Dressing Table at Sotheby’s

 Earlier this year, Eric Gronning, Senior Vice President, Head of Department, Americana, Sotheby’s, found the business card I had glued on an interior surface of the carcase of the dressing table and contacted me for any information I had about the dressing table. I would find ways to identify my extensive restoration projects that might be hard to decipher in the future due to the fool-the-eye treatments we were capable of. I’m well pleased Eric found my card and reached out. 28 years later, the simple act of gluing that card, which took 10 seconds, did what it was supposed to do.

Dressing table. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, circa 1770. Left, before treatment in 1993. Right, Sotheby’s photo, 2021.
Dressing table. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, circa 1770. Left, before treatment in 1993. Right, Sotheby’s photo, 2021.
Dressing table. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, circa 1770. Left, during treatment in 1993. Right, Sotheby’s photo, 2021.

The card glued inside the carcase of the dressing table. Sotheby’s photo.

8 thoughts on “Dressing Table at Sotheby’s

  1. Chris,

    Thanks for another informative post on your restoration of this dressing table. Rereading your past postings, I have these questions:

    1. Is the distinctive pattern on the surviving brass on the dressing table that would have complemented blind fretwork the only basis for your suggesting that the missing upper section of the surviving high chest base had such fretwork? I think of fretwork on tall case pieces as occurring more on chest on chests than on high chests.

    2. Has any documentation from Thomas Tufft or Charles Carroll survived to link the two of them to the commission for the dressing table, high chest, and apparently en suite chairs? In its absence, the identical labeling on the chair at Winterthur and the plain dressing table at PMA, together with the chairs’ provenance to Carroll, is a helpful link.

    3. The carved pattern on the drawer front of the dressing table is distinctive and unusual. Have you since found any design sources for it or other examples of it apart from those previously illustrated?

    I look forward to seeing the table at the preview in New York and hope that your symposium presentation can further illustrate its restoration.

    Thanks again,


    • High chests made with straight cornices were made over a relatively short period, so we see fewer of them today. But high chests with straight cornices were popular when Tufft made the labeled high chest at the PMA. (By the way, the high chest is now on-line in the PMA collections database.) As it is the only high chest documented to him, we can only speculate that the missing upper section of the mate to the dressing table also had a straight cornice. The straight cornice gives high chests a quasi-architectural stance promoted by Chippendale and other designers.

      The side chairs tradition of ownership by Charles Carroll at Mount Clare in Baltimore comes from Charles Hummel’s “Winterthur Guide to American Chippendale Furniture.” I did not pursue the trail of ownership of any of the objects. The dressing table was said to be found in England. The high chest base has not turned up since it was advertised for sale in 1928. No provenance was given for it in the ad.

      Several other high chests and dressing tables made in Philadelphia with similar drawer appliques have been published since I worked on the dressing table, primarily in auction catalogues. My object file for the dressing table has numerous examples of British design book plates that could have provided inspiration for the drawer carving. Helena Hayward’s “Thomas Johnson and the English Rococo” is a good place to get an overview of design sources of the period. The fourth image in Part 2 of the “Restoration” series shows a dressing table with a similar drawer. I was unable to locate that table at the time, but after I published it on the blog, I was contacted by the people worked on it several years before my blog post and I now have good photos of it. They hadn’t seen the photo from the 1930s I published so we had a nice trade!

      I’ll enjoy seeing it again at the preview. I’m not sure I’ll have time to discuss it in the brief time we’ll have at Sotheby’s. Currently I’m focusing on the line-and-dot furniture of Bill’s, but we’ll see.


  2. Hi
    Thanks for posting this. I really enjoy your posts. I noticed that when I read the original post from email the photos are all labeled so that the dilapidated version was referred to at the restored version and vice-versa, but when going back up from the comments they are labeled as expected.

    I really like the colour of the drawer fronts of the dilapidated state, but I have noticed the dark reddish tones are much preferred in the USA. Was it the finish or wood that was that light colour, and do you mind if I ask if stain was used to achieve the darker colour?


    • Yes, I caught the mis-labeling of the photos and corrected them. I have no editor and these posts are essentially first drafts – first drafts for what I’m not sure! But thanks.

      I believe the color cast of the photos of the restored chest at Sotheby’s are slightly off, more reddish as you say, then I remember. In the before treatment photos there is no finish on the drawer fronts, finish had been removed and also the wood had been sun-bleached to some degree. There were areas on the table where a historic finish – multiple layers built up over time – survived, especially on almost the entire original leg. I was not going to remove those areas of surviving finish so I had to add finish that mimicked that which survived. I remember leaving the drawer fronts slightly lighter than the darkest areas of historic finish. The wood is nicely figured and drawer fronts were often more highly polished over time and I thought it looked well to do that. Film, and now digital photography is notoriously challenged to produce accurate colors of finish on furniture, I’ve been in the middle of arguments between owners and photographers about how an image should look. Everyone it seems has their own idea. And then the photographers screen will show one thing, and ours at home will show another. Ultimately all that matters is how it appears in person.

      I don’t remember exactly how I achieved this finish, it was a long time ago. I do know that I did not add stain to the bare wood. The color added was in the shellac, applied in multiple layers, then abraded through to create the graduated appearance of the finish. It is reversible and could be removed to recreate the appearance of the table before treatment.


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