Sunday, May 1, 2011

An American Colonial Philadelphia Arm Chair Converted from a Gentleman's Potty

In 2010 I was engaged to appraise a lovely collection of a deceased long ago retired antiques dealer and collector of the old school that was a true learning experience as well as an unimaginable joy for someone like me who always prefers handling early furniture and decorative arts. The collection emphasized largely American 18th and 19th Century furniture. Among this collector's prize possessions was a large arm chair inspired by Chippendale's designs and executed by Philadelphia artisans around 1760 to 1770. However a close examination of the construction of the chair revealed a crucial discovery which affected its value and categorization. Examination raised some suspicion by its unusual width. But more important was the examination of the seat frame in which the slip seat would be inserted, a very pronounced continuous strip of moulding well below the support area into which the upholstered slip seat fit indicated that this chair was not for a drawing room.

One thing an appraiser, dealer or serious collector learns about 18th Century furniture is that nothing was part of the original structure without a reason. This clearly deliberate support running along the inner sides noticeably underneath the removable upholstered seat was originally placed in the 18th Century to support a platform with a circular open well in the middle. Into the well of this (now removed) lower platform, a porcelain or metal chamber pot would have been placed.

This was confirmed by examination of the decorative seat apron on the front of the frame and its connecting side panels which betray signs of more recent saw marks probably dating from the 1920's during which time it was not unusual for antiques dealers to make such an alteration.

Clearly what transpired was very likely the following case scenario. This chair was originally a well-to-do Philadelphia gentleman's potty. It was characterized by deeper side panels along the seat frame to conceal the chamber pot that would have been inserted in the well of the wood platform under the cosmetically placed upholstered seat that originally was placed above it. In the 1920's when there was a serious new resurgence of interest in collecting antiques from the 18th Century, a dealer did what many dealers of that time did. He or she obtained this finely carved gentleman's potty at a cheap price and converted it into a drawing room chair by reducing the length of the apron around the seat frame and eliminating the platform into which the chamber pot would have been inserted. By making this crucial alteration, the dealer responsible for having it done could expect to fetch significantly more by converting it into a drawing room chair!

Again, as in the case of the secretary desk discussed in the preceding entry, I emphasize that any collector could still find this a very interesting addition to his collection as a fine specimen of Philadelphia wood carving and the Chippendale style as it flourished in Late Colonial Philadelphia. But any collector should also be aware, by his own knowledge, by being sold such an item by a good informed dealer or by a qualified antique adviser, of what he or she is buying and pay accordingly. Even as an altered potty, it has some charm, quality and historical interest. And whereas a Philadelphia armchair of similar style and age that did not undergo such a transformation might command something along the lines of $5,000.00 to $7,000.00 at auction, this altered potty still has a fair market auction value of about $2,000.00 to $3,000.00 if placed in the right market and positioned to attract an informed collector aware of its pros and cons. After all, in its new incarnation, it still remains a very nice item in any early 21st Century drawing room!

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