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Antique Collectible

Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Chippendale mahogany serpentine-front chest of drawers, Boston, 1760-80, $178,500. Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers
Elias Hasket Derby owned the first ship that sailed to Russia. As a Salem, Mass., merchant and ship owner during the 18th century, he also set up trade routes to China, the East Indies, and the Baltic that would anchor American commerce in these parts of the world.

Derby’s globetrotting made him one of the richest men in America with a net worth of $999,000, representing 16 percent of the nation’s wealth in 1775.

Noted architect Samuel McIntyre designed a mansion for the ship owner and his wife, Elizabeth, and filled it with objects from the finest craftsmen in America.

Property from Derby’s estate came on the market for the first time on March 23, 1997, at the American furniture and decorative arts auction at Skinner’s in Bolton, Mass.

“We had the right stuff with this sale,” said Stephen Fletcher, director of American furniture and decorative arts, citing provenance, rarity, high quality, fresh merchandise and good condition.

It’s the kind of estate that comes along infrequently. The kind that auctioneers swap stories about and collectors hope to stumble upon.

A pair of Federal painted and decorated oval-back side chairs, the design taken from George Hepplewhite’s, “The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Guide,” London, 1788, estimated to bring $30,000-$50,000, realized $178,500.

“These two chairs were in remarkably good condition,” said Fletcher. “They had elegant, subtle detail. You could just picture them in a Federal room with rays of sunlight on them.”

Chairs from this set are in numerous collections including The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and The Art Institute of Chicago.

Another piece from the Derby collection included a rare silver tobacco box in great condition, associated with Harvard College, and dating from 1732-35. The piece set a record at $24,150, as the Derby collection dominated the $1.5 million sale.

What are the average person’s chances of finding great furniture today? I asked Fletcher who has probably seen just about everything in his more than 30-years at Skinners.

“Good. I’m not talking museum quality, but there is still wonderful stuff out there that doesn’t cost a lot of money. Also, we don’t realize the bargain prices we pay for most antiques in this country compared to, say, France or England where prices are much higher.”

Fletcher suggests asking yourself: Is this an attractive piece? Is it proportioned? Can you see dovetailing on the drawer sides? Are the drawers chamfered? Is their evidence of machine tooling? What is the surface like? Has it been refinished? Do the brasses appear to be original? What’s the wood? The answers can make the difference between a $200 and a $200,000 chest.

Question: I have an engraved pewter cup from the 1893 World’s Fair that’s also dated. It’s in great condition. Any value?

Answer: The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago proved to be one of the most popular World’s Fairs. More than 27 million people visited the various booths and the number of souvenirs made for the governments, industries, trades, sciences and arts is anybody’s guess.

The fair celebrated a year late Columbus’ discovery of America. Its 150 Greco-Roman buildings set a style for expositions to follow.

This fair along with the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair rank high among collectors. There’s a large quantity and diversity of souvenirs for those out hunting.

Some of the more collectible items from the fair include commemorative coins, stamps, tickets, jigsaw puzzles, press ribbons, and handkerchiefs. Your cup would probably fetch around $50.

The World’s Fair Collectors Society focuses on collecting and preserving materials from all the fairs and expositions. They also distribute a bimonthly newsletter. For more information you can write to them: PO Box 20806, Sarasota, Fla. 34276-3806.

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