A card table made for Thomas Willing, Colonial Philadelphia merchant, mayor and "reluctant rebel," is expected to bring between $1 million and $1.5 million when it is auctioned at Sotheby's on Feb. 1.
Found in 1964 in a packing crate in the basement of a former bank at 305 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia, where it had been stored since 1898, it has been used for the last quarter century by a Pennsylvania family who are descendants of the original owners.
Neither patriot nor loyalist, Willing carried on his business throughout the Revolution with economic self-interest. He refused to take the oath of allegiance to the king, but on July 2, 1774, as a member of the Second Continental Congress, he voted against Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, because as he later wrote he "thought America was unequal to such a conflict as must ensue" and because he did not believe the delegates were authorized by the Pennsylvania Assembly or "the voice of the people to join in such a vote."
Always a man of wealth, Willing asked for the top of the line when he ordered his card table, and got a masterpiece in the Philadelphia rococo taste.
Turret-top tables were made in Boston and New York, but for Philadelphia cabinetmakers they were a stage for carving. The Willing table is carved with rocks, acanthus leaves and five asymmetrical cartouches on its skirt; interlaced straps and scrolls rise up into the turrets and flow down the knees of the legs, terminating in bell flowers. The drawer retains the original rococo brass.
In 1786, when Philadelphia cabinetmaker Benjamin Lehman wrote his manuscript price list for card tables, he listed the cost of "Card Tables With Round Corners with Claw Feet and Leaves on the knees and carved moldings with Carved Rails" at 10 pounds and charged another 2 pounds 6 shillings "for sinking the top." The turret form was by far the most expensive card table.
When Willing died in 1821, an 11-page inventory of his "plate, wine, horse, carriage, and household furniture" listed the card table on the second floor of the carriage house, where it was valued at 50 cents. By then it was old-fashioned.
At Thomas Willing's death, the card table was inherited by George Willing (1774-1827), who had married Rebecca Harrison Blackwell in 1800. Then it went to their son Charles Willing (1821-1868). By the turn of the century it was put in storage
along with other paintings, furniture and silver and remained in a basement. In 1964 a descendant of Charles Willing, who was in the building looking for secure storage space, spotted the crate with his grandfather's name on it and investigated its contents.
Two children of Charles Willing -- George and his sister Phoebe Barron Willing Newhall -- were contacted and the artifacts divided. A portrait of Thomas Willing's mother, Ann Shippen Willing, painted by Robert Feke in 1746, went to Edward Shippen Willing, who sold it to the Winterthur Museum. The card table went to the heirs of Phoebe Newhall.
Will the Willing card table become the eighth lot of American furniture to bring $1 million at auction? Will a masterpiece hold its value even in a recession? The February sale will tell.