Given the difficulty in confidently attributing furniture to Duncan Phyfe's workshop, much of the pieces that could possibly have originated there that come up for auction or sale these days are identified as being of the school of Duncan Phyfe, or made by an equivalent workshop. When a piece has a provenance where there is a documented link between the owner and Duncan Phyfe's workshop—such as a bill of sale—then it can be accurately described as being attributed to Duncan Phyfe. Only when a piece of furniture actually carries a Duncan Phyfe label can it definitively be described as being made by Duncan Phyfe's workshop.
We collect early-nineteenth-century New York Federal and Classical furniture at Darlington House, and we own half a dozen examples that are considered to be of the school of Duncan Phyfe, or by an equally competent competitor. I have written about our collection of such furniture in a number of posts, including one here.
At this January's Important Americana sales at Sotheby's and Christie's, there were five examples of games tables that were catalogued as being either from the school of Duncan Phyfe or attributed to his workshop. Today's post examines those five tables and ranks them based on their quality and condition along the continuum of "Good" to "Masterpiece," as defined by Albert Sack (1912-1999) in his landmark reference book Fine Points of Furniture, first published in 1969 and revised and expanded in 1993.
|Sotheby's lot 410. Fine Classical carved and figured mahogany|
games table, school of Duncan Phyfe. New York, ca. 1815.
Estimate $5,000-$10,000 USD
The table was in the Sotheby's Important Americana sale, held on January 25th, and is probably the least likely of the group I'm writing about to have been made in the Phyfe workshop. While the form is one that was known to have been produced by Phyfe, upon close examination the table's carving is the least crisp and well-executed of the group at the sales, which leads me to believe it was made by a nearly equivalent workshop, but not Phyfe's. I wonder if the games table may be a later, highly accomplished reproduction piece made in the latter part of the nineteenth century, or even possibly a marriage piece where the base didn't start out with the top. It's hammer price was only $3,500, Dear Reader, and well below its $5,000-$10,000 estimate, indicating that I am not alone in such speculation. Nonetheless, I would still rank this pleasing table's quality as "Better," using Mr. Sack's quality scale.
|Sotheby's lot 369. Fine and rare classical carved and figured mahogany|
five-legged games table, attributed to the school of Duncan Phyfe,
New York, circa 1815. Estimate $5,000-$10,000 USD
The next table, also in the Sotheby's sale, is more likely to have been made in the Phyfe workshop, in my view, or by his equally competent competitors, the brothers Michael and Richard Allison. The table's carving is crisp and confident, and its proportions are excellent. I would rank this as a "Better Yet," or one gradation above the first table. I would have ranked it even higher than "Better Yet" if it had one or two more flourishes to its form, or more "oomph." The table sold within its $5,000-$10,000 estimate, at $6,500.
|Sotheby's lot 385. Fine Classical carved and figured mahogany|
"trick-leg" games table, school of Duncan Phyfe, New York, circa 1815.
Estimate $6,000-$12,000 USD
The third table, also in the Sotheby's sale, was in the much-desired "trick-leg" form, where an ingenious interior mechanism moves two of the table's legs when the top is opened to form a perfect, and stable, tripod base. The carving of this games table's fluting was crisp and well executed, and I have no reason to believe it was not made in the Phyfe workshop. I would rank this as "Better Still," or somewhere between "Better Yet" and "Best." Condition issues, however, limited the desirability of the table (the top had come off and one of the legs was repaired), and it failed to reach its reserve price and was passed at $4,500.
|Sotheby's lot 383. Very fine and rare Classical carved and figured mahogany|
"trick-leg'' games table, school of Duncan Phyfe, New York, circa 1815.
Estimate $8,000-$12,000 USD
The fourth table, also auctioned by Sotheby's, is almost assuredly a product of the Phyfe workshop. Its carving is more masterful than the previous "Better Still" games table, with more complicated and virtuosic leaf carvings on the legs and the central pedestal (as opposed to mere fluting on the previous example). The quality of the mahogany was also excellent, with a vivid, almost plum pudding top. I would rank this games table as the "Best" in its category. It's got it all. Condition issues, including what appeared to be later repairs to the underside of the table top, meant that it did not achieve the low end of its $8,000-$12,000 estimate, but it it did sell for $5,500.
|Christie's lot 147. A Federal mahogany treble-elliptical "trick-leg"|
card table, attributed to Duncan Phyfe, New York, 1800-1820.
Estimate $12,000-$18,000 USD
The final games tables shown was the only one offered by Christie's and was the best of the lot, by a wide margin. Christie's cataloged it as attributed to Duncan Phyfe's workshop (as opposed to school of), and it had all the bells and whistles one could possibly want in the form: it was a trick-leg, it sported a treble-elliptical top (instead of the more common double-elliptical form), it had a contrasting satinwood apron (vs. none or one of mahogany), it had a beautifully mottled table top, and its legs and central pedestal were decorated with intricate and superbly executed leaf carvings. I would rank this as a "Superior" (as defined by Albert Sack) and the highest ranking of the five tables shown here. It is only one step short of the "Masterpiece" pinnacle of the continuum. Not surprisingly, the Christie's games table realized the highest price of any of the tables offered during the sales, hammered down at $15,000, or right in the middle of its $12,000-$18,000 estimate.
If I had been feeling particularly flush during the sales, Dear Reader, I might have considered bidding on the Christie's table. I wasn't, however, so I consoled myself with buying one of the other, lesser tables offered, for our Snuggery at Darlington House. I'll divulge which one it is in my next post.
Tell me, which one of these tables do you like the best? And which one would you buy if price was not a consideration?
Photographs courtesy of Sotheby's and Christie's.