The great tradition of the American collector and their passion for art and antiques from the Old World is long established. So too is their importance to the market. Helping to furnish the houses of wealthy Americans was a key part of being a successful British dealer in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
But, inevitably as time passes, many of those cherished collections formed in that collecting ‘golden age’ are now coming back to the market.
In recent years buyers have been spoiled for choice as fine Georgian period furniture and decorations – much of it bought from well-known London and New York dealers – has returned to the salerooms. And they are meeting a very different collecting climate to that which predominated one or two generations ago.
Recent clues to the market temperature were provided by a trio of single-owner sales in three cities.
These were led by a suite of auctions at Hindman (26%/20%/15% buyer’s premium) featuring property from the collection of the late Fred Krehbiel (a former CEO of the electrical components company Molex) and his wife Kay Krehbiel.
The Krehbiels amassed an impressive collection of fine English furniture, porcelain, silver and works of art, acquired from leading dealers around the world. They worked closely with interior designers Imogen Taylor and Colin Orchard (both of whom worked at Colefax & Fowler) to decorate their Chicago and Palm Beach homes and an Irish country house, Ballyfin Demesne, now a boutique hotel.
Three days of live and online sales in Chicago and Palm Beach were held on March 15-17 totalling close to 800 lots.
Added to this were nearly 80 lots from the estate of Alan and Dianne Kay who lived at the Merrywood estate in McLean, Virginia, sold by Freeman’s (26%/ 21%/15% buyer’s premium) in Philadelphia on March 23, plus the stock sale of Manhattan dealership Hyde Park Antiques held by Sotheby’s (26%/20%/ 13.9% buyer’s premium) in New York on January 31.
So how, in a world that has embraced the modern interior, does Georgian period furniture stack up? The market is at best unpredictable. All sales produced some strong prices. All sales produced some relative giveaways. There was not too much evidence of buyer fatigue (remember these sales came in the wake of Christie’s dispersal of the massive Ann and Gordon Getty collection in October 2022) but it was only through low estimates and the absence of reserves that the selling rates were so good (97% at Krehbiel).
A core group of knowledgeable dealers and collectors still exists but it is so much smaller than it was when the Krehbiels were buying.
Dennis Harrington, Sotheby’s head of European furniture, noted: “Although the buyers pool for George III furniture may not be as deep as it was 20 years ago, there are dedicated collectors in this area who are looking for three things: quality of design and materials, attribution to a good maker, and the stamp of approval of a reputable, long-established dealer.”
‘Extraordinarily good value’
There is no longer any suggestion that English furniture might be the good investment it once was. But it is certainly seen as good value.
Harrington adds: “We also sense many auction buyers in other categories are finally beginning to appreciate that classic English furniture is extraordinarily good value at the moment. The elegantly restrained design, solid construction and warm colour of mahogany and satinwood, pieces from the George III period hold a particularly strong appeal for these crossover clients who hadn’t previously thought of acquiring antique furniture.”
The Krehbiel collection sales offered six pieces of furniture attributed to the Chippendale workshop. These included a pair of rare George III carved giltwood armchairs from c.1775. A well-known model, this pair were probably part of a suite supplied to Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1745- 1805) by Chippendale. The lot sold for $45,000 (£36,400) against a higher estimate of $50,000-70,000.
The armchairs were acquired by the Krehbiels from London dealer James Hepworth in 1999. Invoices suggested the couple were buying from the 1980s until the 2000s.
Corbin Horn, Hindman specialist noted: “The Krehbiels kept superlative records from their decades of collecting. Most of the Georgian furniture lots in our auction came with invoices from the leading London dealers of the day”.
Most lots were priced way below retail, but some did sell well above printed guides.
A George III mahogany and ebony-inlaid serving table from c.1775 in the manner of Thomas Chippendale sold for a respectable $40,000 (£32,350) against a pre-sale estimate of $5000-7000 (pictured above, top) while a mahogany, padouk and amboyna Pembroke table of the same date took $16,000 (£12,940) with a lower estimate of $8000-12,000.
Hindman noted that the sophisticated combination of exotic timbers and refined proportions may have meant that it was made by one of London’s finest cabinet makers.
Also finding favour at Hindman was a rare Irish George II gilt-gesso table from c.1740. The table’s distinctive lion’s mask frieze and decorated sunflowers indicating its Irish origins. Selling solidly at $42,500 (£34,370) the lot had a pre-sale estimate of $20,000-40,000.
Among the quirkier lots was pair of provincial mahogany corner seats from the late 18th century. The form is most unusual, and bidders liked what they saw. These sold at $22,500 (£18,200), some 18 times above the high estimate of $1200.
Another popular lot was a second edition copy of The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director sold at $13,000 (£10,510). Thomas Chippendale’s (1718-79) decision to publish a book of his furniture designs was his masterstroke. Such was the success of the 1754 first edition that it was reprinted in 1755 with a third and revised edition (with 200 rather than 160 plates) published in 1762.
Hyde Park downsizing sale
Sotheby’s Hyde Park Antiques sale followed the decision to downsize the large holdings of stock once held by the Broadway firm founded by Bernard and Barbara Karr in 1965. It is now run by daughter Rachel Karr.
The auction was held in two parts: a January 31 live sale of around 110 lots followed by an online-only sale on February 1 of about 370 lots.
Estimated at $8000-12,000, a George III mahogany chest of drawers from c.1765 attributed to Thomas Chippendale sold at $20,000 (£16,180). The cataloguer opined that this high-quality commode showed all the constructional hallmarks of Chippendale’s workshop.
A George III mahogany, goncalo alves and satinwood-inlaid commode from c.1770 was attributed to leading regional cabinet maker Henry Hill of Marlborough.
The three-drawer serpentine front, highly distinctive shaped apron and lozenge parquetry top are similar to other commodes attributed to Hill. Sold with no reserve the lot got away at $13,000 (£10,510) against an estimate of $15,000-25,000. (Read more about the Hyde Park sale here).
Freeman’s sale titled The Legacy of Merrywood: The Estate of Alan I and Dianne Kay brought to the table several fine Georgian items.
A pair of George III scagliola inlaid and giltwood demilune tables from c.1780 represented a good buy selling at $13,000 (£10,510) against an estimate of $20,000-40,000.
Meanwhile a pair of George II carved walnut armchairs from c.1730 came with quintessential Anglo- American credentials.
These had formerly been in the collection of Lady Olive Baillie (1899-1974) renowned for restoring the 900-year-old Leeds Castle in Kent. The pair sold at $17,000 (£13,750) with an estimate of $8000 -12,000.