National Treasure: A John Townsend High Chest

1756 John Townsend highboy

1756 John Townsend high chest of drawers

Normally, I don’t use this space to write extensively about “traditional” antiques, preferring instead to steer away from the stereotype of expensive old furniture, which people can and do safely assume that we have, in order to highlight the diversity of the objects we cover, which aren’t nearly as obvious. But every now and then a piece of furniture that is so quintessentially representative of the modern antiques market comes along and I would be remiss not to share it. That’s the case with the 1756 Newport, Rhode Island high chest of drawers by John Townsend that sold last month at Sotheby’s New York. It fetched a staggering $3.5 million, which, by the way, is not the world record price for a piece of American furniture sold at auction, although that distinction belongs to the Townsend-Goddard school of craftsmen as well.

Of course, people often wonder why anyone would pay such a price for a piece. A look at the auction cataloguing on the record helps explain. (I really encourage anyone reading to just take a moment to click through and look at the breadth and depth of the description – it highlights not only the extensive research that is done by auction houses when an object warrants it, but also how much information is mined from careful examination of an object.) This piece is special for a number of reasons. First, it’s from the workshops of the Townsend-Goddard families, an 18th-century furniture-making dynasty that is widely considered to be the makers of the finest furniture ever made in America, and possibly of some of the finest furniture ever made in the world, in terms of craftsmanship, attention to details, and proportions.

A detailed view of the two proper right cabriole legs on this high chest terminating in carved ball and claw feet with open talons

A detailed view of the two proper right cabriole legs on this high chest terminating in carved ball and claw feet with open talons

Also, it’s one of only five pieces known that is signed by John Townsend. Then there’s the fact that we have the provenance, the chain of ownership, all the way back to 1756, which is an incredible history in its own right. The high chest also exhibits a number of the key features associated with the Townsend-Goddard school, including the carved shell and “open talons” on the ball-and-claw feet, pictured above. (“Open talons” mean that the foot, carved from a solid piece of wood, has toes that are so delineated that they have openings or gaps between them and the ball of the foot – it’s a delicate detail that shows an incredible level of attention to decoration and skill.) For these reasons, among others, this piece truly is an American masterpiece, an American treasure.

-Hollie Davis, Senior Editor, p4A.com

Reference & Further Recommended Reading:


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