USA

Americana feels the slump of US market

New England Chippendale furniture, early weathervanes and primitive portraits struggle to sell

High seat: This Philadelphia Chippendale easy chair, from 1770 sold for $1,022,500 at Christie's

NEW YORK. Along with the stock market teetering, traditional symbols of stability—New England Chippendale furniture, early weathervanes and primitive portraits—struggled to sell at Christie’s and Sotheby’s Americana sales. While Christie’s roped in $4.7 million against expectations of over $2.9 million on 29 September, Sotheby’s pulled down only $3.6 against an estimated $3.8-$7.6 million. Christie’s sold 78% by lot and 91% by value. Weathervanes that one dealer pegged as “looking suspiciously Chinese” passed.

“The American market is thin except for the very good,” says private dealer William Stahl, a 27-year Sotheby’s Americana veteran. He points to the Philadelphia Chippendale easy chair, from 1770, with bits of its original upholstery selling for $1,022,500 at Christie’s, reportedly to William Samaha, who regularly buys for Fidelity Investments chairman Ned Johnson. “It sold 33 years ago at Sotheby’s, catalogued by yours truly for $70,000,” says Stahl. The under bidder at $800,000 was Leigh Keno.

Top folk art also brought strong prices like a Connecticut Sunflower chest, 1675, which climbed to $482,500 against a $60,000-$90,000 estimate and was taken by Connecticut dealer Nathan Liverant.

But the middle market material, furniture under $50,000, which was once widely used to decorate entire homes, went begging. When a set of eight Sheraton fancy chairs was on the block, Christie’s auctioneer John Hays asked, “Who will give me $1,000, $500, $100.” A bidder took them for $250.

Sotheby’s only snagged $3.6 million the following day and their buy in rate was 46% with only 96 lots selling and 79 not moving at all.

The sale began weakly with the first lot, an Ammi Phillips portrait of Mary Margaret Deuel, 1829, expected to reach $500,000-$700,000. Less than 15 people were in audience and the painting stalled at $380,000.

The Corliss-Bowen family Chippendale block front mahogany desk and bookcase, 1770, sold for $962,500 though estimated to sell for $800,000-$2 million. That price pales especially when compared to what the desk sold for at Christie’s January 18, 1997 sale: $1 million with a reasonable estimate of $500,000-$800,000. “It had some restoration and it’s been on the market for a while,” says Stahl. Manhattan dealer Leigh Keno, who just started his own auction house, took the Parkman-Scollay family Chippendale mahogany chest, 1780, for $782,500 or more than three times its low estimate. “It was a bargain,” says Keno.

A Philadelphia Chippendale dining room table, primitive portraits and Queen Anne chairs never reached their reserves estimated. Stahl sees the lower end of market bottoming out. “Anything a notch below the very good and especially an ordinary thing won’t move,” says Stahl. Another factor driving the Americana market downward is changing taste; decorators using such antiques have dried up.

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