Chest of Drawers at Sotheby’s

The chest of drawers attributed here, but not by the auction house, to the Philadelphia joiner John Head sold at Sotheby’s this past Thursday. The hammer price was $26,000. With the “buyers premium” now at 25 percent, the total price was $32,000. This was more than 2 and a half times the high estimate but over $6,000 less than what it sold for 27 years ago. There was no salesroom announcement of a revision of the catalogue description to include an attribution to Head before the lot was sold. Auction houses give much weight to attributions, signatures, and labels on objects but missed this one at the same time they were heavily promoting the attribution of the case housing a Peter Stretch to Head. That tall-case clock will be sold this afternoon.

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Chest of drawers, attributed to John Head, Philadelphia, circa 1725.

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Half-inch drawer dividers with full thickness and full depth hard pine dust-boards. A circle and slash chalk mark on the second tier dust-board survives as lack of use and attendant wear meant the drawer bottom did not rub against the dust-board, removing the mark.

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Drawer escutcheon.

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Drawer pull. John Head used the same drawer brass combination on a surviving high chest of drawers. That high chest is illustrated in “The Connoisseur”, November 1978, p. 206, fig. 15.

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Original iron lock.

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Of the hundreds of dovetail made by this shop I’ve examined, this is one of the very first miss-cuts I’ve come across. The short saw-kerf beneath the two upper long kerfs was started in the wrong location.

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On the exterior of the drawer the miss-cut can be seen in the first pin from the top.

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The Head workshop used three designs of chalk marks on the exterior surfaces of drawers, a double circle drawn in one stroke, a half-circle and slash seen one the back of this drawer, and a “V” that tilts towards the back, seen on the proper right side.

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The bottom of a long drawer. The bottom is composed of edge-glued shingle-width riven cedar and is nailed to the back, sides, and a deep rabbet in the front. Cedar running strips are glued at the sides. This was a new drawer construction technique in England when Head began his apprenticeship and he used it on the majority of the drawers he made in Philadelphia.

7 thoughts on “Chest of Drawers at Sotheby’s

    • Adam Bowett, the English furniture historian uses numbered “Phases” to describe changes/advances in case construction of British furniture 1660 – 1740. His description for this construction would be “First phase carcass construction” with “Second phase drawer construction” as there are now runners present and the drawer runs on these rather than having the entire surface of the bottom board running on the dust-board.

  1. Hi Chris,

    I hope all is well. Forgive me for posting a comment regarding a post you did back in 2017. I have just completed reading “The Cabinetmaker’s Account”. and have studied the images of several of John Head’s chests of drawers. Can you shed some light on why these chests were built with 1/2 – inch drawer dividers and dust boards in contrast with the 3/4 to 7/8 – inch construction of later periods?

    Thanks

    Frank Duff
    Monkton, MD

    • Frank,
      The short answer is that is how he was trained to make chests of drawers! When the modern chest of drawers was developed by cabinetmakers in England in the 1670s, they were based on contemporary cabinets. 1/2 inch drawer dividers and dust boards were considered strong enough and were in a proper scale for the half-round moulding applied to them. Once runners were added to drawer bottoms later in the 17th century, dust boards were made even thinner as they did not have to support the full width of the long drawers. This system was in use until the mid to late 1730s when the more robust dividers came into use.

      • Chris,
        Thanks for your fast reply. Your comment about the cabinetmaker’s training inspired me to do some research as to the origin of the English and American chest of drawers. I found a comprehensive article titled “The Chest of Drawers in America, 1635-1730” in Volume 20, No 1, of the Winterthur Portfolio. That article suggests that chests were first developed in England for the urban middle class who needed to store a limited supply of textiles within easy reach as they did not have servants to access things stored away in other rooms or less accessible cabinets. It makes sense to me that 1/2 – inch drawer dividers and dust boards would be more than adequate for the job.

        Frank Duff

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