Lots of oak furniture in New York this week

I went to another world the other day. Attended part of Americana Week at Sotheby’s in New York. I was there to give a talk, but I got to see some great oak furniture offered for sale this week…and got to see some friends and colleagues I haven’t seen in quite a while. Here’s the link to the auction listings; http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2018/important-americana-n09805.html#

Auction previews are great – unlike museums, here you can open stuff and peek inside. Lot #723 is a New Haven wainscot chair that has people all excited. (Some of these photos I shot hand-held in the galleries; the best ones were given to me by Sotheby’s) 

A detail of one of the arms.

and of the carvings;  I need the detail shots because I’m going to make one of these chairs this year.

I got to look this chair over with my friend Bob Trent – and neither of us had ever seen a groove like the one cut in the outside of the stile

I saw this box in 1998, now lot 727, on another research trip with Trent. And as soon as we started looking it over, we realized it was part of the group of boxes and chests by William Savell and his sons John and William from Braintree, Massachusetts. Even though we hadn’t seen this particular pattern before.


Many things connect this box to the others – square wooden pins instead of nails to secure the rabbets. Gouge-chopped accents here & there are direct quotes from the others. And the scribed lines above and below the carving; with diagonal chisel cuts zig-zagging across the box. Maltese cross punched inside the zig-zag.

Here’s the side of a related box at the MFA in Boston. You can see the zig-zags clearly here.


Jn Savell box, side carving

The box now at Sotheby’s again – look especially at the area outside the arches –

Now from a chest at the Smithsonian – this exact same motif outside the lunettes from the top rail

lunette, William Savell Sr 1590s-1669

and above & below the opposing lunettes is a pattern from the panels on these chests – look at the very bottom of the panel:

panel, joined chest, c. 1660-1680s

Then back at the box front –

I don’t know what’s the story behind these till trenches. If it’s a till w a drawer, why does the vertical notch extend below what would be the till bottom? There is no hole for a till lid…

Inside, it stops just short of being labelled “This end up”.

Lots more stuff in the sale; a Boston chest of drawers, walnut and cedrela

a chest with drawers, Wethersfield, CT

And – me. Poor Mark Atchison gets no glory for all the hard blacksmith work he did back when we made a slew of these cabinets. Trent had us make this one as a gift to his friends Dudley & Constance Godfrey – and now a foundation they started is selling it, and several of these items as a fund-raiser for educational programming at the Milwaukee Art Museum… I didn’t do the coloring…

8 thoughts on “Lots of oak furniture in New York this week

  1. Just one question Peter. The zig zag on the Savell chest is cut with a chisel just as you showed us at the North House School. However, the double lines above and below the zig zag, are they just struck with a marking gauge? The lines seems more pronounced than I would expect the marking gauge to leave.

  2. Very interesting article and one from this side of the pond something I’ve spotted which we do not find on period furniture here. I know that throughout generation of furniture makers we will all find both the very best made piece form a city to a country vernacular made chairs , chests, tables etc but we also find through those large number of made piece one or two made by a shoddy workman. A tradesman who doesn’t look after his tools.
    I have been researching for the past 5 plus years a Cadwalader piece made in Philadelphia circa 1768-70. It had a puzzling bit of evidence left by a tradesman or craftsman. The line made by a chip out of a plane iron.
    With my piece I found another item of furniture to have the same marking (see http://wp.me/p6Nig6-3V) .
    The close up image you took of the inside of the Oak and Cedrella chest with the paper ripped shows line’s from a chip out of a plane blade. This as I have found shows the speeds which Colonial makers were under. Has anyone researched this area and it must be a common find?

    • It’s the inside of the box above, not the chest of drawers. It’s a nick in a hatchet, not a plane. Common as all get-out. Has nothing to do with speed. Just a not-perfectly-sharpened tool, whether it’s a hatchet or a plane. Can happen today as easily as 350 years ago.

      • Thank you. Those lines which follows the grain are of even in lenght and depth and only from a movemet that is repeated evenly E.G as if that board has been cleaned on a bench. Yes there is a crossgrain rip out from the original tree to board conversation. But please can you tell me how a hatchet can produce lines that even and strait when it’s job is to split open the grain of the timber after the first hit.
        The oxidation over time alows the timber cell loose there natural moisture which means that tool marks from carving chisel or plane iron even marks from a holdfast or benchhold will today stand out compared to what the craftsmen saw on the day of completion.

        • I’m not sure we’re looking at the same marks, I see 2 sets of 3 “tracks” from a nicked hatchet edge. The first set is right beside the scribed arrow that points to the top edge. The 2nd set is out of focus, to the right of the 1st. These stop right at the depth cut from the hatchet. The hatchet is not for splitting the boards, but for hewing them prior to planing. I think the marks you’re seeing are the ones running out from under the paper – up near the top edge and slightly echoed below – I see those not as nicks in a plane iron but the corner of the iron sticking out one side more than the other, leaving tracks with each pass. Still has nothing to do with the speed of the work.

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