Purchase Story

The First Major Victim

The English magazine Antiques Trade Gazette (ATG) dropped a bombshell on August 27: a George III mahogany and Indian ebony commode by Thomas Chippendale, supplied to Sir Rowland Winn of Nostell Priory for his London house between 1766 and 1769, was stripped of its ivory before being shipped from the U.S. to England for Christie’s Chippendale sale on July 5. Estimated at £3/5 million, it failed to sell.

The Neoclassical commode broke the world auction record for Chippendale’s work when it sold for $1.68 million on December 5, 1991, at Christie’s sale of the Samuel Messer collection. Charles Cator, deputy chairman, Christie’s International, said in May in a presale press release, “The sale of the Messer Collection was a landmark event for English furniture and this commode was the sensation of the sale, setting a new benchmark for collectors to aspire to. This is, quite simply, the greatest single piece of Chippendale furniture that I have had the privilege to sell in my 45 years at Christie’s.”

The commode featured 20 interior pigeonholes inlaid with an ivory alphabet, added by special commission in 1769. According to Roland Arkell’s report in the ATG, the U.S. seller replaced the inlaid ivory with man-made “ivorine” in order to comply with a U.S. ban on ivory trading.

A Christie’s spokesman told the ATG: “The sellers of this commode decided to have the ivory replaced with ivorine ahead of the sale to enable ease of movement. The catalogue noted that the alphabet is now ivorine.”This is nothing short of a travesty, fueled by bad advice and even worse policy. The trade cautioned officials that ivory regulations would result in the marring of important antiques, and the warnings were prescient.

No animal was saved by scarring this commode. The real victim was the object’s fidelity.

Originally published in the October 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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