With the tempting prospect of 60 items of Chippendale furniture to view and savour, BBC Antiques Roadshow specialist, Lennox Cato, takes a trip to Dumfries House in Scotland.
Sometime back in June 2007, I received two enormous and very smart auction catalogues. They were for the sale of the contents of Dumfries House, in Ayrshire, Scotland. The sale at Christie’s had come to fruition after 18 months of detailed research of more than 630 lots on offer.
Behind the scenes, HRH Prince Charles and a consortium had come together to raise funds to keep this magnificent collection together, rather than see it sold.
The number of fine and important pieces of furniture up for sale was unique. In fact, the renowned Otley-born cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale (1718–1779) had supplied 60 pieces for the house.
Furniture vans were already on their way to London to display the collection for viewing. Thankfully, the consortium managed to step in just in time and put a stop to the sale. The vans were intercepted halfway down the country and brought back to Dumfries House.
The collection was truly saved at the eleventh hour and a few months later The Prince’s Foundation was set up to manage the estate.
This August I had a rather big birthday to celebrate and it was decided we should visit Dumfries House and see this wonderful collection for ourselves. It was something I have wanted to do for some time and now was the perfect moment.
I was like a child in a sweet shop, seeing so many beautiful articles set out as though someone had just left the room.
I believe one of the many reasons the collection was saved was because of its strong provenance. This is so important. You may have noticed when I am on the Antiques Roadshow along with other specialists, I always quiz any article’s owner about the provenance of the piece and how they acquired it.
Most of the furniture in Dunfries House retains the original bills of sale, who made it, when and how it came to the house. This archive is so important, lending the items another level of value. We now know, for example, that a suite of chairs came from the workshop of Thomas Chippendale and was delivered to the house in May 1759 at a cost of £63.
Another item listed was a ‘mahogany breakfast table’ which, with its twin flaps, re-entrant corners above a frieze drawer and a pierced paneled fretwork cage and concave bowed doors, one would expect to have been straight from Chippendale’s workshop.
But no, we were informed the table situated in the Blue Drawing room, was made by another London cabinetmaker, Samuel Smith, and was supplied on 9th September 1756, costing £3.3s.
This is a very important date as it proves that Samuel Smith subscribed to Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director and, indeed, the table corresponds directly with plate XXXIII in the first edition of the Director, 1754.
Chippendale was a clever man, having cabinetmakers and gentry subscribe to his publications was an excellent money earner for him (perhaps we would call it passive income today?).
When Lord Dumfries received the table it was celebrated as an ingenious design, having a multi-purpose use. When Samuel Smith proudly informed his lordship that he had taken the design from Chippendale’s Director, Lord Dumfries decided to go straight to the man himself – whereupon Samuel Smith received no further commissions.
He did however earn a small commission by arranging for the repair and cleaning of some of Lord Dumfries’ tapestries. The moral of this story is for sellers to keep mum! The 2007 auction catalogue put the pre-sale estimate of the table at £30,00-£50,000.
On entering another room, visitors see another mahogany breakfast, or supper table. When compared to Smith’s table this one has much finer detailing with a brass-wire cage instead of fretwork under the frieze baize lined drawer. On comparing the two, Chippendale’s piece stands out as just having that certain edge.
The original receipt dated 5th May 1759 is described as A mahog; Breakfast table of fine wood wt. a writing drawer and wirework round & castors & c £6-8. The table carried an estimated price of £100,000-£150,000 in 2007.
Having proof that the table was, without doubt, by Chippendale greatly raises the value. Samuel Smith’s table is not to be sniffed at, but the magic name says it all.
So, there we have it – provenance is key. Of course, we can’t all have an authentic Thomas Chippendale within our collections, but it is just as important to keep receipts of what you have bought and from whom.
If you have purchased from a member of the British Antique Dealers Association (BADA) they can also provide a certificate of provenance to add an extra layer of value.
The Prince’s Foundation has done a wonderful job in saving the Dumfries House collection, allowing us all to enjoy and learn from it. Needless to say, my birthday treat was a memorable one and duly received with great thanks to Mrs Cato.