A high chest that sold at auction in New York this week is perhaps Jesse Bair’s masterpiece of restoration carving. The base of the high chest was first illustrated in 1935. The grasses appliqué on the carved shell drawer were missing then. The upper case was not illustrated at that time with the base as all of the ornamental carving was missing and the plain upper case lent nothing to the discussion of ornament, the reason the chest was illustrated.
Joe Kindig, Jr. purchased the chest from the couple who owned the chest in the 1930s and subsequently had Jesse Bair restore it. Bair recreated the grasses for the shell drawer in the lower case, the appliqué on the tympanum, the flame finials, and the central cartouche.
The lower case shares many design and carving details with a high chest purportedly owned by the Gratz family now in the collection of the Winterthur Museum. Kindig and Bair knew of the “Gratz” high chest as Bair clearly copied its cartouche for this restoration. It is unclear why he did not then model his appliqué more closely on the “Gratz” chest as we would likely do today, endeavoring to avoid a conjectural repair. In some ways, we might criticize Bair for not developing a pattern for the appliqué that reflected the design ideas of the “Gratz” chest rather than striking out on his own and designing something completely new.
But for me, there lies the charm and “curiosity” as they used to say in the eighteenth century. I have an opportunity to experience a personal connection to Bair’s approach to design – watch him create something from nothing – carve the invisible. A rare occurrence in the restoration world – haveing such a sense of the restorers personality.
When I was faced with a similar restoration project for a high chest that lost its removable scroll top and had then been converted to a flat-top chest with the addition of a small scale straight cornice moulding, I combined patterns from several appliqué carvings from closely related objects to create a design that owed as little to conjecture or speculation as possible.
While I believe my restoration is more historically accurate and appropriate to the object, I appreciate Bair’s resolve to do something different and his skill and flair in doing so. After all, he knew his work could easily be removed in the future if someone else wanted to take a stab at it!