other pieces, just to say at least one piece always makes my heart pound with joy.  This c. 1765 chest from our last trip–found on our last day with no money left, is one of those pieces.  Obviously we bought it anyway, over budget or not (helps me understand Washington!).

From examining a few details Elizabeth and I knew it was made in London in one of the finest cabinet shops about 1760-70 and here is why.

c. 1765 George III Chest on Chest

While not over the top with every bell and whistle, from its exterior we knew the proportions were perfect, the bracket feet appropriately powerful to give it visual lift, it has dentil molding, it has molded quarter upper pilasters and lamb’s tongue molded corners on the bottom chest–and brilliant fire gilt brass rococo hardware!  All in all an outstanding piece–and it had only few obvious faults and a great old finish that was just dirty dirty dirty!  The faults were a couple of missing dentil bits and age cracks still open on the sides–not bad for 260 years or so.

But of course everything underneath, on the back and inside both the drawers and the case had to support the purported age from the design.  So lets look and see what we discovered.

Note first that this crown molding is attached to the top of the upper case rather than sitting on it as a third section.  From the 17th century to between 1760 and 1780 all crown moldings were attached.  It was found to exacerbate splitting on the sides during shrinkage, so gradually starting with the most sophisticated shops and spreading everywhere, this method was replaced by creating a crown sitting on top held by glue blocks installed on top of the case.  You know this molding is attached when you see the delft urn sitting on a flat top, not down inside a projecting molding.  Without the jar, just pat the top to see how its attached!

Front right foot from underneath

Since the feet are so apparently wonderful, they seem a good place to start proving or disproving the authenticity of the piece.  I will show another in a moment, but here is where we learn more about the cabinet shop!  These feet all have stacked and glued blocks to support the chest.  The weight is designed to be carried by these blocks–when new the mahogany exterior was purely decorative and did not touch the floor.  These were time consuming to make.  Time was money.  Only the best cabinet shops enjoyed a clientele wealthy enough to pay for this luxury construction feature when the lesser shops all glued in one vertical block for support.  Chippendale, Vile, etc used this method, as did a couple of aristocratic patronage Edinburgh shops.

Another foot--bottom block lost

This is the front left–it has lost the bottom block of support over the years.  These were all scrap deal glued up to create massive blocks then fashioned to hide behind the rich mahogany facade of the foot.  Note on both feet the accumulated grunge, dark color even in the flash, and all of the hand tool marks and rasp marks.

Not only are we convinced of the authenticity of the feet–no other scarring–but we have discovered that this was made in a master quality shop!

Inside a drawer

The first or second step in examining any case furniture is looking inside the drawers–particularly important in two part pieces.  Take my word for it, we pulled every upper and lower case drawer out a few inches and examined wood selection and dovetailing techniques–on this piece they were identical, which they MUST be.  If one finds all oak secondary, then a London or Edinburg attribution is most likely, while a combination or oak and deal (pine) or all pine indicates a provincial piece (in England if it ain’t London it’s provincial!!!!!!!).

The wood on the front of the drawer is mahogany and all of the rest is oak.  A careful examination of grain patterns between the mahogany revealed on the backside of the drawer front and the drawer front reveals another important aspect of high end mid-Georgian London construction:  fine mahogany veneered drawer fronts with lesser mahogany as the secondary wood.  This is particularly prevalent  in the 1760′s.  The other reason we alway look inside, even on a chest of drawers, is to look for the history of the drawer pulls.  We have noted fabulous rococo style fire gilt pulls already–but are they original?  The answer is clearly yes–or at least anything else was in these exact holes.  We find not other holes to attach other pulls and we see no disturbance around these nuts and shafts which are hand made and hand threaded of high quality.  So it only remains to look at the front again to see if any other hardware might have been in these holes and so skillfully changes no interior scaring was made.

Fire gilt rococo pull

The rosettes always tend to move a bit on the facade–these are slightly angled.  Note the dark grunge of the ages concealed under them.  Here is another:

Another pull view

Looking particularly at the upper left side of the right rosette you can see dark staining where it was positioned for some of its 260 years on this chest.

I always do one more test–raise up the bail and look at what centuries of lifting the pull to open a drawer and then letting go, so that the bail drops back down against the facade of the drawer.

Bail lifted for examination

Note that where the metal of the lower arc of the bail repeatedly encounters wood there is a dark dent.  And of these fire gilt bails, the gilding has also been lost from the high spot that repeatedly bounces against the wood.  If we found ANOTHER set of  “bounce marks” we would know that the hardware was replaced but in the original holes!

One more thing is learned from inside the drawer:  the wood on the bottoms runs front to back, i.e. attached at the front and back of the drawer and the grain running side to side.

Drawer bottom with wood running front to back

This is another history of furniture construction evolution.  By about 1780 almost every drawer was being built with the bottoms attached to the sides, the wood running side to side which created fewer problems as the wood shrank (for instance the nails at the back could be released and the wood tapped forward to fill a shrinkage line between boards.

Inside the case

Pulling out a drawer reveals all sorts of interesting things.  The sides are solid mahogany whereas later they are frequently veneered onto pine (generally after 1780).  Look carefully at the surface where the edge of the drawer runs–you will see it is worn down greatly at the back, typical of how the literal sawing of wood over wood wears on drawer bottoms and running surfaces.  The pieces of wood beside the running surface guide the drawer so it does not wiggle when being pulled out and pushed back in.  You can see the pine dust dividers–an English trait of construction to keep dirt, dust and sawdust from drifting onto clothes in the next lower rank of drawers–rarely found in American furniture except the best English trained cabinetmakers with clients willing to pay the extra cost.  The back of deal is also visible.

Finally back to two detail shots of the outside to cinch our belief in the beauty and quality of the piece.

Quarter pilaster detail with dentil

Detail where the two cases meet

In these pictures we see the design genius of the cabinetmaker at work:  he has used a simple molding plane to create an elegant quarter pilaster but instead of simply ending it, he has created a flowing peak (a serpentine motif) in the molding at the top and base, both of which reflect the motif of the lamb’s tongue found on the lower case.  This is difficult to execute and adds immeasurably to the elegance of the piece and the harmony of the design.

All in all it is an exceptional piece of high style Georgian cabinetmaking.  And every aspect from the rococo hardware popular from 1755 to 1770, to the construction techniques all most currant from 1760-1780, to the overall design current from 1760 when the Age of Mahogany replaced the Age of Walnut to 1770 when neo-classicism replaced the mid-century styles–absolutely everything confirms our circa date of 1765.

More photos are on our website with dimensions and price.

George I Bureau Bookcase

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

The bureau bookcase is English antiques jargon for what in America is called a secretary–both denoting a slant-front desk below a bookcase either with mirrored doors, solid doors, or glass doors.  The form developed in the last 20 years or so of the 17th century during the reign of William and Mary, heavily influenced by the Dutch artisans who came simultaneously to England with the new monarch and his wife.

We have been asked to sell a particularly fine example for the estate of an eminent American collector and renowned preservationist.  Here is an overall view.

c. 1715-30 Walnut Bureau Bookcase

Numerous important features are evident immediately:  a heavy waist molding, a book rail, mirrored doors, candle slides, superbly matched walnut veneers, bracket feet, and a swan-neck broken arch pediment with gilt cartouche.  Each of these aspects is important and challenges us to carefully understand the implication of each.

Look at two more photos before we explore these points.

Side view

Slant front details

Note the heavy waist molding which is reflected in the molding at the base of the desk and also at the point were the bookcase sits down inside the top of the desk section.  In the 17th century into the earliest part of the 18th century this waist molding was actually serving the identical purpose of the molding on top of the desk–the first bureau bookcases were built in three sections.  The bottom case had drawers only; within it sat a desk with slant writing surface and a well concealed by a decorative panel for hiding large papers; and a bookcase surmounting it all.  If this piece were in three parts it would date 20-40 years earlier.  That the conceit or fiction of three parts continues places the construction in the early evolution of the bureau bookcase towards a pure two part form.  From the exterior we have begun to date the piece to the early 18th century–now everything else must also support that date!

Simply continuing in the order listed above, we have a useful and handsome book rail.  I have never seen an example with such a rail after 1750 and almost always on desks and bureau bookcases with mirrors and candle slides.  While the book rail tends to be an early feature, more importantly it is an added cost feature–another bell or whistle for this great piece placing it a cut above examples lacking this feature.

Vitally, the piece has mirrored doors and candle slides.  Early bureau bookcases usually had mirrored doors and if they have mirrors they MUST have candle slides (and concomitantly if they have candle slides they MUST have mirrored doors!).  The entire purpose of mirrors is to place a candle before them, vastly transforming light (it always seems to me a dark room with one candle and a mirror sees a 50% increase in light–try it in your bathroom; a truly fascinating experiment in pre-electricity life).  So if you find slides and no mirrors, the piece is bad.  If you find mirrors and no candle slides, the piece is bad.  You must find both.

This is the Age of Walnut (and actually lacquer, but that is another issue entirely), from 1680 or a bit earlier to about 1750.  We have determined many features dating this to the early period for bureau bookcases, so we expect brilliant walnut veneers–and we have them in spades.  Book matching, banding, brilliant cuts of figured veneer, and some line inlay accents all speak to work by a veneering genius.  Every inch from top to bottom on the front and sides is impecably designed veneers of the finest quality.

The feet are of bracket form.  William and Mary and Queen Anne examples have bun feet, although bracket examples appear at the end of Queen Anne about 1710.  Most dealers put examples with original bracket feet as George I or later.  If original this helps us secure the dating of this piece.  We carefully laid the desk section onto its back and investigated the bottom corners of the base section as well as these feet.  We learned several important facts.  No round holes were either open or plugged on the bottom corners–and bun feet doweled into the base of the piece.  And curiously the feet appeared to have at one time been cut in half and then glued back together (the height reduced, then restored).  We shall return to this point.

The style of pediment, which remains a part of the bookcase top until 1780 when it becomes a detached section, is the epitome of fine style in the first quarter of the 18th century.  Other common forms are flat (the least expensive), domed and double domed, followed by these pediment forms.  Again the style is pushing us forward towards 1715 or a bit later.

Let’s explore some details!

Right front foot

On every foot–this is the right front–a careful examination on hands and knees reveals a skillful veneer repair to every foot hiding where the feet were one cut in half.  Had the brilliant craftsman who reinstalled the feet (no doubt saved in a drawer) simply glued them back on, a rather crisp cut line would have shown across each foot.  Instead he created a saw tooth veneer repair which disguises that line and allows highly figured wood to be absolutely invisible except to the fools like us who love exploring all of this old stuff–and are in awe of that artisans ability to think about the job analytically and create an invisible repair.  He was far better off removing the old veneer from the lower part of each foot, cutting into the veneer of the upper half of the foot, and restoring the height behind veneer that to the casual obeserver appears to be totally original.

Left side of pediment

Fascinating is an old repair to the pediment–each side was deliberately cut diagonally about half way down.  Careful examination of the above photo shows thi,  And equally clear upon careful examination of all the secondary and primary woods of the pediment is the fact that the cut off pieces were later reattached–just as the cut feet were reattached.  Here the cuts co hide themselves in the veneer pattern that no reveneering was necessary–it was simply glued back together!


I always say one of the great joys is coaxing the stories of three hundred years of life from a piece like this.  I and everyone I know who has examined this piece (and it was vetted and sold at Grosvenor House, the English world’s most prestigious and fully vetted show) are all convinced that someone inherited this monumental piece (nearly 8′ tall), had low ceilings, and had it all proportionally cut down to fit in the new digs!  The next inheritor took the parts out of the drawer where they had resided for untold years and had them skillfully reinstalled.

Gilded carved cartouche in baroque taste

Within the pediment is seated a carved and gilt cartouche here lifted from the sliding dovetail socket hidden behind the center of the pediment and laid on the floor to photograph.  The next photo shows the back side of the cartouche.

Back side of cartouche

The cartouche is carved in the Baroque taste developed in the late 17th century and lasting until between 1715 and 1730 when rococo designs replaced the balance seen here.  Again what appears to be totally original with possible regilding at some point (possibly not) is a piece also supporting our dating of George I, 1715-30, for this piece.

Scars of prior hardware

While I am mad for pulling everything apart, pulling out every drawer, examining all unfinished parts–we will not do that here because the only flaw that we want to note in the entire secondary construction is revealed most easily by looking inside the front of each drawer for holes of earlier hardware.  It will then be easy to spot the very careful hiding of the old holes on the veneered fronts.  Here we see evidence of three sets of hardware–these appearing to be 19th century appropriate copies of period hardware (but with machine threading, not hand threading).  Note the holes with an indented line splaying away from the single hole–the earliest hardware was cotter pinned and due to fragility lasted only a few generations most of the time.  Then there appears to have been a set in nearly the same place as the current set–also with two shafts and nuts but presumably early enough that they were probably hand threaded–no way to know for sure, however.

The fantastic door hardware is typically early 18th century and there is no evidence of any restoration over the years.


For an additional treat, go to our website and explore the interiors of each section–simply magnificent.  The upper case has mirrored interior doors with flanking columns and the slant front reveals brilliant fittings with secret compartments.  The entire visible interior work is of solid Virginia walnut as it was then known–part of the Colonial trade.  The drawer linings you can observe above are oak.  The body of the cases is deal (pine).

It is illustrative of today’s market to realize that in the late 1990′s this sold for over $200,000.00.  We are asking $65,000.00.  Early walnut furniture has suffered a sad decline among collectors–too bad as it is perhaps the epitome of English cabinetmaking history!  I can imagine no piece more harmonious in proportion and brilliant in execution than this three hundred year old bureau bookcase, as useful and beautiful today as it was to the original owner.


Terra Cotta Figures

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Of the many ceramic forms which were mastered by the French, Austro-Hungarians and Germans over the centuries, none are so curious and charming as their love of terra cotta utilized in the exotic and wonderful pieces of the mid-late 19th century.  The mastery of painting exquisitely modeled figures of people and animals was to ceramics what animalier bronzes and Vienna cold painted bronzes were to sculpture in the 19th century.

Pair of Bernard Bloch Figures

We acquired on our last trip to France the two figures shown–commonly known as “BBs” and pronounced by the French like “baybay”.  The initials found on the pieces are of Bernard Bloch who established his factory by acquiring an on-going business in 1869 in what is now the Czech Republic but then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He became renowned for tobacco jars–figural–and other terra cotta pieces, all beautifully glazed with colors.  The rarest pieces are the large figural examples such as these–both can have their baskets used for incense or candies, the large baskets behind them for spills or flowers, thus they had many potential decorative yet practical uses.

The craftsmanship is simply startling–exquisite modeling together with perfection in painting–which seems to leave each figure ready to breath and walk off down a cobblestone street. By this time the European fascination with the freed blacks throughout the world–especially in New Orleans and the French colonial islands of the Caribbean–may be the reason one finds so many of these exotic figures.  Or more simply, the choice may be due to the ease of getting brown-black skin tones on a dark terra cotta pottery!  Whatever the reason, these rarely found pieces are evocative and wonderful.

Here are the marks, one the BB and the other a model number allowing retailers to select and order their preferred figures.

Bernard Bloch marks

Dozens of photos of our new arrivals from France and England are now posted on our website under “New Shipments”.  More will be featured in the coming days.

Great Japanese Poster Show

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

The Ackland Museum in Chapel Hill, the Museum of The University of North Carolina, has a great exhibition that plays on their historic strength in Asian Art with a Japanese Poster Show, c. 1940′s to 1970′s.  The ability to study the show in two large galleries, then visit historic wood block prints (the intellectual antecedent of much of the show) as well as sculpture, lacquer, porcelain, paintings and bronzes in the adjacent galleries is thrilling.  The show is up until january 6.  With the current brilliant shows at The Nasher, Duke University, and The NC Museum of Art this is a great time to make an art pilgrimage to the Triangle.  And visit with us, where you will find extensive Asian decorative arts on offer!

Entry to the museum:

This first photo summarizes the show:

The Ackland Store on the corner of Franklin and Columbia in the heart of downtown has not only the catalogues but a large section of Japanese art and design for sale–all current production, of course.  It includes prints, paintings, pottery, fabrics, etc.

One of the most moving pieces is this late piece–most work pre-dates the 1980′s–symbolizing the horrendous losses from the flaming deaths of the atomic bombs with gorgeous butterflies falling  burning through a clear blue sky.

I love Imari porcelains and the next two posters delight me because of the colors as well as the geometric shapes of one and the Noh aesthetic of the other.

Finally, here is one of the excellent wood blocks from the Ackland Collection–it is one of the most elegant portraits that exists in what is called the floating world of the wood block print..  This relates to a painting and is late in the historic tradition–1919, a time just before wood block arts booms with strong art deco images.

Don’t miss this terrific show!

Jacksonville Conclusion

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

Most of us are now home–or well towards home–after yesterday’s close of the show.  You saw the show going up–a process requiring two full days from each dealer, plus the days to build the walls, paper the booths and install electricity.  While we do our booths, the various show committees labor to transform a sterile building into a magical space suited to grand parties, interesting lectures, and the sale of fine antiques.  Then in three to four hours everything is packed in boxes, loaded on trucks, walls are taken down and the building will once again be empty!

NEW this year at Jacksonville was a Young Collectors Booth in which young committee members worked to create a great setting filled primarily with antiques “borrowed” from the dealers–all to be sold to collectors young and old, mostly priced $50.00 to $400.00.  Shows have long struggled to convince young buyers and others with limited resources that they too could begin a collection at their show.  Some years ago the younger set in Houston started a Young Collectors Booth at the Theta Show, with every item priced below $400.00 in a show with a vast number of pieces priced above  $50,000.00.  It has been a huge success both with the dealers making lots of small sales and for the clientele finding very affordable buys of guaranteed high quality!  This was the inspiration for Jacksonville’s new event (and I might add suggested to this year’s Jacksonville show chairs by my partner and daughter Elizabeth who at 35 has a keen sense of what excites her age group).

The neat twist added by the Jacksonville crew was to create a theme–a den for men filled with many items ideal for men to collect, their wives to give them–and happily for many moms attending the show to acquire for their kids!  Here are two shots of their set-up:

Wing chair is new and borrowed for color and to show blending old and new--it was not for sale.

Modern bookcase for display and the antique table was quite a bit above $400.00!

They worked so hard on the project and sold dozens and dozens of antiques to the joy of the dealers–truly a fun time for all.

One of the most colorful booths in the show is Kinda Ketterling’s wonderful majolica, set in a lavender booth that adds panache to her brilliant antique English, French, American and German majolica.  In the Grand Court bathed in bright sunlight, her booth sparkled!

Linda in her booth!

More wonderful antique majolica

While for centuries majolica was tin glazed earthenware (delft and faience mean the same general thing), the majolica seen here, and now avidly collected, is lead glazed, a product of some the greatest and most eccentric ceramicists of the 19th century.  Because the body of both the early tin glazed pieces and the later lead glazed is relatively low fired it is not unusual to find many minor chips on the early pieces (generally the preference is to not repair) and minor rim repairs on 19th century examples as the chips are so much more disturbing visually.  Such repairs are considered normal for the product.

Lisa and Steve Sherwood's booth

Look carefully and you will notice in the Sherwood’s booth tables and cabinets of 18th and 19th century blue and white porcelains and delft, as they are leading suppliers of the rage among collectors and designers for blue and white (a classic historic design change, as blue and white seems to burst forth and fade in cycles about every 10 years).  Their stock is primarily Chinese porcelain and Dutch faience.

One of the leading dealers in fine antique rugs in America is Dana Kelly of Lexington, Kentucky.  He is not actually using a prayer rug on the right side of his booth–just checking some inventory cards before sending a quantity of carpets on approval!

Frequently dealers let clients try items in their homes, even over night at shows, or take major pieces to show to clients in their homes.  No one does that more often than the carpet dealers where issues of size and color are both equally important!  I cannot count the times Elizabeth and/or I have spent hours in clients’ homes all over America trying pieces, rearranging rooms to accommodate new pieces, planning for future additions to complete a setting for a client–all part of the service dealers provide their clients.

And after a successful show that saw a resurgence of buying and attendance, I am about to curl up in bed, read a novel, and fall asleep!

Catch ALL New Blog Posts

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

Please become a “friend” of Whitehall Antiques on Facebook and you will always know when a new blog is posted.  I always put in a short facebook entry every time I post, sometimes with a photo to add interest.