Time has turned the table on painted furniture which used to be favored by thrifty buyers willing to put up with fakery. Today, genuine old paint-decorated pieces bring a premium over comparable ones of polished wood.
"There is an element of pretension about painted furniture," contends Indiana antiques dealer Don Walters. "People painted their furniture to simulate the more expensive woods they could not afford." Many 18th and 19th century Americans gave a rich look to affordable pine, poplar and maple pieces by embellishing them with colorful painted wood graining and free-hand and stenciled designs. Sometimes economy was secondary; many folks simply liked the look.
Now, curators and collectors are paying increasing attention to the designs and craftsmanship of painted furnishings, sending prices soaring. Particularly fine and rare painted clocks, chests and cupboards have sold for as much as $100,000 to $250,000; more common pieces cost much less.
New York dealer Sam Herrup is asking $18,000 for an early-18th century New York two-drawer blanket chest with original grain painting. Undecorated, it might be worth around $800, he said, noting that a grain-painted corner cupboard is priced $22,500 but could cost about $4,500 undecorated.
Terminology is important. "Paint decorated means painted with wood graining or with designs, not just a coat of paint," Mr. Herrup said.
Massachusetts dealer Wayne Pratt is asking $4,800 for a bow-back Windsor arm chair, branded on the seat "A.D. Allen," ** which was stripped of paint early this century but has developed a warm patina. Two years ago Mr. Pratt got $26,000 for a similar early 19th century chair by the same Lisbon, Ct. maker; it had its original blue paint.
Windsors were made of many different woods and always were painted and repainted, the paint providing unity to the design and protection to the wood. While skinned Windsors are hard to sell, those with time-worn second or third coats revealing earlier layers are acceptable to most collectors.
"You get double pleasure if a piece has both good form and good color," said Philadelphia antiques dealer James Glazer. "The first thing the eye sees is the color of something."
Some colors add more value than others. A small unpainted Shaker box might sell for $750 to $1,000, one painted bittersweet would be $3,500, and lipstick red might bring $5,500. Last year a Shaker box painted bright yellow, about 3 1/2 inches long, brought $10,450 at a Sotheby's auction, noted dealer Robert W. Wilkins of Austerlitz, N.Y.
"There are great monochromatic pieces, strong forms enhanced and protected by a coat of blue, yellow or red paint," Mr. Walters said, pointing out that other simple forms "are transformed by the total abstraction of their painted surfaces."
Mr. Walters prefers pieces that go beyond imitating expensive wood and have painted decoration that takes on a life of its own. "What makes painted American furniture appealing is that element of naivete we call folkiness, a formal design interpreted in a country manner," he explained.
Mr. Glazer, Mr. Herrup, Mr. Pratt, Mr. Walters and Mr. Wilkins are among the 55 dealers in the Philadelphia Antiques Show, Saturday through April 8. The show's loan exhibition, "The Art of Embellishment: Painted and Stenciled Masterworks from the Museum of American Folk Art," will bring to light over 50 objects, some in storage for years. The exhibition also can be seen from May 14 to Sept. 6 at the museum's Lincoln Square gallery in New York City.
The diversity of exhibited painted objects from the first half of the 19th century testifies to the individuality of their painters. The artist who decorated the mantel and door from a Somerset County, Pa., house, used combs, sponges and his fingers to make the expressive patterns which go beyond mere graining, resembling feathers and the age rings of tree stumps. A grained sideboard table made by a rural New England carpenter has simulated elaborate inlays of birch and satinwood, and is more realistic than the expressive painted decoration on a Vermont blanket chest.
Many artists who decorated furniture were itinerants who also painted houses (inside and out), portraits, theorem paintings, and works on paper. A circa 1790 pine dower chest decorated with mermaids and flowers features motifs similar to those on Pennsylvania German fraktur birth certificates. A painting of the New Hampshire State House in Concord adorning the top of a maple work table likely is a schoolgirl's copy of an engraving.
Richly decorated tinware often was freely painted or stenciled by women artists, the curators note. Two bedspreads on view have stenciled designs, as does an early cane-seated chair marked by L. Hitchcock, made between 1826 and 1829. These fancy chairs have been mass produced ever since.
Condition is a critical factor in valuing painted furniture. Many pieces were stripped and refinished in the early 20th century by collectors who unfortunately preferred the look of natural pine. Others have damaged surfaces caused by wear, heat, humidity and sunlight.
"Unlike paintings where cleaning and restoration is perfectly acceptable, repainting American furniture is frowned upon," Mr. Glazer contends.
Conservation sometimes is sensible. According to Mr. Walters, "It is a hard call whether or not to clean off a warm patina by removing yellowed varnish to brighten up the color, but if cleaning is desirable it should be done by an experienced conservator."