Monday, May 16, 2011

A Glorious Samson Porcelain "Chinese" Vase

Any appraiser who pretends a really good estate having a nice household full of furniture, art, carpets, porcelain, glass and other items of distinction can be done by one appraiser is probably taking on more than he or she can handle. Experience has taught me the importance of putting together a good team of knowledgeable experts to do it as accurately as possible. Alas! In many instances the client does not want to spend the money and the appraiser is strong armed into doing an appraisal with little or no collaboration from expert colleagues because the client doesn't want to spend what it costs to do it correctly. This is a huge example of poor judgment on the part of the client when that happens and the result is often not as satisfactory as it should be. An example of how a good established appraiser of residential contents should engage and should be allowed by the client to engage a good team of specialists was very obvious in the instance of a recent estate full of unexpected surprises that included this stunning and rather large polychrome vase of the style known as Famille Verte. This monumental vase appeared to be of the reign of the Emperor Kangxi from the early 18th Century measuring 30 inches high. It also had been assumed by its owner to have been embellished in the 18th Century in France, to where it had presumably been imported, with gleaming and finely cast ormolu. As my readers probably know, it was very common in the 18th Century in France to import Chinese porcelain vessels and embellish them with ormolu to suit French luxury consumer taste.

The more I scrutinized it the more I was doubtful if it was 18th Century "of the period" or a good late 19th Century Chinese copy with ormolu of the same period. One thing was obvious. The difference in colour and casting of the bronze finial on the domed lid - when compared to the rest of the gilded bronze in the area of the rim of the main body of the vase - indicated that part of the embellishment was not original and was a recent replacement.

I showed it to two Asian experts who were also unsettled by it. Both felt it was 19th Century but not certain if it was indeed Asian...

Fortunately for me, I was authorized by my enlightened client, who understood that some money had to be spent to establish what this and other fine porcelains in this collection were, and I had scheduled to work on this estate with my valued colleague Letitia Roberts, AAA. Ms. Roberts is a long time veteran in the world of English and Continental porcelain. She worked as the principal porcelain expert at Sotheby's New York since the 1970's until recently. Now she's on her own as an appraiser and essentially devotes herself exclusively to porcelain appraisal. Letitia pointed out one very obvious feature that no one had noted. The rim of the domed lid did NOT have a circular projecting rim as is invariably the case in any Chinese porcelain vase or mantle urn having a lid! Of course! The obvious and crucial tell tale sign was that and it had eluded the notice of 3 very seasoned appraisers!

Further, it had all the features of Samson porcelain in its texture, colour and thickness. In the end, it turned out to be anything but what the owner thought it was. But what it turned out to be was also a very desirable example of a porcelain vase on a large scale by one of the most interesting and prolific fakers of antique porcelain whose massive productions are now much admired and collected in their own right!

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!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


This mahogany George III English secretary desk is very typical of the kind of antique frequently encountered in the activity of a seasoned antique appraiser. As a result, it is the kind of apparently common item which is the most frequently incorrectly appraised because so many appraisers don't take the time to really examine the item or have the experienced eye to make an accurate assessment because they fail to note the many subtle alterations that are obvious to the trained eye. Many thanks go to my colleague Larry Sirolli, former head of The English Furniture Department at Sotheby's New York, for his invaluable second opinion and assistance when I was appraising this desk. Below is a detail of the upper case with the glazed doors. 

Indeed, at first appearance it is what it seems to be. What the eye sees is a handsome - albeit unexceptional - English Mahogany secretary desk made around 1770-1780. It has an oak secondary carcass. The upper case has a pair of glazed doors with moulded trellis mullions opening to reveal shelves for books. The lower case has a slant front opening to reveal an interior door with later added compass motif inlay decoration and a series of pigeon holes and small drawers and placed atop a main front below the writing desk with 4 graduated long drawers and resting on later added bracket feet. Later added feet are not infrequent.

However, what a well trained eye really needs to be able to spot is the obvious attempt of a restore - probably around the 1920's at the behest of a dealer - wanting to tart up this piece by the clear addition of a later added scrolled cresting terminating in flower heads over a dentil carved moulded cornice. Two things give this deliberate embellishment away. One was the clear difference in the colour of the mahogany. An 18th Century secretary would have not had such a discrepancy if all the components were original. The second give away was the fact that the cornice is too ornamented, too tailored, too high style for the conspicuously simple middle style main case on which it rests.

Such so called improvements are actually more common in the furniture emerging in the market and available at small regional auction houses and retail dealers today. And such restorations have been going on in Georgian furniture since the late 19th Century and were particularly common after the 2 great wars in the 20th Century. From a collecting point of view, there is nothing wrong with acquiring furniture that has been restored similarly - provided the buyer knows the facts and pays accordingly In the end, it's important to buy from auction houses and dealers who know and who are able to tell you what they do know. A degree of restoration is often to be expected. But in this case it was a deliberate attempt made about 80 or 90 years ago by a dealer to upgrade a common desk and turn it into a higher category of antique while misleading the buyer who eventually acquired it. Again, if you're buying it as a handsome decorative item with some age and are fine with what has been done to it, that's not a bad thing either. But don't pay top retail price or buy it as an investment and pay the right price for what you're getting.