Collecting Duncan Phyfe
There are three basic questions that you should ask when considering a piece for acquisition:
- Is it period, meaning, is it from the early 1800s and not a later reproduction?
- Is it by Phyfe?
- How good is it?
Is It Period?
Over the past five years, I have examined several dozen Phyfe sofas cataloged as period at various auctions; only two or three were in fact period Duncan Phyfe pieces. It can be very difficult to spot a reproduction, especially if the piece was made by hand by a competent cabinetmaker. I am always distressed when I overhear buyers at these auctions bragging about their bargain purchases when in fact they had overpaid by double the price for a reproduction sofa.
Lesson #1: Auctioneers do not guarantee their descriptions as Artemis Gallery does, and many simply do not know the difference between an authentic period piece and a high-quality reproduction.
The most commonly reproduced forms of Phyfe's furniture are the chairs and the sofas. Keep in mind that these pieces are now 100 years old and have developed wear and patina. They look good -- and old. Among the many excellent reproductions of Phyfe furniture are those produced by a German immigrant named Ernest Hagen, who apprenticed for a New York cabinetmaker in 1844. He fell in love with Phyfe furniture, became an authority on it, and eventually began reproducing it. By the 1880s, especially because of increased interest generated by the American Centennial, many other cabinetmakers also began to reproduce Phyfe furniture.
In 1993 Deborah Waters at the Museum of the City of New York curated an exhibition entitled "Is it Phyfe?" She mixed together examples of pieces from all periods and by many different hands, including Phyfe. The sofa that I picked out as having the best carving I later found out was labeled "Made by W. and J. Sloan's (Department Store) New York in the 1920s"! (I was a bit embarrassed, but we were not allowed to touch the objects to inspect them, and obviously, we couldn't strip them down to see the frames.)
Lesson #2: Do not buy anything unless it has been carefully and thoroughly inspected by an expert.
A related question is, "Is it American?" The forms that characterize American classical furniture were also made in England.
Lesson #3: It is important to be able to distinguish among various woods -- to differentiate ash, oak, cherry, pine, deal, and birch -- and subtle design elements when evaluating the origin of a piece of classical furniture.
Is It by Phyfe?
Phyfe card tables share certain common traits that distinguish them from pieces made by other cabinetmakers. For example, the tops of most New York classical tables exhibit severe cracking because the mahogany veneers are laid on a substrate of pine boards that move in different directions as they shrink over the years. In contrast, Phyfe used high-quality mahogany as the substrate and took pains to age it properly before using it. There are other, less obvious clues to whether a piece was made by Phyfe.
How Good Is It?
The recent Metropolitan Museum of Art Duncan Phyfe Exhibition has made an excellent contribution toward providing the information needed to answer this question. Never before have so many outstanding pieces of Duncan Phyfe furniture been gathered in one place. The exhibition catalog provides a resource for making judgments about the quality of a Phyfe piece. We can say, for example, "Yes, it looks like the piece illustrated as Plate # in the catalog, but it lacks stenciling on the apron" or "The ormolu mounts are not as finely cast." We can say it's a very good example, but not quite a great one.