In a way, it came down to lagniappe.
During the country Americana session held at Garth’s on March 13, lagniappe seemed in play. A word used chiefly in the Gulf Coast region, especially the New Orleans area, lagniappe (pronounced LAN-yap) traditionally refers to a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase, such as a 13th doughnut added to a dozen. In terms of antiques, Amelia Jeffers, president of Garth’s, thinks of it as “that little extra oomph that makes something special.”
She brought up the term while discussing a Dunlap school slant-front desk in curly maple, possibly of New Hampshire origin, that sold for $6600 (with buyer’s premium) against an estimate of $1000/2000 at the March auction. “It’s a beautiful desk. Look at all the stuff going on on the base and the feet,” she said, referring to bold bracket feet and scroll returns. The fitted interior also had a little extra something with a nicely carved fan and valanced cubbyholes. The desk’s darkened original finish was partially cleaned, giving it a bit of an uneven look. It didn’t matter.
At the heart of the matter, however, if a spade is still to be called a spade, this was a piece of brown furniture. That it more than tripled its upper estimate offered a glimmer of hope in a market where prices for brown furniture have been up and down but mostly the latter. “Hopefully this is a harbinger of how it is shifting a little bit,” said Jeffers.
It wasn’t just the desk. Brown furniture saw good results throughout the day. For example, a Hepplewhite chest of drawers in cherry with string and fan inlay, probably Massachusetts or Connecticut origin, early 19th century, nearly doubled its upper estimate, selling for $3600.
Nor was the day all about American furniture. A set of seven Canadian Classical chairs attributed to Thomas Nisbet of St. John, New Brunswick, consisting of one armchair and six side chairs, sold for $4500; a Classical sewing table having Nisbet’s stenciled label realized $3240. “We have a strong Canadian buying audience,” Jeffers said.
And yet, it’s more than just that. For years, in auctions across the United States, Canadian objects have been labeled as American, either out of misconception or because a U.S. attribution (or, more specifically, a regional or state attribution) can boost bidding. Jeffers noted that the same thing happened with Ohio furniture, until the market for Ohio Valley material improved to the point that Ohio-made items were sought for what they were and where they originated.
Origin is still the strong arm that thrusts up many a bid card, and that was the case for the top lot of the session, a western Pennsylvania vine-inlaid tall-case clock, signed by Michael Hugus of Somerset County. It sold for $10,200.
“That was in rough condition too,” said Jeffers. “It’s really interesting because you go into that not knowing how much forgiveness there is going to be for condition issues. But it has a lot going on from a regional and a design perspective. The vine-inlaid stuff right now, that western Pennsylvania market, holy smokes, it’s on fire.”
Vine inlay. Lagniappe.
Ditto for the backing on the Carolina Lily quilt that started the session. Featuring red flowers on green stems in white diamonds, all on a dark blue ground, the quilt was attractive in its own right. Flip the textile over, and it became a whole different story. The backing had a repeated print of General Zachary Taylor on horseback at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma during the Mexican War. Lagniappe. Bidding more than tripled the upper estimate, and the quilt sold for $6600.
There was one more thing going for the quilt. “Condition, condition, condition,” said Jeffers. “For its age, it’s in incredible condition.”
What would the quilt have brought with a plain back? “I don’t know,” she said. “Could it be one to two thousand [dollars]? It’s still a great-looking quilt. That’s a total shot in the dark. As I’ve recently said, sometimes estimates are just throwing it against the wall.”
Half a dozen lots after the quilt, two other noteworthy items produced strong bidding. A Staffordshire presentation fraternal pitcher with extensive scenes featuring symbols and coats of arms flanked by women in Classical dress, lettered “The Loyal / Samaritans Pride Lodge / Salford / Instituted April 28, 1834, / Host Walker,” 19½" high, in great condition, especially considering its size, sold for $4200. A salesman’s sample hay baler from the second half of the19th century, wooden, with gears and chains, in original paint, 27" long, brought $3840. It was that kind of sale.
Other smalls also did well. An American wallpaper box depicting the Deaf and Dumb Asylum in New York City, second quarter of the 19th century, sold for $1125. A miniature blanket chest in walnut with its original willow tree decoration on the front and spots on the ends, all on a red ground, New England, mid-19th century, topped at $2040. A Bible box in pine with old red paint, probably of New England origin, 18th century, having carved designs on the front, brought $2400.
OK, forget the lagniappe. The wallpaper box, miniature blanket chest, and Bible box had another common denominator that bolstered their appeal—size. Buyers continue to look for “anything small, easy to load, not heavy,” according to Jeffers. Of course, design is still paramount, but like the salesman’s sample hay baler, small folk art objects turn heads. “It appeals to a lot of people, and almost every collector I know can squeeze in another small folksy thing,” Jeffers added.
At 59" x 82½", there was nothing small about a carved pine mantel in old white paint, but there was appeal nonetheless. American and from the early 19th century, it featured a fluted cornice and pilasters, as well as an elaborate chip-carved decoration. Estimated at $1000/2000, the mantel sold for $5000.
“It had a lot going for it. I talked to people at the preview who said, ‘I’d rip one out to put that in,’” said Jeffers. “That’s what it takes. It has to overcome its utilitarian purpose. That’s at the essence of folk art and Americana.”
For more information, phone Garth’s Auctions at (740) 362-4771 or visit (www.garths.com).
First appeared in Maine Antique Digest, June 2015.