Sunday, February 2, 2014

Duncan Phyfe Games Tables at the Sotheby's and Christie's Important Americana Sales: Better, Better Yet, Better Still, Best, and Superior

There are very few known pieces of furniture that carry a label from the workshop of Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854), one of the leading cabinet makers in America during the early part of the nineteenth century.  Only eight, to be exact.  Almost all of the furniture produced in Phyfe's New York City workshop, from 1794 to 1847,  is unlabeled.  This has been a challenge to collectors, museum curators, and dealers in accurately identifying furniture as having been made by Phyfe's workshop.  Compounding that difficulty is the fact that there were a number of cabinetmakers that were active in New York at the same time that produced furniture of similar quality, sometimes shared the same journeyman carvers, and often copied each other's work.  Furthermore, there is a fairly large group of excellent reproductions (some of them meant to deceive) that were made during the Colonial Revival era.

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.

The first games table in the group auctioned this January qualifies as what I would consider to be a "Better" example of the type.  (Sotheby's and Christie's—given their lofty standards and clientele—do not, in general, auction goods that are at such a lowly end of the quality continuum as to be considered merely "Good.")

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.


  1. Thanks for a very good lesson in Duncan Phyfe and in ranking quality! I like the simple lines of the second table, but my favorite is the fourth table. My preference would not be for the contrasting apron, though seeing the tables in person might change my mind. I'm guessing you went for table No. 4, too.

  2. I enjoyed this post and learning more about Duncan Phyfe furniture. I have a Duncan Phyfe style sofa and dining table, but I am confident they are modern reproductions. Unless his workshop was really sneaky and put "Tell City Chairs" labels on their work. I love game tables, they seem just the right size for a nice little collection of something wonderful.

  3. I like the second one, lot 369. I am not a fan of the Duncan Phyfe pedestal, so the 5-leg table would be my choice.

  4. I guess table four? Interesting Blog.Please show us the table placed in Darlington House,I'm sure it will look lovely in the home with all your other pieces. THankyou

  5. Difficult choices! I can't wait to see which one you purchased.

  6. No 2 though I'd want to see them all in the flesh or wood before really committing myself ..that's the one i think you bought too .

  7. Lot 369 - simply for its style. It has a much more Georgian and masculine quality.

  8. Hello Reggie, Your post brings up an excellent point that in conjunction with Sacks better-best ratings, one must factor in condition.

    I am guessing table #4--its quality is superb, leaving nothing to apologize for, and the condition issues are relatively minor.

  9. Games tables. What sort of games? What sort of card games would be played at the time the table was made? Do you have any idea what the cards looked like? Only men would have used the table? I have learned a great deal from the enthusiastic appraisals of the Keno brothers on the antique roadshow program I look forward to your selection and post.

  10. Hello Reggie, what a delightful adult game of "eeny meeny miny moe". All the tables are beautiful, but I especially adore the simple lines of Sotheby's Lot 369, and also the Sotheby's Lot 385 table. The reeding gets me every time.

    Looking forward to reading about which table you were the successful bidder on.

  11. The fourth table #383 and I bet that's the one you got...can we play backgammon on it?!

  12. Dearest Reggie,

    I enjoyed this post, as I enjoy all of your posts.

    If money was not an option I would bid on Sotheby's lot 410 and/or lot 147.

    Much love!

  13. Dear Reggie,

    I think I could live happily ever after with table #4 (lot 383). I would love to see them in person. I am looking forward to seeing the table you & Boy purchased.


  14. Is 'clientelle' the feminine of 'clientele'?

    1. Thank you, Mr. Eagle Eyes, for catching this error, since corrected. RD

  15. Thanks once again for the lovely post, and the fabulous pictures. My heart belongs to lot 383. All the effort you put into your blog is much appreciated. Thank you, Reggie.


  16. I like the second table, Sothebys Lot 639. I too agree about the proportions, repairs were not mentioned and I think it's beautiful. With mid century still raging on, antiques are a great bargin. Everything is cyclic and antiques will come back, so buy now. But, that's my opinion.

    I was visiting Charleston, South Carolina and I took a tour of the Nathaniel Russell House. Incredible home and beautiful Charleston furniture. I was definately inspired by "brown" 18th and 19th century furniture. Who knew ?!?!

    Robby Comer

  17. I like the second table best for its clean lines.

  18. Lot 360 as the legs were the deciding factor. I find legs are what makes certain period pieces with modern furniture or pieces from other eras and styles. Plus the table edging was crisp.

  19. Reggie the Lot 369 five leg game table is my favorite. The lines are so elegant.

    The Arts by Karena

  20. )))((((((

  21. Love the Good, Better Best book. When you compare pieces like that it is such an education, like comparing musical performances -- you learn so much.

    My ex's family (who had been in the same house for 300 years) had a Duncan Phyfe table. They were fairly sure it was genuine because it had a bill in a drawer from the studio asking to be paid. It seems they took their own sweet time paying the bill... at least that was the story!

    I liked 383 best –– but 147 is shot at a weird angle and you miss the elegant line... it's sort of smushed.


Please do comment! I welcome and encourage them, and enjoy the dialogue.

Related Posts with Thumbnails