To the uneducated eye, the matched pair of antique chairs was hardly worth a second glance.
Finished in worn gold paint, the seats re-covered in brocaded fabric, they looked like the sort of thing a grandmother wouldn’t let any visitor sit on. The backs were inlaid with what might be ivory florets, while the slim, almost pointy, lathe-turned legs hardly inspired confidence.
Still, when antiques appraiser James Lipton spotted the chairs as he conducted an insurance appraisal for an elderly Connecticut woman, something clicked in his mind.
Purchasing items from a client is an ethical no-no for appraisers, so Lipton declined when the woman offered to sell him the chairs for $100.
With the exception of an ancient Greek libation cup and some porcelain, Lipton’s survey of the woman’s house so far had turned up little of real value.
“What are these?’ he asked the woman, pointing to the chairs that were in a hallway leading to her kitchen.
“Oh, those,” she answered, curling her lip in disdain. “They’re nothing. You want them?”
She did not even remember how she came to have them. The chairs served as daybeds for her cat and a convenient place to store old newspapers. The woman, who asked that her name not be used, was so eager to part with them that she dropped the price. “How’s $50 apiece?” she asked.
“She really wanted to get rid of those chairs,” said Lipton, who runs Appraisers Associates out of his Easton, Conn. home and a New York City office.
“I’ll tell you what,” Lipton said. “I can’t buy them, but I’d be happy to represent you in selling them to somebody else.”
The woman reluctantly agreed.
Because the chairs were unsigned, Lipton knew he had to build a strong circumstantial case about who the makers were. Weeks of painstaking research led him to several libraries and museums in hopes of finding photos or exhibits of similar work.
From the instant he saw the chairs in that hallway, Lipton had an inkling that they might be the work of two renowned New York furniture makers, Gustave and Christian Herter. But it was a long shot.
In the rarified air of antique circles, the Herter name on a table or chair is magic. Money magic. In the late 19th century the New York-based brothers produced exquisitely crafted work that went into the mansions of people with names like Vanderbilt, Stuart and Morgan.
The big break came when, in a book filled with dim 19th-century pictures of New York City’s antebellum mansions, Lipton came across a photo of beer and baseball magnate Jacob Ruppert’s baroque living room.
There, clearly identified as the Herter Bros.’ work, were two chairs identical to the ones Lipton had found all musty and moldy in that hallway. Though there’s no way to prove it, Lipton thinks the chairs in the picture and those in his client’s hall are the same.
With the photos to support his case, Lipton persuaded Christie’s, the upscale New York auction house, to include the chairs in its winter auction catalog.
To make a long story short, early this year the two chairs — cat bed and newspaper holder — were auctioned to an anonymous bidder, perhaps a museum, for $204,000.
“When I saw that auction price pop up on my computer, I let out a huge yell,” Lipton said. “I think I scared my wife out of 10 years’ growth.”
Lipton said he can’t go into the specific finances of the deal, but for his honesty and hard work, he got a substantial broker’s fee.
As for his client, after auction-house fees are paid, she can buy several thousand cat beds and have her old newspapers picked up in a Rolls Royce.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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