Collecting Arts and Crafts Period Furniture
The recent acceleration of prices for Arts and Crafts antique ceramics, metal, and Stickley furniture encourages new buying strategies for beginning and advanced collectors alike. While prices for most period objects are higher, there remain intelligent deals for those investing, or wagering, their hard-earned income. This, the first of a three-part series, will focus on Arts and Crafts Stickley furniture. All three installments will explore the recent history of this market, some of the benefits wrought by higher prices, and how to get the most for your money.
My own involvement with Arts and Crafts began in 1970, when things were exactly opposite of where they are now. Mission furniture was either something you used for firewood or stripped and stained blond, and Grueby was a mispronounced 1960's term for cool.
There were virtually no contemporary books on the subject, and the few available were, at best, quaint by today's standards. Until Princeton University's "The Arts and Crafts Movement in America" in 1972, there was no museum representation to speak of, and outside of that one match in the darkness, there was little to come for the rest of the decade.
The 1980's were a defining decade for the Period, as interest and prices rose steadily after the Carter recession and during the Reagan presidency. Museum shows, including the landmark Boston Museum exhibition, "The Art That is Life", established the credibility that had long been lacking. While the naysayers who preferred European porcelain to art pottery, and Chippendale to Stickley persisted, they were increasingly isolated from less-traditional and more adventuresome collectors and scholars. It was becoming a hip new field.
The high-flying events culminated with the monumental sale of artifacts from Gustav Stickley's own home at a Christie's Auction in New York, and most notably the sale of a sideboard. Soon to be known as the "Streisand Sideboard" because of its more famous buyer, this denoted the highwater point for this market when it reached an astonishing $335,000, through today the most ever paid (by a lot) for a piece of Mission furniture. More important was the fact that Hollywood had discovered Arts and Crafts, providing the cachet, and checkbook, that drove it into the wall of the Bush recession.
The 1990's has been a period of unprecedented growth, with records established both by private dealers and at auctions across the country. Buoyed by a nationally-based clientele not afraid to travel from sale to sale, a new consensus has been forged, exhibiting strength whenever a good piece of Period furniture in original condition comes to market (though, this is certainly not true of art pottery and wrought metal, for reasons that will be discussed in the next two installments).
In a scant 15 years, the Arts and Crafts had credibility to spare, with exhibitions (Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Virtue in Design; Boston Museum of Fine Art's The Art That is Life); hundreds of scholarly books (Virtue in Design; The Art That is Life; George Ohr/The Mad Potter of Biloxi), high-profile magazine articles, specialty shows (like the famous Grove Park Inn Conference in Asheville, NC), and a slowly dwindling supply. Further, the mass-marketing of reproduction Mission furniture only widened the collector base for the "real" stuff.
A friend and fellow appraiser for the Antiques Roadshow, Noel Barrett, has often said that, if you keep something when it's new because you believe it will be a valued collectible in the future like, say a Cabbage Patch Doll, there are tens of thousands of others like you and, in fact, it will never be worth much at all. People during the middle decades of this century mostly hated the Arts and Crafts, and they destroyed or altered it with alacrity. Good Mission furniture in fine original condition is rare and valuable for a reason.
Thirty years ago, the only Mission furniture that was deemed collectible were pieces made by Gustav Stickley in perfect condition. L. and J. G. Stickley's work was brushed aside, and pieces by other famous makers such as Limbert and Stickley Brothers were beneath consideration. The 1980's were a time when these key secondary makers enjoyed a revival of interest in their work, though original condition was still critical. Today, anything goes, even clean generic pieces of good design, even clean generic pieces of bad design. While refinishing will diminish the value of any piece, there are many buyers even for these.
Unfortunately, this recent spike in pricing has often been the result of newer collectors purchasing lesser goods, or better goods with serious flaws, often without full disclosure by the vendor or auction house. While a new finish (especially if honestly sold as such) is certainly acceptable to most buyers, replaced wood or hardware greatly compromises the integrity of a piece. Such examples will seldom rise in a value commensurate with pieces that remain intact. Nevertheless, there is still a market for these pieces and they will always be a better investment than buying reproductions, as long as you know UP FRONT what you're getting into.
Where then, are the bargains or, at least, the remaining sensible buys in Arts and Crafts furniture? Though you may not be able to afford exactly what you want, you can take considerable solace in knowing that there is much available that deserves your interest, and possibly a place in your home.
Perhaps the most glaring weakness of the current market is the marginal interest in excellent, early pieces of Gustav Stickley (Stickly)furniture with less than a mint original finish. For example, a fine and early sideboard with chamfered (V-board panels) sides and back and chunky iron hardware nearly always came with a deep brown, if not ebonized, finish. These fell out of favor during the Eisenhower years, and were first in line for the do-it-yourself furniture stripper. Had pieces escaped the wrath of Dad they would be worth at least $20,000 - $30,000 today. The majority of those that had their finishes "taken down" or entirely removed, top out at about $10,000. While altered pieces should be worth less, 40% of value seems drastic.
The reasons for this are simple: Advanced collectors, with the money and attitude to buy only the very best, are looking for those bulky early forms and insist upon original dark finishes. Newer collectors aren't initially interested in these more cerebral pieces, as they are definitely an aquired taste. Also, while such pieces might be worth considerably less than they would if original, they are still double the cost of most "standard" , or beginner sideboards, which usually sell in original finish for $4000 - $6000.
Another area where the market offers excellent value are for pieces made of "off woods", or other than oak. It must be stated that oak is the wood of choice for American Arts and Crafts pieces. It was democratic, durable, available, indigenous, and when quarter-sawn, possessing the "tiger striping" that is so much of the Mission look. Nevertheless, there are excellent pieces of Gustav Stickley and Roycroft furniture made of the finest mahogany, selling for half of what the exact form in oak brings.
While it is true that the fine grain of mahogany is no match for the flamboyant American oak, there are several important reasons to consider these pieces. The quality of craftsmanship and design are identical to those of oak. In addition, most mahogany pieces are early and/or elegant designs. For example, Gustav's sleek spindled furniture was often produced in mahogany. Employing narrow strips of wood, the quartered grain of oak has less room to play, and becomes less an issue. Further, the long and attenuated spindled pieces are thin, not chunky, and are well adapted to this fine-grained wood.
Finally, mahogany pieces offer the benefit of being considerably less expensive WITH their original finish (though, it must be added that Gustav's finishes for each wood were quite different, with oak receiving a rich ammoniated fuming, and mahogany a surface coat). Mahogany pieces bearing new finishes are cheaper still. As an example, a Gustav Stickley oak tall-back spindled armchair in original condition would sell for about $10,000 - $12,000. The same chair in mahogany, in original finish, would top out at about $5,000 (and would be much harder to sell). And that chair once again, with a new finish, might only be worth $3500. It is worth considering that one renowned dealer, Don Magner of Brooklyn, New York, actually PREFERS mahogany to oak on many of these more refined forms.
It is also worth noting that, while chestnut is also an undervalued secondary wood, it lacks both the tiger flaking of oak and the fineness of mahogany. It is often found on the earlier, more rustic works by Gustav and L. and J. G. Stickley, or as foundation wood for leather-clad table tops. The main exception to this is Roycroft furniture made for their central edifice, the Roycroft Inn. Some of the bedrooms were outfitted with chestnut furniture, and these remain the best such examples we've seen.
Another furniture collecting area that offers excellent value are first-rate pieces made by second-tier producers. Most of the attention drawn by Mission oak centers on only a handful of makers such as Gustav Stickley, his brothers Leopold and John G., the Roycrofters, and Limbert. This is, of course, warranted because these four companies produced most of the best furniture of the Period, and were most consistent in their production both in quality of design and construction.
Nevertheless, there were numerous secondary makers who remain worthy of SOME consideration, even if it is for only a small percentage of their work. One such maker was the Plail Brothers Furniture Company of New York State. Producing Arts and Crafts-styled pieces for only a few years, they seemed incapable of consistently manufacturing excellent designs with warm, rich finishes. But anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing their Prairie-influenced barrel chairs and settees would be loathe to dismiss them casually. While a little short on comfort, they are well-constructed and finished, with long slats joining the horseshoe top rail to the crescent foot rail. Be warned: These are not inexpensive, with a three-piece parlor set including an armchair, rocker, and settee selling for over $10,000 in original condition. But, when a Gustav Stickley spindled cube chair alone sells for over $20,000, Plail seems a bargain.
Similarly, the Stickley Brothers Furniture Company is a respectable Period maker, though their designs are mostly watered-down derivations of work made famous elsewhere. This is not true, however, of at least their earlier production, some made in England and some in America. For example, they produced excellent furniture made of oak inlaid with pewter designs in the Glasgow style. While one needn't confuse these with the high-styled inlay Harvey Ellis provided for Gustav Stickley, one shouldn't ignore the tremendous value these pieces offer.
Specifically, a Harvey Ellis inlaid double bed in original condition could sell for ANYTHING on today's market, though $50,000 is probably a conservative guess. Even a refinished example might bring $20,000 - $25,000, out of the reach for all but a few. Yet a Stickley Brothers inlaid double bed in mint condition might bring only $6,000 (though, again, these too are rare and finding one at any price might prove daunting).
Another area providing excellent value are pieces by prime makers in original condition but with lighter finishes. Currently, the market favors darker pieces even if refinished. Certainly, the majority of Mission furniture was originally dark. Nevertheless, people like Gustav Stickley offered finishes ranging from ebony to light brown. I've seen numerous pieces from summer estates in excellent, original, light brown surfaces. These have consistently brought unreasonably low prices.
One estate I handled was full of Gustav pieces in their original finish, 80% of which were light brown. When they sold through one of my auctions, choice pieces brought a full 40% below what an identical one would have brought with darker color. For example, a fine Harvey Ellis 9-drawer tall chest, marked and in the condition it was in when it left the factory nearly 100 years ago, brought only $9500. A darker version would have easily realized $14,000. While $9500 may still be out of reach for the average buyer, it marked a considerable savings over one of ebony hue. I believe that, in the long haul, an orginal example even of lighter color will always be worth more and be a safer investment than a refinished darker one. It should be noted that some collectors actually prefer lighter finishes, strengthening the resale market.
Finally, there is at least one key Period maker whose work is languishing on today's market. Master cabinetmaker and iconoclast Charles Rohlfs, from Buffalo, New York, is widely recognized as a top flight Arts and Crafts artisan. Yet, with the exception of all but his most flamboyantly carved pieces, there appears to be little consistency to pricing. I have seen hand-carved pieces in original condition bring no more, and often less, than standard production items by the four major makers. While the relative rarity of Rohlfs' work contributes to the thin market, there seems little reason for this disparity. I would strongly recommend younger and/or more conservative buyers to seek him out. Aside from the excellent value they represent, you'll possess work that is philosophically aligned with the heart of the Period.
While finding good buys will take work and perseverance, there is no question that the educated collector can build a home full of fine Arts and Crafts furniture at relatively reasonable prices. The examples above are only some ideas that come immediately to mind. At least, they are given to offer hope to newer collectors who might otherwise buy lesser examples or, worse yet, none at all.
Stickley Furniture and Accessories