Historical Society offers replicas of Federal-style heart-back chair


December 16, 1990|By Jean Thompson

Side by side, the two heart-back chairs at the Maryland Historical Society seem to be courtly twins, regal and inviting with their graceful curves. To the untrained eye, the only immediately distinguishable difference between the two chairs is the seat fabric, one plain, one striped. It's a double view of a familiar design: Baltimoreans know the chair as part of the society's logo.

The true distinguishing mark is the price tag.

One of the chairs is not for sale. It's the Federal-style chair made in about 1790 for Maryland's Declaration of Independence signer, Samuel Chase, probably for the house he built in Baltimore at the corner of Lexington and Eutaw after 1786. Of Chase's 18 originals, five are known to have survived, says Gregory Weidman, the society's furniture curator. The society received its chair as a gift in 1920, and as an antique so at home in Maryland, its value could be called inestimable.

The look-alike chair is not a year old. It's a replica, carefully constructed and now offered through the society gift shop by Thomas Schwenke Inc., a Connecticut antiques dealer and crafter of high-quality reproductions. For each of the $2,975 side chairs (and its companion arm chairs, at $3,470) sold through the museum shop, the society receives a royalty of 20 percent, says Ms. Weidman.

The Maryland Historical Society is a newcomer to the field of licensed reproductions, a fund-raiser that has proven lucrative for Winterthur, the Smithsonian Institution and Colonial Williamsburg. Ms. Weidman says the quality of Mr. Schwenke's replica convinced the society to venture into furniture licensing.

"It's one thing to reproduce something simple, but this is the first time I've seen a reproduction of a piece of furniture so elaborate that it looks good when placed next to the original," she says. Reproductions sometimes earn bad reputations for shoddy workmanship, she says. The museum wanted a piece that would, for discerning patrons, measure up when placed in a setting where antiques are displayed in the home, she says. Owning a high-quality reproduction gives the buyer a chance to enjoy a piece of Maryland history without worrying about breaking it, Ms. Weidman adds.

Not every collector would be pleased that a Maryland piece has been copied. In some collector circles, it's believed that antiques should not be duplicated. Collectors decry the fraud some dealers commit by passing off copies as antiques.

Reputable manufacturers take precautions to thwart fakers; Mr. Schwenke's company branded a rail on the replica heart-back chair to help ensure that it's sold only as a reproduction.

Some detractors of reproductions also point out that it's nearly impossible today to copy a well-made antique. The wood available isn't thesame quality, the joinery is hard to reproduce and automation's results sometimes pale next to hand craftsmanship.

Mr. Schwenke defends the work of artisans who build fine replicas.

"Imitation is the highest form of flattery. We are really celebrating the American decorative arts and doing it right. This is a mission we have," he says. "When you realize what it takes to make a set of these heart-backs, then you really begin to realize the value in the originals. I would say, start to finish, including the inlay, it's more than 50 hours per chair."

First, patterns are made for each part of the chair, then full-scale drawings, he says. The replica heart-backs have the same type of mortise and tenon joinery as the originals. The construction includes machine and hand labor. The finish was colored a little to add "the warmth that some age and patination provides," but the chairs were made to look new, not "antiqued," Mr. Schwenke says. The stuffing material includes hair. The customer may choose or provide fabric for the seat covers.

Mr. Schwenke says his contract with the museum gives him a market and a source of historical information about the design. He also owns one of Samuel Chase's heart-back chairs (he estimates it is worth about $45,000) and he used it as the model -- the historical society's chair never left the museum.

Thomas Schwenke Inc. has a showroom in New York City at 219 E. 60th St., where its line of Federal reproductions is on display. A catalog of the company's furniture is available for $12; call its toll-free number (800) FEDFURN or write Thomas Schwenke, 15 Thorpe St., Danbury, Conn. 06810.

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