Collecting Federal Furniture: A Unique Style that Mirrors American Ideals

Beginning a collection of Federal style furniture can be started relatively cheaply. This Federal mahogany and tiger maple inlaid desk, possibly made in southeastern Mass., circa 1800, sold for $1,225.

If you live in a Federal style home, filling it with Federal furniture just seems like a natural. I myself began collecting Federal era furniture in 1981, shortly after I purchased an 1814 Federal house—a long standing dream of mine. I first chose to appoint my home with period antiques simply because Federal furniture, with its pilasters, fluted columns, capitals and plinths echoed the full-scale architectural motifs of the house. But what I learned through the journey of collecting was that Federal furniture was more than just pleasing to the eye. The Federal style is one that is uniquely American, and its design elements mirror the very ideals upon which our country was founded.

The Federal Style

The Federal period in America dates between 1780 and 1830. America was in its infancy as a democratic nation, and so our aesthetic ideals closely aligned with those of the Greeks and Romans. The Neoclassical movement that was popular in England and France at the time took on a uniquely American perspective, and newly prosperous American aristocracy helped create what we now call the Federal style. With their money, these wealthy merchants and land owners built large, elegant homes and commissioned the finest cabinetmakers to furnish these homes with equally elegant furniture. What was produced in these shops reflected the political, social and economic conditions of a young country just beginning to take itself seriously and ready to make itself known internationally.

Federal furniture is less heavy and curvaceous than the colonial style that preceded it; its style is typified by delicate design, straight lines and minimal ornamentation. There is a different sense of proportion characterized by the use of veneers and inlays, and subtle carving forms, such as card tables, sideboards and chairs made in the first quarter of the 19th century, feature ring-turned and reeded legs.

Starting a Collection

Some Federal pieces, though, require a larger outlay of cash. This Federal mahogany and mahogany veneer inlaid glazed gentleman's secretary, Salem, Mass., circa 1793-1811, sold for $556,000 at Skinner.

Even collecting on a budget, I’ve found many opportunities to acquire Federal furniture and complimentary objects of fine quality. Even if you don’t own a Federal home, the timeless appeal of Federal furniture and decorative arts work well in a variety of homes, and mix well with many modern styles.

My best advice to would-be collectors is to learn as much as you can about Federal furniture before you buy. There is a wealth of resource material to be found in libraries, and depending on where you live; many museums, historic homes and historical societies may be a source of knowledge on the subject. Perhaps the easiest place to begin learning more about Federal furniture is online. There are numerous sites where you’ll find examples of Federal furniture for sale, recommended books and articles on the subject, and even virtual tours of museums that have Federal furniture in their collections. You can look through WorthPoint’s Worthopedia or on other online venues, including auction house Web sites, such as Skinner. There you’ll find information for the neophyte collector, as well as the seasoned buyer and seller of antiques.

Most auction houses post their catalogs online, and they are a valuable resource for providing the most accurate and timely information on the value of certain pieces. Online catalogs provide pictures, descriptions, histories and price ranges. Many auction houses will also supply condition reports on each piece: what’s original, what’s been restored. This is important information, as most antiques don’t come to market unscathed, and not all repair and restoration work is created equal. If a table has been tortured by a belt sander or stripped to the bare wood, not much can be done to restore its original luster and value. But repairs to certain antique furnishings, when done professionally, can improve the piece and often enhance the value. Repairs—those that add value and those that diminish it—should be noted in the catalog description.

Shop ’Til You Drop! Then Ask Questions…

A Federal inlaid mahogany tall case Clock, by Stephen Taber, New Bedford, Mass., circa 1800, sold for $5,925.

The next step is to go to an auction house preview; look long and hard at the pieces, run your hands across the surfaces, smell the wood in enclosed spaces such as drawers and inside clock cases. It may sound silly, but old wood has a characteristic smell that has yet to be duplicated in an aerosol can! Ask a staff member about that circa 1810 Federal tiger maple chest of drawers you’re drawn to. He or she should be able to tell you what repairs have been made; and if you’re lucky, they might also say that except for its patina, that piece of furniture you’re eyeing is just as it was the day it left the cabinetmaker’s shop 180 years ago.

A reputable antique dealer will supply you with this same information. Many dealers sell American Federal furniture, among other things, and most are more than willing to discuss their offerings with great enthusiasm and passion for the material. After all, everyone benefits if the buyer is both educated and informed. Also, when considering buying an antique, don’t be afraid to ask for a document of authenticity. There’s no reason not to ask for proof that what you think is good is as good as it looks.

When You’re Ready to Buy…

A Federal mahogany flame birch and rosewood veneer desk bookcase, attributed to Judkins and Senter, Portsmouth, N.H., circa 1813, sold for $127,000 at Skinner.

There’s a great deal of affordable Federal furniture available, particularly in New England. Massachusetts was home to many cabinetmakers of the period: Samuel McIntire in Salem and John and Thomas Seymour in Boston, among them. There were many other shops in New England creating quality Federal furniture between 1785 and 1820, and much of this furniture has survived to this day.

As a result, you can buy a late-18th- or early 19t-century Federal card table for as little as $1,200. Of course, you can go to the next level and purchase a table in much better condition for $10,000 to $20,000, or for as much as $500,000. High quality Federal furniture is available for very reasonable prices. People come up to me and say, “But I’ve only got $2,500 to spend. What can I get that is good?” My answer: plenty. There’ll be many examples of good Federal card tables, sideboards, chairs and bureaus in auctions and dealer shops, and at antique shows. I know; I’ve seen them, and continue to see them. Some are in excellent condition, some have minor imperfections. Many of them are beautiful to live with and pleasing to the eye. They may be subtle masterpieces, handmade by artisans using fine wood, hand tools, their own talent and imagination.

A Lover of History

When I am fortunate enough to acquire an object I love, I’m acquiring a piece of history, an artifact of our younger nation. I’m appreciative of the talent of the person who made the piece and I’m perhaps connecting myself with all the people over the years who’ve owned that object. Our attraction to the same piece of furniture suggests we have at least something in common: a vision of what is beautiful, and the desire to be surrounded by and living with it every day, enriching life at home.

Stephen Fletcher is the executive vice president and director of American Furniture & Decorative Arts at Skinner, Inc., one of the world’s leading auction houses for antiques and fine art and the only major auction house headquartered in New England. Skinner’s specialty areas include fine musical instruments, science & technology, rare books & manuscripts, and Judaica. Skinner offers four auctions of American Furniture & Decorative Arts annually.


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