Saturday, February 8, 2014

Winning Bid: Reggie Buys a (School of) Duncan Phyfe Games Table

In today's post I reveal which of the five school of Duncan Phyfe games tables I bought during the Important Americana auctions held in New York this January.  Of the forty-three Dear Readers who responded to my query (both here and on my FB page), the vast majority thought I bought either lot 369 (52%) or lot 383 (39%) in the Sotheby's sale.  Only two of you (5% of respondents) correctly posited that it was actually lot 410 (the least "gainly" of the ones offered) that I ultimately brought home.  

Here is how it happened:

The Sotheby's and Christie's Important Americana sales were held on Friday, January 24th, and Saturday, January 25th, with previews held during the week leading up to the sales.  I was determined to make it to the previews, Dear Reader, to examine the school of Duncan Phyfe games tables discussed in my previous post, and I was fortunate to be able to slip away from my office the afternoon of the last day of the previews to do just that.

Christie's lot 147 "Superior" quality Duncan Phyfe-
attributed games table on which Reggie did not bid

My first stop, though, was at '21', where I had a leisurely lunch with an old friend—a most excellent way to start out such an enjoyable outing.  I suggested to my friend that we meet at '21' because it is only a stone's throw from Christie's, where the best of the five games tables I was interested in looking at was on display.  After bidding my lunching companion adieu I strolled over to Christie's just in time to look the table over, slipping into the exhibition room as the handlers were beginning to break down the preview ahead of the next day's sale.  While I concluded the Christie's games table was certainly a very handsome piece, it did not get my juices flowing sufficiently to make me seriously consider leaving a bid for it.  Besides, I knew it would sell well above my price range, so why even bother?

The main exhibition floor at Sotheby's Important Americana preview

I then hightailed it over to Sotheby's to take in their preview, which included the four remaining games tables, each with a supposed Duncan Phyfe connection, in which I was interested.  As is typical of the Important Americana sales at both auction houses, most of the better furniture on offer at Sotheby's was of the late-eighteenth-century ball-and-claw variety.  While I can appreciate the merits of such furniture, it is not of interest to Dear Old Reggie.  No, I was there to check out the goods of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, also known as the Federal and Classical eras, which is the sweet spot of our collecting at Darlington.

The Federal and Classical era section
at Sotheby's Important Americana preview

Fortunately there was a grouping of furniture and decorations from that period, where—not surprisingly—the four games tables I was interested in examining were to be found.

A not very good photograph of the "Best" quality school
of Duncan Phyfe games tables on display at Sotheby's

The first table I came to examine was lot 383, the "Best" quality trick-leg table shown in the preceding photograph.  While admittedly its form and execution was very fine (in auction parlance), there had been much restoration to the table, with the underside of the top largely rebuilt.  That nixed it for me.  Besides, we already own two similar form school of Duncan Phyfe tripod tilt-top tables at Darlington, which sit at either end of our sofa in our drawing room.

The "Better Yet" quality school of Duncan Phyfe
five-legged games table at Sotheby's

I next looked over lot 369, the five-legged games table on offer, but passed on it, too, because we already have a similar Pembroke-form table that we bought at Bernard & S. Dean Levy a decade or so ago. 

The "Better" quality school of Duncan Phyfe
pedestal games table at Sotheby's

Looking around the room I then noticed lot 410, a table that I had dismissed when looking at Sotheby's online catalogue.  Wait a minute, I thought—what about this one?

Moving in to get a better look . . .

On closer examination I decided I liked the gutsy form of the pedestal games table with its four turned and carved columns rising out of a four-legged base.  It was, admittedly, not as pretty or spare as lots 383 or 369, but it certainly had a lot of impact, and it wasn't in a form that we already owned.  Hmmm . . . I wondered—could this be worth considering?  

Pivoting the table top, we found a concealed compartment
for cards and chips, with remnants of its original green baize lining

By this time Boy had joined me at the preview.  He was as surprised as I was to find that he also liked the pedestal games table, and preferred it to the others on display.  After giving it a close once over, we then turned it upside down to examine its innards, as one should always do when considering buying an antique piece of furniture.  Other than the replacement of the bottom of its concealed compartment, the games table looked "clean" to us, with the expected age, condition, and color one wants to see in such pieces.

Only one obvious repair was to be found

We were not all that concerned that the bottom of the compartment had been replaced, Dear Reader, and we were actually heartened that whoever had done so hadn't attempted to give it an unnatural aging, in an attempt to deceive.  It was what it was—an obvious repair.  But that's the only one we found.

The Sotheby's Important Americana sale under way

We left the preview asking ourselves if the columnar pedestal games table would be an appropriate addition to our collection of school of Duncan Phyfe furniture at Darlington, and if so should we bid on it?  And how much should we bid?  Over cocktails and dinner that evening we decided that it was worth a try, and so we returned to Sotheby's the next day to see whether we might be able to acquire it at a sufficiently reasonable price.

The table we were interested in was one of the last lots in the sale.  We arrived at Sotheby's well before it came up, and so had a lot of time on our hands to wile away before it did.  Fortunately, in addition to watching the auction progress through the lots leading up to "our" table, there was a preview exhibition of Old Master paintings on the same floor to examine.

Working the room for what its worth

The auctioneer for the Sotheby's Important Americana sale was very professional and personable, and I have to give her a lot of credit for moving along what at times appeared to be a near-moribund room.  She had her work cut out for her, Dear Reader.  With the exception of a small number of lots that sold well above their estimates, almost everything in the sale either went within or below estimate, and in some cases well below estimate.  That is, if it sold at all.  A fairly high proportion of the lots on offer failed to meet their reserves and went unsold.  While not exactly a blood bath, it was clearly not a great day for the auction house or the sellers it was representing.  It was, on the other hand, a very good day for buyers as deals were definitely to be had.  I found myself repeatedly amazed at how inexpensively many of the lots were being hammered down—in some cases at prices well below what one might pay for new, far-lesser-quality pieces of furniture.

The bitter end

By the time lot 410 came up the room was largely deserted.  We were hopeful that we would be able to get the pedestal table at a good price, and were heartened that two of the games tables in the auction had been hammered down below their estimates (and one had been passed altogether).  While we had come prepared to bid into the estimated $5,000-to-$10,000 range for the table, we were pleased to find ourselves in what can only be described as a half-hearted contest with only one other bidder, and we were exhilarated when the final hammer came down at $3,500 and the table was ours.

Once we got the table into our city apartment and examined it more closely, we asked ourselves why was it that we were able to get it so inexpensively?  Were we the late-in-the-sale lucky beneficiaries of a less-than-stellar auction where supply outstripped demand?  Or had we bought a compromised, cobbled together mess that no one else wanted?  What if the table was not of the first period at all, but rather a later reproduction?  Upon closer examination, didn't we think the carving just wasn't crisp enough?

We then asked ourselves, given the price we paid for the table (which is less than what a run-of-the-mill, cheaply-made one at Ethan Allen might cost), did we even care?  And the answer was of course notit was a bargain!

If I'd paid two or three times what I did for the table I might get all worked up, second guessing myself endlessly on it.  But since I didn't, I haven't, and I must say that I'm very pleased with this acquisition.

The table and our dear Basil in our
Snuggery at Darlington House

I think our school of Duncan Phyfe columnar pedestal games table looks absolutely marvelous in our Snuggery at Darlington, where it fits right in with the other, somewhat bombastic American Classical furniture of the early nineteenth century, as well as some complementary English chairs.  In fact, when we put "our" pedestal table against the wall in our Snuggery underneath a Sully-framed portrait and loaded it up with suitable period accessories, we thought it looked perfect, as if it had always been there.

Which, to my mind, Dear Reader, is the sign of a successful acquisition.  Don't you think so?

All photographs by Reggie Darling and Boy Fenwick


  1. Lovely lines and scale. I have a dear friend who restores antiques and absolutely adores Duncan Phyfe. It looks perfect in your home.

  2. The market today...for 'BROWN' furniture has taken a dive compared to MidCentury furnishings much to your benefit and pocket, the games table was a bargain. That said, many bargains are too be had nowadays in the 18/19thC realm of Decorative Arts - perhaps this is why the major dealers left in the World, are infusing their showrooms with MidCentury to appeal to those who aren't scholarly enough to know Beauty in all manifestations! Thrilling when you bring your prize home and it falls into place as if Destiny willed it.

  3. Ah yes, the old "I won it so there must be something wrong with it" school of thought. I do this to myself at auctions all the time, lol. While I am in LA, I can tell you that the auctions in LA and San Francisco have been pretty slow the last few months with many lots unsold, like NY. I'm not sure I know why, other than economic uncertainty.

    That said, your table is lovely. You may have gotten a good price as you were at the end of the day. When there are many lots, that is when bargains can be had. Congratulations!

  4. The table looks lovely! And, more importantly, Basil looks pleased!

  5. Hello Reggie, I love the last photo--the table looks like it had always been there. In studying the table, I would look at the hardware. Most from the Duncan Phyfe era should be hand-forged, with handmade screws with slightly off-center slots. Victorian copies, on the other hand, are well into the machine-made hardware era. Of course,there are many scenarios, but early hardware is a good sign.

    1. Hello Jim, thanks very much for the suggestion. The hardware appears to be first period, in our view. Thanks!

  6. love an auction story! it looks like it has come home and yes i think you have had a very good deal indeed!

  7. Well done, Reggie, well done. The table is exquisite, and it looks so handsome in your snuggery. Lovely to see such a sweet picture of the adorable Basil.


  8. Reggie it is just beautiful! And looks so perfect where it sits now, its deserved home.

  9. You did indeed get a wonderful deal — congratulations! It looks as though it's always lived in its present spot.

  10. The games table looks so at home in your snuggery, and yes, what a bargain! I too have noticed auction prices have been more reasonable when bidding and winning a few "brown pieces" myself over the last couple of years.

    I am interested to learn of the items you display on your games table. What are the candlestick-like pair you show? Incense burners perhaps?

    1. Hello CD -- the candle stick-like things are, in fact candle stocks, with funny ittle snuffer tops (stuck in place!), and are English Gothic revival, bronze and gilt bronze, mid 19th century. The box is a penwork tea caddy, second quarter 19th century, also English.

    2. That would be candle sicks, and not candle stocks...

    3. Thank you dear Reggie for clearing that up! They are beautiful and so is the box.

  11. The whole journey start to finish was so interesting to read, including your small moment of doubt! It looks absolutely gorgeous in your snuggery and Basil thinks so too. Thanks for sharing this with us Reggie, I've always wondered what it would be like to buy something at an auction house.

  12. I love your table. Having gone to at least a thousand auctions, I am constantly amazed at some of the price points. Congratulations on a super buy.

  13. Reggie, it looks like it was meant to be exactly there with exactly those objects on it and your precious pug standing by. Good for you to splurge –– well actually it wasn't even that much of a splurge since you were very lucky. I had a similar experience years ago with an 18th c camelback and was so glad I took a chance and got lucky ( Petunia the St Bernard loves it too, she has decided it makes a great dog couch). Here's to luck and quality... good better best!

    1. Hello DS, I have often admired period camel back sofas at auction, particularly English ones that have their original (well, at least early) needlework upholstery on them.

  14. Congratulations, Reggie and Boy! Your newly acquired table does look completely at home with your chair, portrait and accessories (and thanks for clearing up the "candle stock" mystery -- when I saw the term "candle stock" I thought, "Oh, no, there's another thing I don't know anything about!"). Just beautiful. It may not exactly be the case here, but sometimes it's hard to decide whether something is for you or not at the store because it's near other, similar things, or the store lighting diminishes something otherwise fine. Then when you get it home it looks great -- just what you'd imagined and hoped. Also, Basil looks very happy and healthy. Have been wondering how he'd settled in. Perhaps you might write a post about your charming canine companion soon? Best, Elisabeth

  15. If furniture could talk what wonderful stories would be told... and the latest story from your table would be how happy it was to be safely back in a lovely setting where it belonged.

  16. The new old table is already a member of the family it seems . ..Old Master paintings you say ..who determined who was/is a Master? ..does anyone know where that phrase comes from ?

    Recently saw an exhibition of old maps at the National Library in Canberra ..many from the days when Australia didn't exist to Europeans ..fascinating seeing the growth of the world before ones very eyes

    1. Hello smr -- the designation of "Old Master Paintings" to those on display was Sotheby's and not mine. I do not know the origin of the phrase. Does anyone reading this?

  17. Thanks for taking us through the auction journey! I enjoyed this post immensely. Your new table is a beautiful addition to your home.

  18. Well done, indeed! Love that carpet ( biting my lip ).

    I have two ( not D.P, though) that I love and use. Yes! Let the others have their 'mid century modern' and leave the classics to the rest of us at discounted prices, ha!

    1. Hello WD -- thanks very much for your comment. The carpet is a particular favorite of mine and was a splurge indulgence. It was woven in France on 27" looms, and had to be hand stitched together when it was installed, a major undertaking and something marvelous to witness.

  19. Reggie, do you have any information as to prior ownership of your beautiful game table? It looks perfect in your home as though it had always been there. That the mark of a well selected piece.

    1. Hello Anon, thank you for your comment and kind words. The table we bought was sold at auction by a Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Giuseffi, according to the Sotheby's catalogue. The Giuseffis, as best I can tell, were serious collectors of Federal American furniture, and consigned a substantial amount of it to both Sotheby's and Christie's for their January sales. At least three of the games tables that were auctioned, including the one we bought, were noted by the auction houses as coming from their collection. The table that we bought was noted in the catalogue as having been acquired by the Giuseffis in 2005, at Carlsen Galleries, an auction house in the Hudson River Valley on the other side of the Hudson River from our house. Carlsen Galleries frequently has one or two pieces of excellent early American furniture on sale. We bought our canopy bed, NY ca. 1815, in a sale there many years ago. I have seen pieces sold there with clear Phyfe associations, and also other cabinet makers of the day, such as the Allison Brothers. So, it is quite possible that "our" table has come home to roost not far from where it was originally acquired.

  20. What a classic and beautiful table. I especially like the highly edited arrangement on top. Not at all over cluttered, allowing the elegance of the table to be seen. Who was responsible for that - you or Boy?

  21. You have a Snuggery! How delightful!


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