by Martin Willis
Around two dozen years ago, I attended an auction that was being conducted by a legendary auctioneer, Dick Withington, of New Hampshire. Dick was a real character, and he had an amazing memory. If you bought an item at his auction, he would ask your name, and he never forgot it. You could walk into an auction of his five years later, bid on another piece, and he would say “Sold to John Doe”, he always got it right. He refused to use bidder numbers like everyone else until he was late in his 70s.
At this particular auction there was an offering of a matching pair of NH Chippendale maple chest-on-chests, which translates to a chest of drawers in two parts with the base chest supported by feet or a bracket.The incredible pieces offered were made by the master cabinet maker, Major John Dunlap in the late 18th century. When I say ‘pair’, there was indeed a single difference in the two. One had a mustard yellow original painted surface, the other had been stripped and refinished a number of years ago. It was time for the yellow surfaced one to be on the block, followed by the refinished mate. The room burst with excitement when the first piece crested the $100,000 mark, the competition was heavy between phone and floor bidders battling it out monetarily. Finally when the dust settled, it sold to a floor bidder for an astonishing $245,000! After the crowd quieted down, the second piece came up, the floor bidders who were active on the last one, just stood and watched as the piece was hammered down at $15,500.
In essence, someone had the bright idea of removing $229,500 worth of mustard yellow paint. To be fair, it was probably worked on in the day where no one really cared too much at all about the ‘old stuff’. People would refinish a piece like this for various reasons, changing tastes, a candle burn, water damage or any other number of superficial reasons.