The top of the heap in American furniture was produced in the thirteen original colonies from the mid to late 1600s through the first part of the 19th century. These are what experts reference as "period" pieces. Furniture pieces like these get appraisers like the Keno brothers really revved when it shows up occasionally on the Antiques Roadshow television series.
Why? Theses pieces were impeccably hand made by skilled craftsmen in the finest colonial cabinet shops. A number of these fabulous creations were even signed by the makers.
The Goddard Townsend family of Newport, Rhode Island produced some of the most renowned and valuable pieces made during this period and a number of them were signed. These pieces get high-end auction houses like Sotheby’s really excited when they come on the market. In fact, a single mahogany secretary bookcase made by Christopher Townsend in 1740 once sold at auction in New York for the astonishing sum of $8.25 million.
What makes period furniture so unique and valuable?
If you read Leigh and Leslie Keno’s book, Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture, you’re familiar with the passion period furniture pieces generate. Haven’t had the pleasure? It’s still available through major online booksellers, and definitely worth picking up if you want to learn more about antique furniture and the business.
Lyn Sack Wall also knows the merits of period furniture. As the niece of Albert Sack, who operates Sack Heritage Group as mentioned in the Keno’s book, she's uniquely qualified to teach about this topic.
“It takes more than being old to determine the value of an antique. Not only must an item be of high quality, it must have artistic merit,” Wall said. She also noted “there are many periods of antique furniture. The different periods and styles overlap.”
Wall emphasized that cabinetmakers didn't stop making Queen Anne furniture on December 31, 1749 and start making Chippendale furniture on January 1, 1750. Each subsequent period actually influenced the style of its successors. The major periods can be broken down into Colonial and Federal, however.
The Colonial period dates from around 1620 to 1780 and includes Jacobean, Queen Anne and Chippendale styles. The Federal period extends from 1780 through 1820 and incorporates Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Classical styles. These styles are the epitome of American furniture design, and have been copied through the decades.
Who owned period pieces then? What about now?
While we rarely run across these fine pieces now, you’ll find a number on display in museums. In fact, if you visit the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia while on vacation there, you'll likely run across a fabulous shell carved chest crafted by John Townsend.
In talking with Colonial Williamsburg’s own cabinetmaker in a shop where period reproductions are handmade while visitors watch, you'll learn that the wealthier members of colonial society usually imported their furnishings from Europe. The consumers buying more ornately carved pieces of American furniture were from the up and coming middle class who wanted to show off their newfound status.
These days it’s definitely the privileged that can afford these beautiful examples of American craftsmanship. They often purchase them anonymously through phone bids in upscale auctions where prices can skyrocket to millions in a matter of minutes.
What makes a masterpiece of furniture worthy of such attention? According to Wall, a piece must possess a “beauty and quality that transcends the bounds of the era or even the field of art it represents” to qualify for masterpiece status.
If you’ll never find a period piece, why do you need to know about them?
While you may never run across a piece of this caliber in your neck of the woods, it certainly doesn’t hurt to learn about the quality of fine American furniture as a benchmark. The more you know about the craftsmanship and styles, the better you’ll be at separating the wheat from the chaff on your own furniture foraging adventures.
In addition to reading books about antique furniture and decorative arts, visit museums and historic homes where these pieces are held to see them firsthand. Study the online catalogs of major auction houses when this caliber of furniture is being offered for sale as well. The more you learn about what makes up a masterpiece of antique furniture, and develop your eye for quality, you'll be less likely to pass one by given the chance to own it.