Americana buyers this season: picky, picky, picky

ANTIQUES

November 22, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

When Christie's and Sotheby's auctioneers gather around their antique Thanksgiving tables, they should give thanks for the few hardy souls, largely dealers, who raised their bidding paddles at the major fall Americana sales in New York City. These bellwether late-October auctions had all the trimmings laid out -- furniture, decorations, quilts, ceramics, glass, folk art, clocks and paintings -- but feasting was selective.

In comparison to the late-1980s' market peak, this fall's Americana sales showed that the lingering recession is giving once voracious bidders a bad case of indigestion and that there were some turkeys of pre-sale estimates.

Thanksgiving will be happier, though, at the homes of the three daughters of the late Sallie T. Clark of Raleigh, N.C. A small table from their mother's estate, discovered this summer by an appraiser, fetched $462,000 at Christie's, a record for Queen Anne furniture. The rare circa-1740 Philadelphia marble-top slab-table, originally used for mixing punch and serving drinks, was the top lot sold at either auction house's Americana sales. Unlike many of the objects offered, the table's $150,000 to $250,000 pre-sale estimate proved conservative.

"I was in shock -- in my ignorance I never thought that table would be worth that much," Beverly Clark said, explaining that the table always was in her family's living room with a lamp on it. "We knew it was an heirloom; it had come down in my father's family. One of my older sisters said our father was offered $25,000 for it years ago, but he would never sell it. That's why we knew it had some value."

Worth a quarter-million

John Hays, Christie's Americana specialist, said before the auction that when the Clarks' appraiser phoned him in August and described the table, he was on the next plane to Raleigh. The appraiser told the sisters he thought it was worth a quarter of a million dollars. Mr. Hays said he "convinced them they should send the table to auction where it would bring all it was worth, and they should come to New York for the sale and have a good time."

Two of the sisters came to watch, leaving with expressions of disbelief after their table sold. Mr. Hays opened the bidding at $80,000, and four bidders pushed the price to $400,000 in less than a minute. He took a bid of $410,000 from dealer Sumpter Priddy, of Richmond, Va. Then Allen Miller, a Quakertown, Pa., dealer and furniture restorer bidding by phone, raised the ante to $420,000. "One more?" asked Mr. Hays of all those in the #F salesroom. The bidders were still and he dropped his hammer, proclaiming "Sold!" The final sales price of $462,000 includes the 10-percent premium Christie's charges buyers.

Mr. Miller bought the table for a client.

"It's a jewel, one of the finest things I've seen for sale," Mr. Miller said after the auction. "Other things are fancier, but it's so complete and unified. Its power dwarfed everything in the sale. . . . How can something so simple be so beautiful?"

Small wonder

The table seems bigger than it is, measuring only 36 1/2 inches wide, 22 1/4 inches deep and 29 1/4 inches high. Its dark, crusty skin makes it appear to be made of iron instead of walnut. Small details such as long cabriole legs with a stylized scallop shell carved on each front knee and the thumb molding on the rectangular marble top combined to make it one of the finest examples of early Philadelphia furniture on the market in recent memory.

Mr. Miller thinks he knows who made it: a pre-eminent cabinet shop active from the late-1730s through the 1750s. "The shop's signatures include the shape of the trifid feet, the half-round transition between the leg and the chamfered fluted corners, and the scalloped profile of the side rails."

Mr. Priddy, the under-bidder, said he was competing on behalf of Tryon Palace in New Bern, N.C., a historic house-museum, once home to the state's governors. The table had been lent to an exhibition there in 1907, during the Jamestown colony's tricentennial celebration. When a Tryon curator recently asked the sisters if the table were for sale, the inquiry prompted the appraisal, which resulted in its consignment to auction.

Long history

The table had descended in the family of John Wright Stanley, a North Carolinian with ties to Philadelphia, according to Mr. Priddy, and had a history of ownership in North Carolina dating back to the 18th century.

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