Tuesday, July 28, 2015

It's All in the Details

QUESTION:  I have what I was told is an antique Chippendale China Trade Corner chair which is unfortunately in very poor condition—the finish has been removed and it’s missing a side panel . It does have what appears to be an original leather seat cover. I’m curious to know if a piece of furniture in this condition is worth anything, and if it’s worth restoring? Also, I’m curious about the history told to me many years ago by a dealer. He seemed to think the chair was a Chippendale copy that was made in Asia (china) and sent to America by clipper ship. That seemed like a plausible story at the time. What do you think about that?  

ANSWER: From its construction and the lack of detailed carving, I can tell that your chair isn’t an 18th-century Chippendale but a Colonial Revival chair from the 1880s or 1890s. Whether or not it came from China, I’m not sure. The carving on the knees of the legs and on the rail at the top of the chair are shallow, more incised with a router than carved with a chisel.

The goal of Colonial Revival pieces was to make them in the style of the original, but usually the manufacturer was a bit lacking in correct details. And it’s the details that distinguish authentic, handcrafted reproductions, such as those commissioned by Winterthur Museum and Colonial Williamsburg, from poor examples made in factories.

The China Trade flourished from the end of the American Revolution into the 19th century. Wealthier Americans, not wanting anything British, sought items made in China which simulated those they had previously imported from England. High on the list were fine porcelains, especially the blue and white variety. And while the Chinese also made and exported some furniture imitating the designs of Thomas Chippendale, they didn’t create exact reproductions, but only approximations of his designs. In any event, what they did produce was elegant and first rate, not a cheap knock-off.

This corner chair, while possibly made in China, most likely appeared toward the end of the 19th century, perhaps in the 1890s. What differentiates it from authentic 18th-century examples is the lack of detail.

Before looking at this chair, however, it’s important to know the difference between an exact, authentic reproduction, like those commissioned by Winterthur Museum and Gardens or Colonial Williamsburg, and the stylized ones of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Skilled craftsmen often create the former to exact detail using handcrafting tools and original techniques while factory workers using machines produce the latter for the mass market.

Details on authentic reproductions reflect the originals. But those on stylized versions are either lacking or not rendered sharply. Carvings, usually done by routers, aren’t as sharp and three-dimensional as those on the original pieces.

For example, the chair rail on this corner chair ends in a smooth curved knob while the same ends on an authentic Chippendale corner chair are ergonomically carved to fit the middle two fingers of each hand, thus making it easier for a person to stand up from the chair. Also the added portion on top of the rail is smooth and elegant on the original and crude and carved lightly on this one.

This chair needs major restoration. However, the cost may be higher than the chair is worth. The leather seat isn’t worth saving. Its too damaged. However, you could have the chair upholstered again in leather. The only way to replace the missing back splat is to have a carpenter make an identical one, a job that isn’t cheap. If it were an authentic 18th-century piece, then it would be worth saving.

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