Collecting the whole kit and caboodle Top-drawer 'antiques' from Bartley Collection waiting to be assembled

March 11, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

DENTON -- Would you, could you, spend $519,500 for a mid-18th-century mahogany Newport block-front kneehole desk? How about $3.3 million?

Those were the bids for two of the desks, made in the 1760s by Edmund Townsend, one of Colonial America's best craftsmen, at Sotheby's in New York, one in 1994 and the other last month.

But how about $1,500 for a first-class reproduction, one you can assemble and finish yourself at home and is the image of the 230-year-old originals? TC Released last year by the Bartley Collection of Denton, the kneehole desk demonstrates the small company's ever-improving ability to offer in kit form quality copies of the best 18th- and early 19th-century American and English furniture.

Kit furniture has an honorable history. In the mid-18th-century, fine French furniture was shipped to England in pieces -- frequently by smugglers to avoid duty -- for assembly, gilding and finishing.

Bartley has created its own niche in the industry. There are other kit-furniture manufacturers, but none offers the comprehensive line of top-drawer antiques that are Bartley's specialty.

"Our furniture is the best quality in the country," said Randy Brandt, 42, company president. "It has to be because we can't buy sub-standard wood and conceal it with finishes; people would see it immediately. We offer the best wood and the best brasses we can find, and we are constantly searching for something new."

Bartley kits are not cheap, but they offer value for money in terms of quality and authenticity.

Small pieces -- tea caddies, jewelry boxes, small shelves and the like -- are in the $100 range. Chairs, small tables and cabinets may cost several hundred dollars. Large dramatic pieces in mahogany, cherry, tiger-stripe maple and walnut, copies of Willard long-case clocks, block-front tallboys and Chippendale secretaries, sell for several thousand dollars.

Benton C. Tolley Jr., 75, a retired Air Force brigadier general and lawyer, is a big Bartley fan.

"I've built at least 20 kits, and I've got a desk and a bed waiting in my workshop in Easton," he said from his winter home in Naples, Fla. -- where he also makes Bartley kits. Mr. Tolley said he learned about the company from one of its cabinetmakers when he moved to Easton from Washington.

"I bought some of the simpler pieces and then went crazy," he said. "I make them and give them to my children and friends. They are very well-made kits." Although Bartley spends more than most companies to attract each new customer, Mr. Brandt said, once they start, Bartley "collectors" become fanatically loyal. The object is to keep them happy while looking for new customers, he said.

Keeping the customers happy is a full-time occupation for Louise Christoffers, 49, a trained artist and interior designer who is Bartley's director of product development. She searches constantly for new pieces, to fill gaps in the product line and to explore new ideas, all with an eye on the commercial possibilities.

Ms. Christoffers became a consultant when Bartley moved from Lake Forest, Ill., to Easton in the mid-1980s and later joined the staff full time. The 50-employee company moved to its present larger quarters in the Denton Industrial Park in November 1994.

Over the years, Ms. Christoffers has cultivated a network among antiques dealers, collectors and museum curators who will allow her to copy their prize pieces.

One of those is the company's latest limited edition, a reproduction of a magnificent Boston Chippendale block-front mahogany secretarial desk, built about 1765.

It was touch-and-go, however, before she was able to capture it for Bartley, Ms. Christoffers said.

She was captivated by the desk at last year's Washington Antiques Show. At 7 feet 10 inches, it was short enough for modern ceilings and it had beautiful architectural features. The dealer agreed to the reproduction.

Once the Bartley team in Easton concurred, Ms. Christoffers telephoned to set a date for the copying. But the secretary had been sold -- for $100,000 -- and shipped to a wealthy Midwestern collector.

There was a happy ending, however. After earnest entreaties, the new owner agreed to the copying; he asked only for one of the $3,600 kits so he could build it himself, Ms. Christoffers said.

She and Jim Webster, 45, Bartley's chief designer and who is also a cabinetmaker, spent a full day at the man's home taking hundreds of photographs and making detailed drawings of every part of the secretary. Using special dental material, they made molds of some of the parts.

Back on the Eastern Shore, the designers computerized the measurements and pictures into scale working plans for the sample shop's expert woodworkers to build a prototype.

"The computer creates the blueprint. We make a lot of revisions during production of a prototype and the computer lets us make changes without going back to square one every time," Mr. Webster said.

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