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In 1705, Maria Wendell Sanders (1677–1734) gave birth to a son that she and her husband, Barent Sanders (1678–1757), named Robert (1705–1765). As was the custom of the times, when Robert was old enough to require a high chair, the couple ordered a bespoke (custom-made) chair from a local turner (Fig. 1). This chair was passed to Robert’s first child, Maria (1749–1830), who married Philip Van Rensselaer (1747–1798), the builder of Cherry Hill in Albany, New York.

Fig. 1: High chair, unidentified maker, New York, early eighteenth century. Maple, ash or hickory, and rush. H. 351/2", W. 143/4", D. 131/2". Courtesy Albany Institute of History and Art; gift of Miss Emily W. Rankin and Mr. Edward E. Rankin in memory of their mother, Mrs. Edward W. Rankin; photography by Gavin Ashworth.

Cherry Hill remained in the family and the house and property passed to Catherine Rankin (1857–1948). Harriet Gould (1844–1920), another descendant, inherited many of the furnishings, including the high chair. The chair remained at Cherry Hill until 1904, when Harriet requested that Catherine send the “little old high chair” to her residence in East Orange, New Jersey. Before she sent it, Catherine hired cabinetmaker Henry Meyer of Albany, New York, to repair the high chair and make a duplicate for her (Fig. 2).1

Meyer used several techniques to ensure that his chair would compare with the circa-1705 original. In keeping with the period woodworking techniques he used unseasoned (green) wood, which was dried only slightly and was easy to turn on a lathe. Once assembled, the wood would dry and the turned elements would shrink from round to ovoid shapes. Turning the chair from kiln-dried wood would not have yielded the same results. In addition, rather than use modern tools, Meyer turned the parts on a traditional foot-powered treadle lathe, which left marks distinctive to the equipment. He even replicated the front feet of the original chair, worn shorter by time, and the chair’s finish.2

The reproduction became a part of the Cherry Hill furnishings, replacing what one Robert Sanders’ descendent felt was an important family heirloom. Two years after the high chair was made, however, Harriet decided to sell the original to Catherine. Both chairs remained at Cherry Hill until 1945, when Catherine gave the reproduction to a friend, John Hatch, director of the Albany Institute of History and Art, upon the birth of his daughter. That same year, the Albany Institute received as a bequest all the furnishings of Cherry Hill, including the original chair. When the house became a museum in 1965, the institute loaned back the contents. The reproduction went back and forth between Cherry Hill and the Hatch family, who eventually sold it at auction in 2000.3

The nearly one hundred years of use, along with several relocations, have placed a significant amount of wear on the reproduction high chair. Its rear stretcher has been broken and glued and the feet are worn down, chipped, and checked (split) in a fashion similar to period examples. All of this “natural” wear can mislead the most discerning of individuals.

If someone did not initially know that the chair in Figure 2 was a reproduction, what might alert him or her? How would they look for conclusive evidence of authenticity? The answers lie in the basic principles of connoisseurship that call for the analysis of materials, construction, condition, and aesthetics. For instance, regarding materials: The reproduction is made of birch, whereas the woods of choice for early New York chairs were cherry, maple, or walnut.

Fig. 2: High chair, New York, 1904. Birch. H. 351/2", W. 143/4", D. 131/2". Private collection. Photography by Christy Nevius.

Construction features can be more conclusive in determining age. The most typical tool used to bore mortise holes (to receive stretchers, etc.) when the original chair was made, was the pod (spoon) bit. This bit cut a hole with a rounded concave bottom. Later bits (center bits) created a hole with a flat bottom and a central point. This high chair was loose enough to allow direct observation of the mortises; something that is not always possible and makes further assessment necessary. 4

Condition encompasses several levels: from broken or replaced components to wear. Damage generally occurs to all objects. While repairs can expose an altered or later example, the more primary consideration when viewing the later chair is its overall surface wear. If only the newer chair were available to observe, a connoisseur would recognize that it has acquired fewer layers of wear over the years. The reproduction’s pommels, arms, and finial surfaces, for example, are too crisp and unblemished to represent nearly three hundred years of use. Another issue to consider is whether the wear seems appropriate to its location. Forgers, for instance, typically over-wear certain areas, such as stretchers, or distress areas that would not receive wear.

The appearance of an object—its lines, form, and proportions—is critical in assessing authenticity. By spending time studying period examples, one can recognize what is appropriate for a period object and what is not. Often, pieces made later, either as reproductions or fakes, have an indication of later manufacture. Henry Meyer exposed himself as the creator of a reproduction when he took liberties with the design of the footrest and front stretcher of the newer chair. Since both were replaced on the original high chair, Meyer had no direct source to copy. Rather than study period design, he based his interpretations on modern aesthetics. When he should have turned the front stretcher to match the side stretchers, he based it on the back instead. Though surviving footrests on period American high chairs are generally simple in design, Meyer created a lobed footrest that has no direct visual complement on the chair, and as a result, looks out of place.

Meyer’s skills were not used to deceive; they were solicited by a client who wanted a record of a family heirloom. Such circumstances were probably not unusual, particularly during the Colonial Revival period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, an era of heightened sensitivity to the colonial past and the time when this reproduction was made. Never altered or sold as an eighteenth-century antique, the newer high chair is, however, representative of a type of furniture that dealers, collectors, and furniture historians will increasingly find in the marketplace. As these turn-of-the-century reproductions, particularly when made using early construction methods, acquire greater amounts of “natural” wear, it will become even more important to hone connoisseurship skills and work with reputable specialists.

Erik Gronning is a dealer, appraiser, and independent scholar. He most recently contributed the article “Early New York Turned Chairs: A Stoelendraaier’s Conceit” to the 2001 issue of Chipstone’s American Furniture.

1 Roderic Blackburn, Cherry Hill: The History and Collections of a Van Rensselaer Family (Albany, NY: Historic Cherry Hill, 1976); New York State Library Box 123, folder 6, 28 September 1904; Historic Cherry Hill Collections, 1 November 1904.

2 Historic Cherry Hill Collections, 1 November 1904; Albany Directory, 1904.

3 Correspondence with Lori Fisher, 27 January 2000; correspondence with Erin Crissman, 16 October 2001; transcript of John Davis Hatch interview, 25 June 1986; letter to Edward Frisbee from John Hatch, 17 November 1965; letter to John Hatch from Edward Frisbee, 27 December 1965; receipt regarding the high chair’s return, 22 November 1974.

4 For a full discussion of early New York turned chairs see Erik Gronning, “Early New York Turned Chairs: A Stoelendraaier’s Conceit” in American Furniture (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001), 88–119. For additional information on eighteenth-century center bits see Benno Forman, American Seating Furniture: 1630–1730 (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 254–63.

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