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‘My highlight of 2017’ — A George II walnut bureau

Peter Horwood, Christie’s English furniture specialist, explains why a walnut bureau with a stellar provenance — sold in April in New York for $967,500 — was his star lot of the year

Although its maker remains unknown, this George II parcel-gilt figured and burr-walnut bureau from the 1730s ‘is remarkable on many accounts,’ says Christie’s English furniture specialist Peter Horwood. 

‘It is a fascinating transitional piece of outstanding quality, combining the elegant proportions of the best Queen Anne period walnut furniture while displaying architectural features and decoration more characteristic of the 1730s,’ explains the specialist. ‘Its design, refinement and well-chosen timber and veneers places it among the very best furniture of the period. Although its maker is not known it shows similarities in style and construction with the work of Peter Miller, master cabinet-maker working in the Savoy, London, in the 1720s.’

The bureau once belonged to Percival Griffiths (1862-1938), who amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of antique English furniture under the guidance of the architect, connoisseur and writer R.W. Symonds (1889-1958). ‘Griffiths’ collection set the benchmark, and when Symonds came to write a book about it in 1929, this bureau was illustrated in detail,’ reveals the specialist. Symonds’s book, English Furniture from Charles II to George II, remains an indispensable text.

‘Griffiths’ collection set the benchmark, and when Symonds came to write a book about it in 1929, this bureau was its masterpiece’

After Griffiths’ death in 1938, much of his collection was dispersed at Christie’s among fellow collectors, many of them also advised by Symonds. Frank Partridge, the distinguished antiques dealer, acquired the cabinet on behalf of the American collector Judge Irwin Untermyer (1886-1973) for a staggering $20,000 (the average American home at the time cost $3,900).

‘Untermyer spent 20 years on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,’ Horwood explains. ‘Upon his death in 1973, 2,000 pieces from his collection were gifted to the museum, forming the basis of its English decorative arts gallery. For 43 years, this bureau was one of the Met’s most prized objects.’

The Museum’s plans to renovate galleries meant a review of their collection and some sales to fund future purchases. Christie’s was entrusted with auctions that took place in 2016 and 2017. In April of this year, collectors keen to own one of the most famous pieces of English furniture pushed its price up to $967,500, more than three times its low estimate.

The bureau became the most expensive piece of walnut furniture ever sold at auction. ‘It’s a result that demonstrates the enduring appeal and robust market for the best examples of English furniture,’ says Horwood.