Inside the Auction
Two Queen Anne-style chairs with a possible Logan family provenance appeared for sale at Christie’s in New York in January 2006. The pair descended through the Sarah Logan Fisher branch of the Logan family and were consigned by direct descendants of James Logan. Stenton and the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania pursued the chairs, although they eventually went to a higher bidder. Nevertheless, the process of going after these chairs is a useful tale reminiscent of a detective story, with a number of helpful lessons for building our collections in the future.
It all began with Jeff Groff, Executive Director at Wyck, one of our partner Germantown sites, who brought the chairs to our attention. Stenton curator Laura Keim began to ponder the possible importance of the chairs and raised her thoughts with Stenton’s Director, who suggested she talk to Sally Congdon, NSCDA/PA President.
Ensuing discussion suggested that these chairs held the potential to add to the authenticity of the interpretation of the house. In Logan’s time, Stenton’s seventy-five chairs included thirty-five chairs with wool or leather “bottoms,” which we interpret as slip-seat side chairs in the Queen Anne-style. Currently, Stenton has only four Queen Anne-style chairs, two of which are Irish. To be able to add two more slip-seat side chairs from the 1730-1750 period, of Philadelphia manufacture, and which also have a Logan family provenance presented an exciting and important opportunity for Stenton.
Laura consulted with Sally and the NSCDA/PA Treasurer, Dora Rogers, in early January, and the two Officers were in support of allocating funds toward possible purchase of these chairs from the Stenton Collections Fund that was raised from the proceeds of a sale of deaccessioned objects at Pook & Pook in March 2004. As auctions move quickly, there was not much time to spare in making a decision about pursuing the objects, and Laura presented the chairs to the Stenton Committee on January 5. The Committee moved to take the motion to the NSCDA/PA Board, who in turn endorsed the expenditure of cash up to a certain amount from the collections fund on January 13, giving Sally Congdon the final say about how much to spend.
Almost immediately, a cast of other generous characters appeared in the story, some offering funds to help with the acquisition, others helping to evaluate the chairs. Mr. Richard Dietrich, who had helped to acquire the two Logan Queen Anne chairs purchased in 2002, again offered assistance, as did Stenton Committee member Hannah Henderson. During the few brief weeks leading up to the auction Stenton was able to draw on the knowledge and expertise of many of the best people in the field of American decorative arts, including Jay Robert Stiefel, David Barquist, Albert Sack, Robert Lionetti, Debbie Rebuck and Lita Solis-Cohen. In addition, Martha Willoughby at Christie’s was helpful in tracking down details about these chairs. Bill Stahl at Sotheby’s offered advice about an identical pair that came up for sale at Sotheby’s in October, 2000, and which had belonged to Dr. William Serri of Merchantville, NJ. Identifying a Logan connection to the Serri chairs would in turn support the Logan provenance for the Christie’s chairs.
On Monday, January 16, 2006, Stenton staff traveled to Christie’s in New York to closely examine and scrutinize the Logan Queen Anne-style chairs. Several colleagues were unfailingly helpful in offering their thoughts and advice. Taking valuable time to look the chairs over in detail with us were first Downingtown antiques dealer Philip Bradley, and later decorative arts consultant Philip Zimmerman with Joe Kindig and Jenifer Kindig from York, Pennsylvania. Their insights and graciousness in support of Stenton cannot be overstated.
One always needs to cast a skeptical eye over objects like these, as well as their provenance. We came away convinced that these chairs were definitely 18th-century artifacts in fundamentally sound condition with some minor patches and appropriate wear, attractive in design and proportion. The chairs had a possible, even plausible Logan family provenance, meeting all the collecting criteria for Stenton except that we couldn’t absolutely prove these chairs had been at Stenton. The issue with the provenance is that the chairs could have been made for other ancestors of the consignors who were contemporaries of James Logan, such as Isaac Norris or George Emlen.
Opinions also differed about the date of the chairs, an important factor in situating them at Stenton during James Logan’s lifetime. Of those who offered opinions, several had no trouble believing that they may have been made as early as 1730, while others suggested a date as late as 1755, post-dating James Logan’s (1674-1751) lifetime. Philip Zimmerman pointed out that the only documented use of the paneled pad foot is from 1750. We compared the carved shells on the knees to similar ones on James Logan’s easy chair and the yellow settee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The flat serpentine stretchers are close in design to those of the James Logan back stools at the PMA and Winterthur, adding to the argument that these chairs were of the same time and style as other Logan family furnishings.
Then it came down to price: what could we afford to pay and what might they go for? Because of the condition, with a stripped and faded mid-20th century finish and heavy wear on the front feet, we felt some collectors might steer clear of these chairs. Therefore they might sell for within the estimate, leaving the door open for Stenton to acquire a pair of Logan family Queen Anne-style chairs for a comparative bargain. At the same time we needed to balance this factor with consideration that even this comparative bargain could significantly deplete our collections fund.
As the auction approached, a conference call Friday, January 20, decided on the bid amount. All agreed that it was worth Curator Keim traveling to Christie’s to represent Stenton. The agreed upon allocation was realistic enough, we might have a chance at the chairs.
On Saturday January 21, Gina Whelan, a textile conservator, and member of the Stenton Collections Committee and NSCDA-PA, traveled to New York with Laura Keim for moral support at the sale. Sitting in anticipation of the sale can be nerve-wracking and in this case the chairs were on the block about an hour later than projected due to schedule changes. In the lots preceding the chairs, several objects passed without selling at all, and Laura and Gina stood at the back of the room with baited breath, hoping that luck might be on their side. The bidding went quickly with the chairs being sold to a phone bidder for $38,000. These chairs would not be coming to Stenton.
All-in-all, while it was disappointing not to secure these chairs, the fast-paced process has opened dialog about our collecting priorities and the nature of collecting generally. In order to maintain our public profile, it is important that Stenton be seen as an actively collecting institution, which in turn will help bring in objects by donation and raise funds for future purchases. Our experience is also a useful reminder that there are many interesting objects out there and any donations are fully tax-deductible. Gifts to museums can be beneficial to donors, institutions and the public, allowing others to enjoy beautiful and historically important artifacts at museums and historic sites like Stenton.