With reeded legs and paw feet centered under a lion's-mask medallion, the curule bases of this sofa bear a striking resemblance to a circa 1815 sketch by Duncan Phyfe (1770-1854). Accompanying a letter to Charles Nicholl Bancker (1777-1869) regarding a commission of a large parlor suite, this sketch is the only known drawing by Phyfe of a klismos and curule base chair (Peter M. Kenny and Michael K. Brown, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York (New York, 2011), p. 120). Based on the sella curulis, a folding stool from sixth century Rome, the curule form was believed to have come from the Etruscan ruling class and, in Rome, was restricted for magistrates in the Republic (David L. Barquist and Ethan W. Lasser, Curule: Ancient Design in American Federal Furniture (New Haven, 2003), p. 10). The design was revived in Europe in the early nineteenth century and the taste for Classical designs disseminated to America through the published works of Pierre de la Mésangère, Thomas Sheraton, Thomas Hope, Charles Percier and Pierre Fraçnois and Lèonard Fontaine. As postulated by Peter M. Kenney and Michael K. Brown, the immediate antecedent for the curule form in New York was probably the 1808 Supplement of the London Chair-Makers and Carvers' Book of Prices, the first price book to include a listing for "Chairs with Grecian Cross Fronts," a misattribution of the design's ancient origins (Kenny and Brown, p. 69).
The curule sofa was an expensive form, large in size, rich with carved embellishments and based on the scarcity of survivals, few appear to have been made during the period (Kenny and Brown, pp. 178-181). Only the finest cabinetmakers would have been commissioned to make a piece like this for the highest echelon of society: "one can speculate, then, that the curule-based seating furniture produced in the early nineteenth century New York lent its owners both the stature of British gentlemen and also something of the prestige of the rulers of the ancient world" (Barquist and Lasser, p. 23).
Supporting the attribution to Phyfe, this sofa is closely related to two examples with provenances linked to the Phyfe workshop, one made for Thomas Cornell Pearsall (1768-1820) between 1810-1820, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and another made for Nathaniel Prime (1768-1840) in the 1810s, now in the collection at Boscobel. Both related sofas and the present lot share the same proportions, finely carved tablets, frontal curule legs with a central medallion, lion's paw feet and characteristic bulbous turned stretchers (Kenny and Brown pp. 73, 181 plate 15). While the tablet carving on this sofa varies from those on the aforementioned curule sofas, the bookend tablet design with thunderbolts tied by bow knots surrounding a central frieze of swags and tassels also appears on William Bayard's (1767-1826) Phyfe-commissioned scroll-back sofa, which was completed in 1807 (Kenny and Brown, pp. 162-163, plate 4). The carved lion's paw feet, rather than the more often seen cast brass feet, also appear on a New York curule side chair in the Kaufman Collection (Kenny and Brown, pp. 190-191, pl. 21).