I recently met with one of our regular Skinner customers to take a look at an interesting find: a circa 1740 chair, made in near-coastal New England somewhere north of Boston, probably New Hampshire. When I saw this antique chair, I shared a knowing chuckle and shake of the head with its consignor.
We both realized what the chair amounted to now, but more importantly we both knew what it used to be. This Queen Anne Tiger Maple Side Chair falls very squarely into a category of antique furniture that we encounter every now and then – the flawed masterpiece.
The flawed masterpiece is, as defined here, an exceptional piece of craftsmanship that has been significantly compromised in one way or another.
The chair pictured here, you may realize, used to be about three and a half inches taller than it is now. For some unknown reason its long-ago owner, whether by necessity or choice, lowered it. Maybe it became water damaged or rotten. Maybe one foot cracked and weakened and the easiest way to make the chair’s other legs useful was to just even them all out. Maybe the owner wanted his child to be able to sit in it more easily.
This “height loss,” as we refer to it, is the only thing about this antique chair that seems to be flawed. Structurally, the chair is otherwise untouched, and the surface is pristine, highlighting the bold curl of the wood. We, frustratingly, will never know how this masterpiece became flawed.
What we do know is that the height loss will affect its value because at the high end, today’s American furniture market especially rewards perfection and incredible rarity.
In a recent American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction, we thought lots 169 and 170 fell into the category of the flawed masterpiece – each was an extraordinary piece of 18th century Boston furniture. Lot 169 is an antique bureau of very desirable size, but without its original base; Lot 170 a rare card table with its original wool baize playing surface, but refinished and with a rebuilt drawer. While the prices paid are still out of reach for most, they are a small fraction — perhaps a tenth, if we dared to warrant a guess — of what each piece would have brought in its original state.
From a value standpoint, there is simply no way to account for how much a flaw like that of the chair, the bureau, or the card table will affect a piece of antique furniture at auction – the only way we can find out is to sell it!
Understanding the issues at hand, the owner of the 3-inches-too-short Queen Anne Tiger Maple side chair agreed to the tantalizingly low estimate of $200-300. Certainly it’s worth more than that. What would you pay for a flawed masterpiece?
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