Purchase Story

Record for Looking Glass at Freeman’s

Freeman’s, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Photos courtesy Freeman’s

Discoveries of 18th-century Philadelphia furniture still turn up at Freeman’s from time to time. A 68½" high looking glass, topped by its original and nearly intact carved phoenix and with carved garlands in perfect condition, was the talk of the American furniture world when it appeared in Freeman’s November 14, 2018, American furniture, folk art, and decorative arts sale catalog. It had a modest estimate—$20,000/30,000. There were three phone bidders by sale time, and dealer Philip Bradley bid in the salesroom. Bidding opened at $10,000, and it went all the way to $240,000 before Philip Bradley put down his paddle and let the mirror go to conservator Alan Miller on the phone, bidding for the Chipstone Foundation. The price with buyer’s premium came to $298,000, a record for an American looking glass.

This carved mahogany looking glass with a phoenix cartouche and intact side garlands, the carving attributed to John Pollard (1740-1787) of Philadelphia, 68½" high, from the Detwiler family of Lancaster and the estate of Richard R. and Emily M. Detwiler Uhl, sold on the phone for $298,000 (est. $20,000/30,000) to conservator and furniture historian Alan Miller, bidding for the Chipstone Foundation. The underbidder in the salesroom was dealer Philip Bradley of Downingtown, Pennsylvania, on the phone with a client, surmised to be a bidder for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who let it go at $240,000.

Miller, a furniture scholar and conservator, attributed the carving of the cartouche and side garlands to the workshop of John Pollard and Richard Butts. The craftsmen advertised their partnership in 1773 in Philadelphia at the “Sign of the Chinese Shield” on Chestnut Street. Microanalysis determined the secondary woods to be white pine and Atlantic cedar. The glass is not original.

A similar bird finial without its original head was sold at Freeman’s in April 20, 2010, from the George Meade Easby collection, for $5315 (est. $1000/1500). A similar but smaller mirror from a private collection is illustrated in the 2009 Chipstone American Furniture; its entire finial was made by Alan Miller.

“There are three related mirrors known,” Miller said after the sale, “but this is the only one with the original finial. I made the head for the finial sold at the Easby sale, and it went on the chest-on-chest of a client.” Miller will restore the beak of the finial on the mirror, which was made in three parts, and except for a small loss to the end of the beak, it is in remarkably good condition.

“We are collecting works by the major carvers, and we do not have an original cartouche as a central ornament in the collection, so it is very appealing,” said Jonathan Prown, executive director and chief curator of the Chipstone Foundation.

The price is a record for an American looking glass but not for any looking glass. A pair of George II carved giltwood English mirrors, made for Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, U.K., sold for $684,810 in July 2010 at Sotheby’s London, as reported by Ian McKay in the September 2010 issue of M.A.D. The 9'4½" high mirrors were commissioned in 1759-60 for the state bedchamber at Stowe. They were supplied and may have been designed by the earl’s favorite architect, Giovanni Battista Borra, and were probably executed by Jean-Antoine Cuenot, a French-born craftsman who had workshops in London from 1744 to 1762, and who was employed by Borra on a number of commissions.

Carved mahogany and embossed leather Campeche chair, Mexico, first quarter of the 19th century, 38½" high, shell-carved crest, scrolled handle holds on curule base, sold for $27,500 (est. $8000/12,000) to Alan Miller on the phone bidding for the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. It was reportedly found for sale in a ReStore, a secondhand store run by Habitat for Humanity. “We have the Campeche chair that John Hemmings made at Monticello for Jefferson, and we have the prototype made in Louisiana and sent to Monticello in 1819,” said Jonathan Prown, executive director and chief curator of the Chipstone Foundation, when reached by phone.

Before the sale catalog was printed, Miller had told Freeman’s Lynda Cain that the carving was from the shop of John Pollard and Richard Butts, who had a shop at the “Sign of the Chinese Shield” on Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, in 1773. Miller said he knew of three related mirrors, but this is the only one with its original finial. Miller knows these birds well. He carved the head of a bird finial that was sold at the sale of the collection of George Gordon Meade Easy at Freeman’s in April 2010 for $5313 (est. $1000/1500). Miller also carved the bird on a similar looking glass illustrated in Luke Beckerdite’s article on rococo looking glasses in the 2009 American Furniture journal. The price topped the previous record of $242,000 paid by the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Christie’s on January 20, 1990, for a 48" high rococo mirror (now painted white) with the label of John Elliott, Walnut Street, Philadelphia, that was made for merchant Richard Edwards, who lived in Philadelphia and Lumberton, New Jersey.

English looking glasses have brought more. Ian McKay, in his “Letter from London” in M.A.D. in September 2010 (p. 7-F), reported that a pair of carved giltwood George II English mirrors, 9'4¼" tall, made for Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, U.K., sold for $684,810 (equivalent to $342,405 each) at Sotheby’s in London on July 6, 2010. Other English looking glasses McKay illustrated in the piece did not bring more than the American record.

Jonathan Prown, director and chief curator of the Chipstone Foundation, said, “We are collecting works by the major Philadelphia carvers, and we do not have an original cartouche as a central ornament in the collection, so this mirror was very appealing.”

Prown said that Alan Miller also bought for Chipstone a Mexican Campeche chair offered earlier in the sale. The price was $27,500 (est. $8000/12,000). “We have the Campeche chair that John Hemmings made at Monticello for Jefferson, and we have the prototype made in Louisiana and sent to Monticello in 1819,” Prown volunteered. Museums are buying furniture made in all of the Americas in order to tell the complete story of American history. The Caribbean and Mexico were part of the 18th- and early 19th-century trade.

Chippendale carved mahogany side chair, Philadelphia, circa 1770, 38" high, with a pierced Gothic splat, acanthus carving to the crest and knees, a shaped apron, and ball-and-claw feet, sold for $10,000 (est. $4000/6000). The front seat rail has a handwritten label, “Property of Mrs. Thos. A. Curran, Phila., PA.” Thomas Curran, an early dealer in Philadelphia, often represented Howard Reifsnyder, a legendary collector whose collection sold in 1929 and brought record prices.

This large pieced and appliquéd quilt, Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1842, 134" x 125", patterned printed chintz and calico pieces arranged in a large star within a larger star, enclosed by floral sprays, within a stuffed appliquéd border of flower-filled urns and floral vines, heightened by outline and floral quilting, was, according to tradition, made at the Mount Vernon Place home of John Hanson Thomas Jr. (1813-1881) and Annie Campbell Gordon Thomas (1819-1886) in Baltimore. The quilt descended through the Thomas family until the 1970s. It sold on the phone for $31,250 (est. $3000/5000), underbid on the phone. At Skinner on June 5, 2005, it had sold for $18,800.

Pair of early 19th-century inlaid mahogany single-drawer stands, the hexagonal tops inlaid with a mariner’s compass, 27" high x 17" wide, sold to a collector on the phone for $3750 (est. $1000/1500), underbid by the trade in the room.

Quilts brought more than expected at this sale. A large pieced and appliquéd quilt, made in Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1842, 134" x 125", made of patterned printed chintz and calico pieces arranged in a large star within a larger star enclosed by floral sprays, with a stuffed appliquéd border of flower-filled urns and floral vines, sold for $31,250 (est. $3000/5000). At Skinner in June 2005, it had sold for $18,800. It is well documented. It was made at the Mount Vernon Place home of John Hanson Thomas Jr. (1813-1881) and Annie Campbell Gordon Thomas (1819-1886) in Baltimore. A Civil War album quilt, stamped and embroidered with names of the makers and with crossed Confederate flags and the years 1776 and 1861, sold for $10,625 (est. $5000/8000) to an absentee bidder.

An Aaron Willard tall-case clock with a label inside the door engraved by Paul Revere sold for $26,250 (est. $25,000/35,000). At Christie’s on June 25, 1991, it had sold for $52,800 (est. $40,000/60,000). Later it was deaccessioned by the Virginia Historical Society.
A painted and decorated pine Black Unicorn Artist blanket chest, Berks County, Pennsylvania, sold online for $5200 (est. $8000/12000). It had sold for $16,380 (est. $15,000/25,000) at the sale of the Donald Shelley collection at Pook & Pook in April 2007, and it sold again at Pook & Pook on November 12, 2011, from the Breininger collection for $33,180 (est. $4000/6000).

Just two lots of Philadelphia furniture performed well. A carved mahogany side chair with a Gothic splat and acanthus carving on its crest rail and carved skirt sold for $10,000 (est. $4000/6000). Philip Bradley bought for $18,750 (est. $5000/8000) a circa 1770 set of four Philadelphia walnut side chairs with unusual heart-pierced splats, said to be from the Sharswood family.

Furniture accounted for many of the 26% of lots that failed to sell. A collection of 68 portraits of Philadelphia lawyers, consigned by the Philadelphia Bar Association, helped buoy the sale total to $1.077 million, in the middle of presale estimates ($795,700/1,255,700, figured without buyers’ premiums). The sale had a 74% sell-through rate. There were never more than 25 people in the salesroom and sometimes there were only ten, but the phones were busy and so were the two online platforms, Freeman’s Live and Invaluable.

Painted and decorated pine Black Unicorn Artist blanket chest, Berks County, Pennsylvania, circa 1785, 23¼" x 48½" x 22½", sold for $5200. At the sale of the Shelley collection at Pook & Pook in April 2007, it had sold for $16,380 to dealer Greg Kramer, and at Pook & Pook on November 12, 2011, at the sale of the Breininger collection, it had sold for $33,180.

John Heyl Raser (1824-1901), View of the Chew House Cliveden from Main Street (Germantown Avenue), 9½" x 17½" (sight size), signed “Raser” lower right, oil on academy board, framed, sold to a collector on the phone for $5000 (est. $4000/6000)

Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), portrait miniature of Clement Waltham (b. 1779) of Harford County, Maryland, 3" x 2¼", signed and dated “RP 1800,” watercolor on ivory, gilt locket frame with woven hair and gold initials “CW” at back, sold on the phone for $8125 (est. $4000/6000). Waltham was the son of Charlton and Susannah Waltham.

Aaron Willard (1757-1844), Boston, Federal inlaid and carved mahogany tall-case clock, circa 1800, 100" high x 18½" wide x 9½" deep. The face is inscribed “Aaron Willard, Boston,” and the waist door retains the engraved label (by Paul Revere). With the original spread-wing eagle brass finials and red japanned weights, it sold on the phone for $26,250 (est. $25,000/35,000). At Christie’s on June 25, 1991, it had sold for $52,800 (est. $40,000/60,000) when it was deaccessioned from the Virginia Historical Society for the benefit of the collections fund. It was presented to the Virginia Historical Society in 1974 by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Miller Jeffress of Richmond, Virginia. Originally it was owned by R. George Mason (1809-1895) of Homestead, Greensville County, Virginia, and it had descended through his family.

The Philadelphia Bar Association is the oldest association of lawyers in the country. Lawyers met in 1802 to establish a law library, and it has been expanded over the years. Now, in the age of the Internet, the library is moving to smaller quarters, and its collection of portraits of famous Philadelphians was sent to Freeman’s in the hopes that others would care for them. About 25 lawyers arrived in the salesroom to bid on portraits by Thomas Sully, Rembrandt Peale, Bass Otis, and others. Some were copies or known in several versions. For example, the portrait of John G. Johnson, an art collector whose collection is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), painted by Conrad Frederick Haeseler (1875-1962) in 1918 is like one at the PMA. It sold for $7500 (est. $1500/2500) to a man who said he bought it because he looks like him.

Thomas Sully’s 1833 portrait of Horace Binney (1780-1875) sold for $17,500 (est. $5000/10,000). Arguing against Daniel Webster, Binney won the case for the city of Philadelphia that upheld Stephen Girard’s will to establish Girard College for orphaned boys. Alice Kent Stoddard’s portrait of Owen J. Roberts (1875-1955), who served as a Supreme Court justice from 1930 to 1945, sold for $10,625 (est. $1500/2500).

The pictures and captions tell more. The catalog can be viewed at (www.freemansauction.com).

Aesthetic Movement sterling silver moon vase in the Japanesque manner, marked for Gorham Mfg. Co., Providence, Rhode Island, circa 1870, 7" high x 6" in diameter, weighing 17.7 troy ounces , sold online for $8450 (est. $800/1200).

Carved and painted scoter wall plaque, possibly Maine, first half of the 20th century, 29" x 22", sold on the phone for $13,750 (est. $800/1200).

“Wheat Price & Co. Wheeling Va.” glass flask, Fairview Glass Works, Wheeling, West Virginia, 1825-40, with long-haired bust, 6¾" high, sold online for $10,400 (est. $3000/5000), underbid by a collector in the salesroom. It is in American Bottles & Flasks and Their Ancestry (1978) by Helen McKearin (GI-116).

This Civil War appliquéd album quilt of Confederate interest dated 1861 is stamped and embroidered with makers’ names, including Rachel A. Weeks, Addison B. Weeks, Caroline Ackerman, Ellen Ackerman, J.M. Van Buskirk, and Maria Terhune. The squares were variously worked with solid cotton floral and geometric designs (some are padded), and the central square has the years 1861 and 1776 and crossed Confederate flags, commemorating the secession of the seven southern states at the beginning of the Civil War and the year of American independence. The 78" x 92" quilt sold for $10,625 (est. $5000/8000) to an absentee bidder. 

Four phone bidders competed for this 36" x 27½" (sight size) portrait of Horace Binney by Thomas Sully, painted in 1833. It sold for $17,500 (est. $5000/10,000). A 1797 graduate of Harvard, Binney was admitted to the bar in 1800. He opposed Daniel Webster in Vidal v. Philadelphia and won. The decision allowed Stephen Girard’s bequest to establish Girard College for orphaned white boys. The court later allowed black boys to be admitted.

Set of four Chippendale walnut side chairs, Delaware Valley, circa 1770, each with a serpentine crest rail above a heart-pierced splat and cabriole legs ending in ball-and-claw feet, 40" high, sold for $18,750 (est. $5000/8000) to dealer Philip Bradley in the salesroom. 


Originally published in the January 2019 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2019 Maine Antique Digest

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