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In Appraising, Good Questions Make Better Answers

by Fred Taylor (04/04/12).

Was this Mission style rocker made by a Stickley? Yes, but which one? Stickley Brothers of Grand Rapids, MI, made this chair.

I respond to several hundred inquiries a month from readers about their older and antique furniture, and most of the questions are earnest inquiries about family-furniture heirlooms or “new” acquisitions. Most readers have some idea of what they have and what the relevant terminology is to phrase a reasonable question.

That of course leaves out the ones who say, “I have an old antique bedroom set from my grandmother. She was 81 when she died, so I know the set is old. How old is it and how much is it worth?” The questioner naturally does not include a picture of the set, any relevant data or even a list of the pieces.

Then there are the inquiries that presume to know something of the subject. One of my favorites concerns a late 18th- or early 19th-century New York cabinetmaker. Usually the question runs something like this: “I have a dining room set that I know is Duncan Phyfe. How can I verify if it is an original Duncan Phyfe or if it is a reproduction? Is there a trademark or a signature I can look for?” You can look for it, but you won’t find it.

Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854) was a Scottish cabinetmaker that came to America in 1784 changing his name from Fife to Phyfe. He served his apprenticeship in Albany, N.Y., before moving to Manhattan in 1790. He worked in all the popular styles of the day including Federal, Neo-Classic, Empire, Regency and Rococo Revival.

The style he didn’t work in was “Duncan Phyfe,” because there was not then and is not today a style by that name. Somehow his name became attached to any piece of furniture from any period that has sweeping legs extending from a pedestal or a frame.

While it is true he made some furniture in that style, so did every other cabinetmaker in New York. The sweeping legs were actually in style before Phyfe was born. It was an English Georgian-style used in pedestal dining tables just after the middle of the 18th century. Tables with this style leg and pedestal have been popular in America for most of the 20th century, the great majority having been made since the 1930s.

Is this a Duncan Phyfe table? No, it is a late 18th-century English table that predates Phyfe’s work by several decades.

The style today loosely referred to as “Duncan Phyfe” is a reproduction, with several liberties, of early 19th-century Federal and Empire styles.

And to set the record straight, Phyfe used a printed-paper label when he marked his furniture at all. If you want to know whether you’ve found a rare, genuine Phyfe label, you can see an example of it in “American Cabinetmakers—Marked American Furniture 1640-1940” by William C. Ketchum.

Another favorite question has to do with another famous cabinetmaker, but it usually turns out to be someone else in his family. Gustav Stickley is the cabinetmaker.

A frequent question is, “How valuable is my Stickley chair?”

That depends on several things. Firstly, how do you know it is a Stickley chair (Aunt Jenny’s word won’t do)? Bear in mind that not all Mission-style chairs were made by Stickley and there are multiple Stickleys to which you could be referring.

Gustav was one of five Stickley brothers. The others were Leopold, John George (J.G.), Charles and Albert. Every member of the Stickley clan was involved in the furniture business, generally in a company co-owned by another Stickley brother or two. Even Gustav started out as part of a family furniture company with two other brothers. Charles took it one step further and went into business with his in-laws, the Brandts, and formed the company Stickley-Brandt.

Some chairs made by Gustav are extremely valuable. Chairs made by companies owned by other Stickleys are usually less so. Stickley Brothers of Grand Rapids is a good example. They made good quality furniture, but even the earliest pieces are not as sought after as Gustav’s work. One of the Stickley companies, L. & J.G. Stickley, Inc., is still in business. Which Stickley made it and when it was made are the primary factors to the value of a “Stickley” chair.

Is this Hoosier–style cabinet a genuine Hoosier? Yes, it is the Hoosier Beauty cabinet of 1927. Several versions of this cabinet were made in the 1920s by Hoosier Manufacturing Company.

I often see a similar case involving the multipurpose kitchen-cabinet system generically called a “Hoosier” cabinet. The question usually is along the lines of “how much is my Hoosier cabinet worth?”

Like the Stickley chair, it depends on who made it and when. The Hoosier-style cabinet evolved from the late 19th-century baker’s cabinet, which had possum-belly drawers with a large work surface and shelves above. A small factory in Indiana, the Hoosier Manufacturing Company, took the traditional baker’s cabinet, replaced the drawers with an enclosed cabinet, and by 1920 produced 2 million cabinets of that design—thus the name.

But other manufacturers were in the business, too, and not all of them were in the Hoosier State of Indiana. Big names in the Hoosier-style cabinet business in Indiana were Sellers, Napanee, McDougall and Boone. Outside Indiana were Marsh in North Carolina and Wilson in Grand Rapids. The Wilson cabinet was sold through Sears. A good source for information about Hoosier-style cabinets is the self-published book by Phillip D. Kennedy entitled Hoosier Cabinets.”

I will happily respond to our furniture inquires but remember: a better question gets a better answer.


Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or
info@furnituredetective.com

Visit Fred’s website at Furniture Detective. His book How To Be A Furniture Detective is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 shipping and handling) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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