An Appraiser’s Diary: What Do You Do with a Huge Collection of Press Back Chairs?

Do you know what a press back chair looks like? Here is a beautiful example that sold for $225 in 2019.

A big part of the antique business is to “always be chasing opportunity”…even on your days off. The phone rings, a knock comes to the door, or you are out for a drive and come across a find out of the blue– the plan for the day changes. My leisurely Sunday morning was one of these days, as my laid back breakfast was interrupted by the sound of Paddy Wevmark’s Harley coming up the highway. Paddy was an old friend of mine and was a semi-retired dealer who helped out in the shop a couple of days a week. I’d been at an auction out of town, got home very late, and had completely forgotten he was coming in today to help me pick up a load of 125 matching press-back chairs. The chairs were from an old church camp that was facing some hard times. Where in the world we were going to put them? I had no idea, but Paddy said he “had a plan.” Thankfully, his plans had usually panned out well in the past.  Out the kitchen window I could see that Paddy had gotten off his Harley, was pulling his indestructible Fedora out of the leather saddlebag, and was heading up to the house.

This gorgeous set of cane bottom press back chairs sold for $985 in March 2019.

“Good morning M’Lord,” he said as he came in the door. “As much as I hate to hurry along your cozy breakfast, we have an appointment in 45 minutes with Reverend Donaldson about all those press back chairs.”   

I nodded, my mouth full of eggs, and replied, “I’ll have a quick shower, and we can go. Grab yourself a coffee, there are some croissants in the bread box. ”  
    
It was only about a 15-minute ride to Reverend Donaldson’s church camp; I’d never been there, but Paddy had volunteered there several times over the years and provided directions. Our turnoff to the church camp soon came up on the right. It was the laneway with a narrow stone gate between rows of 100-year-old maples. The lane curved back and forth around outcroppings of giant granite boulders left behind by retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago. The camp itself was semi-circular, looking very much like a set for a western movie. The camp buildings were all clapboarded with false two story fronts and the main cookhouse/main hall was located at the back. All the place needed to complete the scene, were some water troughs, hitching posts, and an old prospector spitting chewing tobacco.

Reverend Donaldson was already there opening up the main hall when we pulled in. The reverend was a big guy, now nearing 70, with a full head of white hair, but had the bearing of a much younger man. I didn’t realize just how big a man he was until I shook hands with him, and his hand swallowed mine. He was six foot five at least and had the look of a former football player. I could picture him at an old style tent revival meeting preaching fire & brimstone, the ladies fanning themselves furiously and fainting in the aisles. 

I’d met the reverend only once before when he had dropped into the shop about two months before with an old dinner bell he wanted to sell. He had mentioned the bell came from his church’s summer camp that might be shut down unless they came up with funds to drill a new well. They were selling off some of the old contents to try and do just that. The chairs were mentioned, but whoever bought them would have to take all 125 of them, and I wasn’t sure at the time whether I wanted to take them. So far, there had been no takers and Paddy had talked me into it. The chairs were all virtually identical, low back press backs, painted Chinese red, not everyone’s decorator dream. Paddy reasoned that even though press backs were not currently a big mover, if we could get a good deal on them as a bulk buy, we could still make a reasonable profit and also help the church get a new well drilled. I was not completely sold on the idea, but Paddy was right, if we could work a good deal it would benefit everyone all around. 

This set of press back chairs, c1880s, sold for $750 in 2019.

We pulled up to the front of the main hall and the reverend came out to meet us.  “Thanks for coming out Mike. This camp was built in the 1920s and takes a lot of work to keep up, so I hope we can work a deal. I realize we would have been better off selling these years ago. Paddy was out here in March helping with the cleanup and said the market for them peaked over ten years ago.  He said we would be lucky to get ten bucks a piece for them now at auction.”

Paddy was right, press-backs painted Chinese red in the rough would be a hard sell right now, but the trend for repainting furniture was experiencing an uptick and starting to show up in decorator magazines. We could paint up a set in chalk white and see if they moved. I did some quick mental calculations and figured I could offer the reverend $12.00 a piece, help them out and still not lose my shirt. The reverend seemed pleased with the offer and didn’t haggle, as I offered to pay full price, even for the ones that were too badly damaged to fix. We shook on the deal, and I counted him out $1500.00 cash. Getting them home in one trip though was going to be a problem, even with all the rope and bungee cords I had brought with us. By the time we were done, the back of my truck looked like a giant porcupine with chair legs sticking out like spines.

When the last rope was tied down, Paddy stood back, looked at it, and said, “I think we’d better take the side roads home rather than the highway, that’s if we can even get through the front gate. This load is a moving violation.” 

This set of 6 press back chairs had been stored in a barn, with one being redone, and they still brought $200 in February 2019.

We got through the front gate of the camp with just a couple of inches to spare. Checking to see if the highway was clear, we hit the very first side road 1/4 mile to the south and took the scenic route at 35 miles an hour. Any faster than that and chairs threatened to escape their bondage; as it was, three times we had to stop and adjust the ropes. What would have been a fifteen-minute ride on the highway took us 45 minutes via the switchbacking side roads, often blocked by tractors with wagons going even slower than we were. On the way back, I had time to ask Paddy just where we were going to put all these chairs. There was only enough floor space in the front shop for about 20 at best, and stuffing the rest in the workshop would leave no room for anything else, and no one would be able to work on anything.  

This antique child’s oak swivel desk chair with a pressed back sold for $150 in February 2019.

“Already worked it all out,” said Paddy. “We hang them from the rafter beams.”

I hadn’t thought of that for one very good reason, the half dozen 12″ x 16″ oak beams that held up the roof of the front shop were 14 feet in the air.  “Okay, yes there’s room, but just how in the world do we get the chairs up there, and worse yet how do we get them down if a customer wants one?” 

“Got that covered as well,” said Paddy. “All will be revealed…” I couldn’t wait to see this.

Paddy’s solution was indeed easy, but implementing it took some time. Driving some 100 odd four-inch spikes about a foot apart into a hard as a rock oak beam was not as easy as Paddy thought; it took him the rest of the afternoon. Every third nail or so bent in half before he could drive it in far enough to hold a chair. Getting the chairs up and down though was more elegant. Paddy had fashioned a two-pronged hook on an 8-foot bamboo pole; it was a bit of a balancing act, and it worked but took another two hours to get them all hung up. Looking upward at them was scary, it kind of looked like it was going to rain chairs at any moment, and every time a big lumber truck turned up the side road next to the shop they all rattled a bit, but stayed put. 

As it turned out, Paddy’s call had been a good one. Hanging up the chairs became a bit of a local novelty as word got around that we had 100+ matching press back chairs hanging from the ceiling like a Modern Art exhibit. Some folks even took pictures of our “Post Modern Installation.” More importantly, the summer people came in and bought whole sets of 4-10 chairs for their cottages, and by mid-August, the chairs were all gone, and only the nails remained!


Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. He can be reached through his website Antique-Appraise.com.

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