The Thrill of the Hunt: Netting a Rare Butterfly Table

The William & Mary figured maple butterfly table with block vase and ring turned legs that had been so elusive.

The William & Mary figured maple butterfly table with block vase and ring turned legs that had been so elusive.

A few years ago, Steve Fletcher—the lead auctioneer of Skinner Auction Gallery in Boston—had just accepted a glass of water and stepped down from the podium to take a break. Karen Keane, the president and CEO of the company, was now behind the auctioneer’s mike. “Good!” I said to myself. Keane, like Fletcher, is a regular on the long-running PBS hit, “The Antique Roadshow.” She’s charismatic, charming, skilled at auctioneering, but she’s not Steve Fletcher.

Steve is the star. Like many an auctioneer, the butt of many of Fletcher’s jokes is himself. Earlier in the sale a totally stripped and refinished Nantucket Fan-back Windsor Armchair, estimated in the catalog to go for between $3,000-$5,000, sold for an amazing $25,000! I was one of the under-bidders. Who did Fletcher blame about the low estimate? Himself. “Shows what I know!” he said, bearing a slightly befuddled smile and naive twinkle in his eye. Auctioneers who appear too smart can’t be outsmarted.

He started the bidding off at a low $1,000 and edged up in $500 levels. “… thousand we have, now fifteen-hundred, now TWO-THOUSAND DOLLARS!” he called out.

The Windsor—having nothing left but polyurethane for surface but magnificent in form—was lot number 6 in the sale. It was an item most attendees would appreciate but not totally understand. At $1,500 dollars, every other hand in the room was up in the air. People had been instantly acclimated to bidding. At $4,000 only a few hands remained. By the time the chair had reached $8,000 the audience was in kind of a hushed mode—wide eyed and excited—just as the auctioneer intended. Passing $12,000, my hand was the only one left in the raised position in a room packed with 300 well-dressed Bostonian preppie types. Then the phone bids came in.

In the “good old days” (now I am sounding old), people in the audience basically decided what things were worth at an auction. Occasionally a phone bidder or two would be on the line. Today, large auction houses like Skinner now have nearly 20 phone lines.

Then, the computer started bidding. That’s right, the computer. Skinner is now hooked up with the Wal-Mart of the antiques business, eBay. On-line geeks and mega-collectors from places like San Francisco were bidding against me never having inspected, let alone seen, the piece they were bidding on, except for a photo.

“$13,000!” Fletcher called out. When the spindly appearing, stripped-to-the-bone armchair sold for $25,000, every retail bidder in the audience was now sitting on the edge of their seats, anticipating the next item in the sale. The innocent-appearing man on stage had accomplished his goal.

Anyhow, let us return to the auction with Ms. Keane now on the stage. Lot number 184, an incredible looking William & Mary period (1685-1725) daybed with ball feet and a banister back fainting couch-like head rest had just fetched a ridiculously low $4,000. An 18th-century highboy with minor imperfections had brought only $5,000. The retail bidders in the audience were off-stride. Dealers were chatting in the back and many had left the room all together, gone to the restrooms or to fetch a cup of coffee. It was only 11:30 in the morning and most, like me, were driving and working all weekend.

“Lot number 186,” Keane said. “A William & Mary figured maple butterfly table with block vase and ring turned legs and a circular drop leaf top. Would anyone give me fifteen-thousand to start it?” No hands went up. The room’s atmosphere had hit a lull period. When the auction house’s low estimate was not immediately reached, the audience had gained a slight psychological edge. My hand went up at $10,000 and I held my breath in excitement. “We got a shot at this one, babe!” I whispered to my wife.

A golden tiger crow orchid

A golden tiger crow orchid

Butterfly tables are to antiques as golden tiger crow orchids are to flowers. For early American furniture and folk art collectors, the tiny little drop leave table with “splayed” outreaching frieze and legs and box stretchers to strengthen the base are akin to photographing a jet black Mitchell’s Satyr Northeastern Indiana butterfly if you are a butterfly collector. It’s a gem.

The day before we had driven up to inspect this table for a client. It was petite, honey colored and wonderfully worn on the stretchers. Like most of the furniture in the sale, and a large majority of antique furniture in general, it had been stripped of its multiple paint and shellac surfaces, refinished and coated with a semi-gloss sealant. That’s what people did years ago. Fortunately though, some traces of old black paint and red wash remained. Traces of that showed up in the pores of the wood and in the crevices in the top and base of the table, reinforcing the integrity of top to bottom.

The top was loose enough to be “pulled” from the base. That I did with permission in inspection. A clear outline of reduced oxidation and patinization showed itself exactly where top meets bottom—just as it should be. I also liked the fact that the table had been looked at by a top auction firm with strict standards of integrity. And that the table once had casters. Worn caster holes on the bottoms of the feet are not usually introduced by professional fakers.

Desirable form, beautiful appearance, good integrity and a mellow old refinished surface—I suggested to my client $25,000 would be a reasonable price for the piece. Having had me on the lookout for one going on 20 years now, they excitedly said, “Go for it!” Kenny and Sherry saw the beautiful pictures of the table on-line. Ugh!

I won the table for my clients at $13,000. The only unlucky thing for my clients is my 10-percent commission, a few bucks for restoration and a whopping 17.5-percent “buyer’s premium” that many auction houses now attach to the final hammer price. Still, now my friends have their elusive and value-appreciating butterfly. The net has finally landed its prize.

by Wayne Mattox
Antique Talk

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