American as apple pie

Furniture that embodies the American Dream comes up for auction next week. Geraldine Norman reports

Geraldine Norman
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:56

THREATENED by Fascism and alienated by the machine age, Americans in the 1930s began to reinvent their history. They looked back with nostalgia to the time of the early settlers and rewrote the scenario in their minds as a golden age - America before the Fall, as it were. They invented a world that was "as American as apple pie", rural, hardworking and imbued with Puritan values, and they gave it a folksy, antique look. Hollywood pumped out movies celebrating this American Dream and American millionaires began to go crazy over art and artefacts connected with the country's past.

The millionaires' nostalgia created a boom market for American furnishings and folk art that has hardly flagged since. Many collections were built, then turned into museums: Henry Ford started the Greenfield Village museum to "give people a true picture of the development of the country" and John D Rockfeller Jr recreated well-to-do settlers' homes at Williams- burg. The American system by which gifts to museums are tax deductible has meant that a large proportion of the more interesting material has been removed permanently from the market through gifts to institutions.

So the sale next Saturday of the best collection of American furniture to come on the market for 20 years - the Mr and Mrs Adolf Henry Meyer collection - is a big event. The auction at Sotheby's New York is expected to generate fierce competition between aficionados. A small kneehole desk made by the Quaker craftsmen of Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1760s is the star turn; it is expected to sell for as much as $800,000-$1.2m (pounds 500,000- pounds 750,000).

Most American furniture is based on British designs, yet the estimated prices are 10 to a 100 times what you pay for the British equivalent. The reason is pure economics. In the 18th century there were far fewer people rich enough to afford fine furniture in the US than in Eng-land, so less was made there. Now, there are far more millionaires in the US than Britain, so more people are chasing fewer goods.

Adolf Meyer and his wife Ginger began to collect in the 1950s. They had just moved into a house furnished by Ginger's aunt (in Victorian style) when Ginger stopped off in Birmingham, Michigan, at the antique store of one Jes Pavey, an American furniture enthusiast. He saw some fake antique fire irons in the back of the car and pointed them out. "What can I do?" asked Mrs Meyer, horrified. Pavey sold her a genuinely old set. Two days later, she rang Pavey and said, "Would you hurry over?" he recalls. "She said: 'Mr Meyer is here and getting ready to go to the office. Come over and drive in the driveway, so he can't get out.'" Before Pavey left, he'd been commissioned to redo the house in American style. "Meyer told me, 'When you find something you think fits in this house, we'll discuss it and send you a cheque.' He wanted the best." According to the Meyers' grandson, Pavey was 99 per cent responsible for the collection.

Adolf Meyer was born in Michigan in 1893, the son of a German immigrant carpenter. Leaving school at 15 he joined Detroit's motor industry and founded two hugely successful companies, American Screw Products and Vulcan Forging, which made him his first and many more millions. The realisation that he couldn't have made a fortune from scratch in this way in any other country brought on an acute attack of American nostalgia.

In 1960, the fever gripped him to the point of establishing the "Americana Foundation", a channel for buying and donating to public institutions (tax deductibly) antique American furniture and decorative arts. The White House and the reception rooms of the American State Department in Washington have been the chief beneficiaries of the foundation's generosity. Jackie Kennedy got a Federal mahogany dining table, a Simon Willard lighthouse clock, and a Federal mahogany settee with four matching chairs. She held a dinner party at the White House in honour of the Meyers. A mahogany secretaire-bookcase loaned to the State Department from 1990-95 is expected to make $200,000-$300,000 next week: a luxurious piece, with imported mirror doors and gilt wood finials, it was made in Boston around 1740 for a merchant who had just captured a Spanish galleon containing 161 chests of silver and gold.

The furniture included in next week's sale demonstrates what attractive variants of British style were invented by American craftsmen. The most expensive furnishings all come from the eastern seaboard (where the traffic of ships across the Atlantic kept the settlers in touch with home), notably from Boston, Philadelphia and Newport, Rhode Island. The mahogany block- and-shell carved furniture made in Newport by the Townsend and Goddard families, of which the Meyers' kneehole desk is an example, has become the most sought-after of all American cabinet-making. A bureau-bookcase in this style went to $12.1m at a Christie's sale in the mad, mad days of the 1980s boom.

The kneehole desk harks back to the carved mahagony designs in Chippendale's famous book, The Director, but nothing in the Old World paralleled the scallop-shell carvings, sometimes concave, sometimes convex, developed at Newport - heavy, large and aesthetically satisfying. The brass lock plates (imported from England) are also larger, and more prominent in proportion to the size of the desk drawers than they would ever have been back home.

The reason that this desk will probably be bid far over Sotheby's estimate, however, is the patina left by sweaty fingertips. Smart furniture dealers will generally skin every piece they buy to remove marks and discolouration, then add a new, artificial, patina. The Meyers' desk is the only known example of this style that has not been skinned. It comes complete with every blemish - you can see a halo round the handles of the drawers where hands have constantly grasped them. This is the kind of original condition that museum curators swoon over.

Pavey was a stickler for original condition before it became fashionable and all the Meyer pieces show signs of wear and tear. A striking example is the Philadelphia Chippendale-style walnut armchair of around 1750, estimated to fetch $40,000-$60,000. It has a robustly carved back, nicely curved arms and claw-and-ball feet, but its greatest glory is the leather upholstered seat from which stuffing is now liberally escaping. "It even has 18th-century rose-head nails," enthuses Les Kino, Sotheby's expert.

The most sensational chair, however, is the Chippendale-style carved mahogany library chair made in Philadelphia around 1770 for a rich local merchant, Joseph Wharton - he was "called Duke Wharton by his contemporaries in consequence of the dignity and state-liness of his bearing", according to a biographer. It is expected to fetch $200,000-$300,000. The fact that its complete history can be traced is the main reason for the huge estimate; its pair, also made for Wharton, is now in the White House.

The chair's design is based on Plate XIX of Chippendale's The Director and English versions, which are quite common, might set you back a couple of thousand. Whenever upholstered furniture like this is offered for sale in America, dealers demand access to the wood frame under the stuffing to ensure themselves that the piece is not English - the Wharton chair is being offered for sale without a cover so that interested parties can pull it to pieces. American chair-makers would have used white oak, yellow pine and tulip poplar where the British ones used spruce, red oak and beech.

Country furniture was also copied from British models, notably the homely Windsor chair: the nation's fathers sat on Windsor chairs to sign the Declaration of Independence. Whereas in Britain they were generally made from elm or oak and left unpainted, the Ameri-can version was made from different woods and painted to cover this up. They had seats in pine (easy to work), arms and spindles in hickory (elastic but doesn't break,) and turned legs in maple (can be crisply carved). The form of the chairs is generally more delicate and elaborate than their British counterparts.

A pair of green Windsor chairs in the Meyer sale is estimated at $5,000- $8,000, a little green high chair at $3,000-$5,000. These three are entirely original - the green paint has been rubbed off the back of the chairs, the arms, and the front of the seat where the settlers' bottoms sat. Such a direct link to the Dream days will add an extra $1,000 or so to the price. It's a great sale for American Dreamers. !

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