Collector’s Corner: Have a Seat

From where John Levitties sits, an antique chair is a work of art—and it also comes in handy at cocktail time.

“I’m a bit of a chair nut,” he says. “I also believe great collectors sit on their chairs—even if they aren’t particularly comfortable.”
In the far-reaching world of chair collecting, there’s a seat at the table to suit any sensibility, from the cathedrallike opulence of French Gothic, to the countrified curves of a Windsor rocker, to the leather embrace of an Eames lounger.

Levitties is an aficionado of British Arts and Crafts, a style
produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a lighter, more elegant cousin of the beefy American form. Overshadowed by the popular revivalist styles of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the British movement produced only a trickle of pieces, some of which made their way to Levitties’ gallery, John Alexander Ltd in Chestnut Hill.

Such scarcity propels prices. At the architecturally majestic gallery—originally a post office built in the 1920s—a circa-1901 ebonized chair by the Scottish designer John Ednie sells for $5,000.

Levitties’ current favorite is a Walter Cave chair that was crafted in 1899 and is made of walnut with a rush seat. He was attracted to its strong lines and sinuous back. “It’s a remarkable piece of furniture,
one I desperately wanted to own,” he says.

Jeanne S. Rymer, who owns more than 60 vintage modernist chairs, understands the intense passion a great chair can inspire. She displays her collection in the Rymer-Stakgold Museum she and her husband, Ivar Stakgold, established in their home in Wilmington.
Rymer remembers her excitement at finding a pair of leather T chairs, produced in 1952 by William Katavolos, Ross Littell and Douglas Kelley. “I yearned for those chairs, just slavered over them,” she says. “I felt a sense of absolute joy when I brought them home.”

Rymer began collecting modernist pieces 15 years ago, attracted by the designs architecture inspired, as well as the relatively modest prices. The designs remain intriguing, but the prices are rising.

Three years ago, she paid $1,500 at auction for a circa-1927 chair with rubber “hockey puck” feet designed by Warren McArthur, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. In October 2003, the same model went on the block—except this chair was in poor condition.

“A great design, but really beat up,” she says. “The canvas upholstery was filthy and the rubber feet were disintegrating—and it still went for $3,500.”

Although Rymer frequently buys at auction—most often at David Rago Auctions in Lambertville—she also cultivates relationships with dealers. “At a gallery where you’re well known, the owners have a regard for you,” she says. “If something comes in that they think you’ll like, they’ll call you—and in many cases give you a slight discount.”

Typically, dealer prices are 30 percent to 40 percent higher than at auction. Yet novice collectors sometimes shy away from bidding.

“The fear is they’re going to pay a lot of money for something that’s a bit of a duffer,” says Lee Young, vice president of English and Continental furniture and decorative arts at Samuel T. Freeman & Co. in Philadelphia, America’s oldest auction house. “But the fact is, reputable auction houses guarantee everything they sell. If a chair says Chippendale, circa 1780, that’s what it is.”

In the world of fine antiques, American chairs typically cost more than their English and Continental counterparts because here they are a rarer find.

For example, a pair of Philadelphia Queen Anne chairs might sell for $400,000-$600,000. “The English equivalent would bring $10,000-$15,000,” Young says.

Still, not everyone appreciates old chairs. Young likes to share the story of one client, a woman who lived in an English manor house. “She had the most magnificent 18th-century Chippendale chairs, an armchair and six side chairs, one of which ap-
peared a bit scorched,” he says.

As it turned out, the lady of the manor had grown tired of “living with a bunch of secondhand stuff” and instructed the servants to build a bonfire so she could burn the chairs. “It started out as a set of two armchairs and eight side chairs, but we could only save seven,” Young says. “The rest were consigned to the flames.”

The auction house where Young was working at the time rescued the chairs and sold them on her behalf for the equivalent of about $60,000. If the complete set went to auction today, it could be worth more than $80,000, according to Young.

But quality antiques are not out of reach for collectors of more modest means. “You can buy a very good set of eight Chippendale revival chairs for $8,000-$10,000, chairs you can use every day for years,” he says. “And if you decide to sell them down the road, you will almost surely get back your investment and then some.”

Craftsmanship and details also are significant factors in the price. For example, a chair with elaborately carved ball-and-claw or “hairy paw” feet will likely fetch a higher price than a piece with simple pad feet. Chairs in tip-top shape will always be in demand, according to Young.

Still, the condition of a chair alone shouldn’t determine whether the piece is worth buying. “Condition isn’t something I’d be terribly concerned about if I really loved the chair,” Levitties says. “Go for the object first—and leave the restoration to a professional.”

Interior designer Dorothy Belins of Dorothy T. Winnifred Interiors in
Haddon Heights is fond of incorporating antique chairs into her rooms because they provide an instant sense of ambiance.

“I’m attracted to the craftsmanship that went into making the chair, the beauty of something that’s old,” she says. “I wonder where the chair has been, what it’s seen.”

Belins favors retaining the original fabric and finish whenever possible. But she’s also open to interpreting chairs in a fresh way. For example, she upholstered a pair of ornate, heavily carved French Gothic armchairs and placed them at the head and foot of a dining table for a dramatic effect. “They made a very grand statement,” she says.

Buyers of antique chairs can expect to pay more for pairs of chairs, as well as premiums for large sets of dining chairs, because it is more difficult to find groupings intact as pieces succumb to the rigors of time.

Levitties notes that Americans are gravitating toward collecting a variety of chairs, taking a cue from Europeans, the masters of mix-and-match seating.

“In great apartments in Paris or Venice, places where people have lived for 300 years, you’ll see three chairs around a table that match—and three that are each different because somebody broke one years ago,” he says. “Now, we’re starting to realize it’s OK to have an odd chair, a piece we can enjoy just by itself.”