Art: Antiques Sideshow

How a dusty table from Gladwyne became the toast of the New York auction world…

ON A WEDNESDAY in early October last year, the most exceptional piece of 18th-century Philadelphia furniture to be sold in decades — arguably the most exquisite piece of antique American furniture ever to come up for sale — was ready to be bid upon at Christie’s in New York City.

Well-dressed bidders and furniture experts were crowded into Christie’s lofty, brown-walled salesroom at 20 Rockefeller Center as auctioneer John Hays held forth at the podium. Hays’s gavel moved briskly: An Audubon bird engraving sold for $61,000; a carved 19th-century figure of a sailor brought more than $500,000; even a tiny antique wooden whirligig yielded 500 bucks. But watching these early lots was akin to watching Hayden Panettiere give out a cinematography award on Oscar Night, when you’re really just watching to see who wins Best Picture. This auction was all about Lot 94, a.k.a. The Table.

Lot 94, which carried a presale estimate of $2 million to $3 million, was a sort of Holy Grail of Americana. Dubbed the Fisher-Fox Table, it is a so-called piecrust tea table, made of mahogany in exquisitely detailed Chippendale style. Small in stature — just 29 and a half inches high and 31 and a half inches wide — the table features scalloped edges around its tabletop (the “piecrust”), is supported by three gracefully arched legs that end in ball-and-claw feet, and has detailed floral carving on its pedestal, which is crowned by an elegantly etched “canopy” of gadrooned wood. Though it hasn’t been thoroughly cleaned — to the relief of experts — since it was made in the early 1760s, its dark wood glowed, as did its gorgeous carvings of plump acanthus leaves and C-scrolls, though they were topped with a thin film of grime.

To experts, these carvings are what earmark Lot 94 as the work of a mysterious Colonial craftsman known as the Garvan Carver, a man spoken of with a reverence bordering on obsession in the world of Americana-collecting. For the handful of serious buyers of fine American antiques — an eclectic bunch that includes Texas oil billionaire Robert Bass and Bill Cosby — to own a Garvan Carver piece is to reach the pinnacle of collecting. Fewer than a dozen Garvan tea tables as elaborate as the Fisher-Fox example are known to exist, and they almost never come to the market.

Very rich people who love old American tables wait for years for this kind of opportunity. And for the Christie’s regional office in Villanova, which had acquired the rights to sell the piece, the day represented a triumph. Staffers there had genteelly vied for the table with Sotheby’s — which also has a Main Line branch office. Here in Philadelphia, as they do internationally, the two auction houses wage an ongoing contest for Who Gets the Best Stuff — in a discreet and refined way, naturally.

The table, though, represented an even more exciting prize than most, since until last July, no one knew it existed. That’s when it was found shoved in a corner of a Main Line house, about to be carried off by a junk dealer.

SOTHEBY’S AND CHRISTIE’S: No two names, both so British and chic, evoke glamour and jewels and paintings quite as easily. The two auction houses are the very incarnation of old money — money that has the scent of antique wood and Chanel Nº5 and gin. But it’s actually often new money — smelling of Google stock and Russian oil and Bergdorf’s — that’s backed the incredible spending buoying both houses in recent years.

“It’s always been a pretty intense rivalry, in a gentlemanly way,” says Lewis Wexler, the Old City gallery owner who was previously assistant vice president of 20th-century decorative arts at Christie’s. “You know the old saying, ‘Christie’s are gentlemen pretending to be businessmen, and Sotheby’s are businessmen trying to be gentlemen.’ Christie’s in the early days was a bit more of the gentry. They’re both incredibly competent.”

These are very heady times for the art market: It seems everyone and his hedge-funder cousins are collecting these days, so that even though a painting selling for $100 million or more still causes a gasp, it’s not quite as shocking to read about as it was even a few years ago. And there’s plenty for each house to sell, from the currently white-hot 20th-century art market to Led Zeppelin memorabilia to antique jewelry.

Sotheby’s is larger and publicly held, and Christie’s is owned by French luxury tycoon and art collector François Pinault, but the two operate quite similarly. (A third auction house in New York and London, Phillips, is ambitious but much smaller.) Big sales mean enormous commissions for the two houses, since a buyer’s premium, or fee, of 25 percent is tacked onto the gavel price of each purchase. (On purchases of over half a million, the fee is lower.) Their business models are so alike, and they so often compete for the same works of art and objects, that both houses were suspected of commission-fixing in 2000, a complex legal mess that ended with the popular New York businessman and socialite Alfred Taubman, once chairman of Sotheby’s, serving prison time at age 78.

Here in Philly, the two houses regularly compete — in a most friendly way, of course, since their executives are in the same circles, socially and businesswise — for relationships with top collectors and institutions. With its troves of valuable furniture and paintings, Philadelphia was the first city outside New York to get a branch office from either of the two big houses. “I started the Christie’s office here in 1979,” recalls Paul Ingersoll, of the old Philadelphia family. He smiles. “I was a trustee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a long time, and then when I started Christie’s, I got this nice note from Henry McIlhenny” — then the Museum’s board chairman — “saying, ‘Thank you for your service to the board, and we’d be glad to have you back if you ever leave Christie’s.’”

Socially prominent Chestnut Hill denizen Wendy Foulke launched a Sotheby’s office here in the late 1970s, which is now run by well-liked senior vice president Angela Hudson, who often speaks on art and collecting. Hudson is a social A-lister who knows everyone, attends galas, throws cocktail receptions and helps groom new collectors, which has translated into the kinds of connections that put her on speed-dial should you have, say, a Warhol or Chagall to sell. 

“If I have a million-dollar painting, I’m going to shop it at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, and see where I can get the best deal,” says Wexler. “And who has the strongest department,” he adds. “This is just purely example, not fact, but Sotheby’s may have a better print department than Christie’s, and big collectors would take a look at everything, what expert they feel most comfortable with, and then who’s going to give them the best deal, of course.

“It’s not uncommon for people to have the auction houses play off each other to get the very best deal — to waive as many fees as possible and get as little commission as possible,” Wexler adds.

The Main Line branch offices themselves aren’t grand — and no works are stored there, as both Hudson and Christie’s local vice president, Alexis McCarthy, point out — but they have an upscale sensibility. Sotheby’s digs are in an awning-bedecked building just steps from the Haverford station. Christie’s has a pristine space, decorated with recent sale catalogs, in the same office complex as the Wilmington Trust building on Lancaster Avenue in Villanova. But much of their business is conducted at clients’ homes and offices, or at social events and cocktail parties.

Indeed, there are paintings and works of art and furniture collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the homes of private collectors in Philadelphia. “A lot of very sophisticated art is coming here,” says Hudson. “There’s active collecting going on in photographs, contemporary art, Asian art.” As more wealth accumulates around Philadelphia, so does more art.

Though Sotheby’s and Christie’s would never be so rude as to point it out, death and divorce unearth good stuff. In addition to regularly facilitating the sales of artworks and furniture, Hudson has helped heirs dispose of valuable Edwardian jewelry and, recently, of a warren of safe-deposit boxes full of valuable paperweights that sold for a half-million dollars. Her colleague Wendy Foulke helped the legendary $8.1 million sale of the Declaration of Independence found inside a flea-market painting in Adamstown in the late 1980s. Dream objects do turn up — even in Philly.

of work by the Garvan Carver — or, say, Picasso paintings or Rodin sculptures — pieces are known, prowled after, obsessed over and courted by museums and auction houses and antiques dealers and collectors. You just don’t find these kinds of pieces.

But on a hot Tuesday afternoon last July, Nicole Wood, a Christie’s representative in the Villanova office, picked up her phone at three o’clock. On the other end was John Hook, chair of Stradley Ronon’s trusts and estates department, asking her to come look at a piece of furniture belonging to an elderly Main Line client who was preparing to move to Waverly Heights, the Gladwyne assisted-living facility.

The client, who has remained anonymous, is an old-line Philadelphian, a descendant of William Wharton Fisher and Mary Pleasants Fox; she had a house filled with things passed down through many generations. The house needed a bit of sprucing-up before it went on the market, the family decided, so Hook and an associate, Stephanie Sanderson-Braem, helped put some items in storage before “staging” the house to sell. “I moved out to the house for three weeks to oversee the process,” says lawyer Sanderson-Braem. She set up a makeshift office in the dining room, and used the dining room table as her desk. The only time she even noticed an old tilt-top table in the corner was one day when she couldn’t fit her Dunkin’ Donuts coffee on the big table, and considered pulling the tilt-top over to hold the cup: “I saw all the dust on it and thought, ‘I don’t want to get dust in my coffee,”’ she says.

One antiques appraiser had already picked through what he considered the best pieces, so the lawyers called a few junkers to come through the house with estimates. Wilson’s Auction House arrived on a blazing-hot afternoon. “There was an older gentleman with the junk dealer, because they’d been at an earlier appointment together,” Hook recalls. “Since it was so hot out, he asked if this man, Martin, could come inside to the air conditioning.”

Hook, with some amusement, says he agreed as long as the older man, appraiser Martin Jolles, stayed with them. “We entered the dining room and were looking at the draperies, which were junk,” Hook says, “and this gentleman goes immediately to The Table and says to his colleague, ‘Did you see this pre-Revolutionary piecrust table?’” — adding that the table might be worth more than the actual house. Hook, hot and now mildly irritated, told Jolles the house was worth more than three-quarters of a million dollars.

“And he put his hand on the table and said, ‘So’s this,’” says Hook.

So Hook dialed Sotheby’s in Haverford and Christie’s in Villanova to come appraise it. At Christie’s, the slim and elegant Wood wasted no time.

“I was out of here by four, on my way over,” Wood remembers. When she entered the house, it appeared to her that the table was that rarest of things — a previously unknown, mint example of meticulously crafted pre-Revolutionary War furniture. “The table is beautiful, and I took a great many photographs,” says Wood, who talks in a felicitous mix of old-world prose and modern slang. “I called our experts, John Hays and Martha Willoughby, to look at the photos as soon as they could.” Wood knew the instant that Hays and Willoughby opened their e-mails and saw the photos: “My cell phone was ringing, e-mail was coming in,” she says with a laugh. Hays and Willoughby were out of their chairs in Rockefeller Center, ready to jump on the Acela and come see The Table.

And so, of course, was Sotheby’s. In fact, Sotheby’s was deploying a kind of charm bomb down from New York to Philly: its TV star, Leslie Keno.

It’s hard to come up against a Keno, one imagines, when trying to get an object for auction. Identical twins famous for their tag-team appraisals on Antiques Roadshow — brother Leigh owns a New York antiques gallery — the handsome blond Kenos glow with immaculately tailored sweetness. A Keno is enough to strike fear in even the most confident auction rep.

“I knew Sotheby’s was coming down on Friday,” says Wood, “so we made arrangements for John Hays, Martha Willoughby and myself to see it on Thursday.”

And there it was, looking so dusty, which was a good thing, as Antiques Roadshow people know. (There’s always a “Doh!” moment on that show when someone learns that refinishing some antique has deflated its value from “We’re buying a villa in Tuscany!” to “Well, we can re-carpet the basement now.”) No Pledge here, though. And the table was as close to perfection as Hays and Willoughby had ever seen. “The piecrust table is almost unique to Philadelphia,” says Hays. “Tea tables were rectangular in Boston, and had square legs in Newport, but in Philadelphia, they loved the scalloped rim.”

Hays and Willoughby knew instantly they were looking at the work of the Garvan Carver.

THE GARVAN CARVER is believed to have been born in America in the 1730s and to have been in his late 20s when he made the table, probably at a woodworking shop on Chestnut Street near the Delaware River. Fine furniture made here in Philly, Hays says, was closest to British in style, and was bought by only a few families; that the table had been handed down for generations in the family of its current owner made it more fascinating, and likely more valuable.

After the Christie’s team saw the table and made their presentation that Thursday in July, they returned to New York. But the next morning, unable to sit still, they jumped on a train and came back to the Main Line.

So on Friday, while Sotheby’s Keno visited The Table and made his presentation, Hays and Willoughby rented a Cadillac Escalade, just in case, and nervously readied packing materials. “They were basically circling the neighborhood, waiting for a call,” laughs Nicole Wood.

After Keno left the house, lawyer John Hook and the elderly client’s daughter went to dinner at Merion Cricket Club. Hook could tell that while she liked both parties, she had been enchanted by Christie’s outright fervor about the table, and the house’s willingness to include the family in the research and sale every step of the way.  Just as they were sitting down at the club, the daughter’s phone rang — it was John Hays from Christie’s, checking in. “The table’s yours,” she told him.

WEEP NOT FOR Sotheby’s. One week before Christie’s sale of The Table, Sotheby’s announced that it had located its own Garvan Carver tea table, and that it would be sold in late January.

Sotheby’s tea table is literally the textbook Garvan Carver piece. It appears in Hornor’s Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture, which is the bible of Americana, and is a piece Leslie Keno has sought for years to bring to auction. Owned by a member of the Tilghman family of Philadelphia, the McMichael-Tilghman table has been in private hands since it was made in the mid-1750s, and it once again evened the score between the two intensely competitive houses.

As for the Christie’s table — three months after Hays and Willoughby limoed it back to New York on that hot Friday night, Lot 94 was ready. The Fisher-Fox family couldn’t quite believe, even after months of research in which Willoughby traced the table back to Chelwood, an old family house at Andalusia in Bucks County, that the table they’d ignored for years was really worth as much as $2 million.

But bids for The Table quickly passed $1 million, then $5 million, and finally, John Hays’s gavel went down on a high bid of $6.76 million by Yardley dealer Todd Prickett, bidding for an anonymous client. Hook sat watching the sale, gleeful at the price but calculating the taxes the family would have to pay before the proceeds went into a trust. (He’s a lawyer, after all.) Christie’s Hays is still ecstatic, though one imagines he’s wondering whether The Other Table might bring even more money at Sotheby’s. When you ask him about Sotheby’s, though, Hays feigns momentary deafness.

“Who?” he jokes