Dear Helaine and Joe:
I inherited this sideboard from my mother, but since I am downsizing, I want to sell it. I understand the market has changed considerably over the past decade or so. What is its current resale value, and can you tell me who made this piece?
P.I., Yorktown Heights, New York
It is our opinion that this is not really a sideboard, but a credenza that would have been used in a hall or entryway. It is stunning, and we believe American, but P.I. is correct, its value has declined remarkably in the last decade.
This beautiful credenza is mahogany with satinwood inlays, ebonized accents, bird’s-eye maple on the interior and magnificent gilt bronze accents. It was made during the mid to late 19th century, which might be called the era of the American financier, railroad magnate and arms manufacturer.”
Often the taste in furniture was for the use of a variety of exotic woods, elaborate gilt, silver and other metal ornaments, and the decorations often included representations of human figures and landscapes. New York and other large cities became home to a number of stylish firms creating cabinets, settees and large-scale pieces in a variety of revival styles including rococo, Egyptian, Renaissance and gothic revivals as well as neo-Greco.
One of the more important of these design firms was Pottier & Stymus, and they may have made the piece in today’s question. Auguste Pottier was born in France and served an apprenticeship in cabinetmaking before coming to the United States in 1850, where he began working with Gustave Herter. William Stymus, on the other hand, was an upholstery foreman at the New York City cabinetmaking firm of Rochefort and Skarrin, but when Rochefort died in 1859, Pottier and Stymus formed their own firm on Wooster Street in the current Tribeca area.
By 1871, Pottier and Stymus employed almost 800 men and women, and they moved uptown to Lexington Avenue, where they occupied a six-story building. By 1875, the firm was earning more than $1 million a year (a not inconsiderable sum for that day) and were known for creating sculptural images on their pieces of furniture.
They had a metals department where they were able to cast and finish their own figural ornaments, and their pieces of furniture are known for their applied ornamental bronze plaques or busts, such as the one seen on the piece in today’s question. Pottier and Stymus made furniture for the White House (President Ulysses S. Grant), William Rockefeller, George Westinghouse, Frederick Steinway and for the Plaza and Waldorf Hotels in Manhattan.
P.I. might find the name of the company chalked on the back of her piece, or she might find a number written on the back. The number was recorded in a Pottier and Stymus ledger, but unfortunately, these records were lost in an 1888 fire.
Ten years ago, this piece might have brought $10,000 or more at auction, but today, tastes have changed and that price has dropped to be more in the neighborhood of $2,500. Yes, this is an outrage for such a fine piece of American furniture, but we believe the market will eventually turn around.