To walk into a museum is to walk into another world—a place preserved in space and time, where art, artifacts and history converge to tell a story. Pieces enter a museum and are immediately protected, preserved and put on a pedestal for future generations. However, at times like these, when a museum carefully reviews their vast holdings to deaccession chosen works, a rare opportunity emerges to travel in time.
Decorative arts, as opposed to their fine art cousins who often remain hung on walls for decades on end, were made to be used as part of daily life. Chairs to be sat on. Tables to be eaten off. Teapots to pour tea and cups to drink from. The cumulative wear from daily use—greasy hands, rocking back in chairs, dripping wax and countless knocks, scuffs and scratches—adds up through lifetimes, so that we, as specialists, expect a certain level of damage or wear to objects that are hundreds of years old.
In reviewing the property from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we have found numerous pieces of furniture that are effectively far younger than their actual ages. We found that when a piece entered a museum—such as the earliest pieces donated from the Rogers Fund from 1908—it was as if the clock stopped, as pieces are preserved in storage. Therefore, a piece made during the reign of George III shows the wear of only 150 rather than 250 years.
A George I Black and Gilt Japanned Bureau Bookcase, attributed to John Belchier, circa 1715. Estimate: $60,000–90,000.
One of my favorite examples of this effect is a George II black and gilt japanned tripod table from circa 1755, which is decorated overall with fine chinoiserie scenes of figures in landscapes. Japanning, a method through which English craftsmen attempted to replicate the popular Asian lacquer, is very delicate. Nearly all examples that enter the auction rooms are partly, if not heavily, restored. In this instance, the decoration is preserved on the top as well as on the carved stem and feet.
A George II Black and Gilt-Japanned Tripod Table, circa 1755. Estimate: $8,000–12,000.
Some examples of mahogany furniture from the collection feature the ideal patina, or finish, that is coveted by collectors. Items such as an elegant George III mahogany tripod table have been protected from sunfading and aggressive over polishing and waxing. With its pierced support and foliate carved legs, the honeyed, patinated finish is warm and rich.
A George III Mahogany Tripod Table, circa 1765. Estimate: $10,000–15,000.
A George II Mahogany Armchair, probably Irish, circa 1745–50. Estimate: $50,000–80,000
Still other pieces have their original and remarkable dark, deep tones preserved, with exquisite carving barely rubbed and used. Examples of the finest, deepest purple-toned mahogany include an Irish mahogany console table from the mid-18th century and a tour-de-force Irish George II armchair. Finely carved with a wrinkled lappet cresting flanked by eagle heads holding garlands of flowers, with a shell-carved cartouche back supported by grasping talons, and sharply rendered masks to the knees, this chair, which entered the museum’s collection through the Cadwalader Fund in 1918, is one of the highlights of the collection. Two side chairs from the suite will remain in the collection of the Museum, while a very comparable side chair is in the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.
As pieces are released from the storage racks of the museum back to the world of use or personal admiration, collectors have a unique and special opportunity to travel in time, and own a piece of well-preserved history.
To learn more about the Property from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and our Decorative Arts sales, visit A Month of Decorative Arts.