Not for sale: An exquisitely made collection of miniature furniture

December 2009 | The point of a gift is, presumably, to please the recipient. In this respect, the set of forty-five miniature reproductions of antique American furniture made by Dr. Ralph H. Keeler, a New London, Connecticut, dentist, for his daughter was a distinct disappointment. The late Israel “Zeke” Liverant, however, a Colchester, Connecticut, antiques dealer, found the tiny, exquisitely detailed chairs, tables, and chests irresistible. He seized the opportunity and bought the whole collection. Years later his son Arthur bought it again.

The first sale began with a telephone call from Keeler’s daughter in April 1966. It had taken her father two decades, roughly from 1920 to 1940, to create the miniatures, which he had given to her over a succession of birthdays and other holidays. She would have much preferred dolls, a bicycle, or a puppy, she told Zeke, and since her father had recently entered a nursing home, she finally felt free to dispose of what had been his passion, not hers.

When Zeke inspected what the daughter had, he was enchanted. The Liverants are known for their interest in objects of small scale; over the years an abundance of children’s chairs, miniature furniture, and other small objects has passed through their shop, a former Baptist meetinghouse. But the Keeler reproductions were unique. The wide range of styles, materials, and periods he explored was amazing, and the quality of the workmanship was even better. “Dr. Keeler was able to downsize the furniture without losing proportion,” Arthur says, “and he even gave careful choice to the quality of the woods.” What is more, as a dentist he had high standards when it came to fine fit and meticulous finish.

Thus, Keeler made small-scale windsor chairs with pinned spindles and wedged leg posts, and early joined great chairs with delicate turned spindles and finials. A freestanding corner cupboard sports a shell-carved back and a glazed door; a two-sided wall of paneling features one side from a country kitchen and on the reverse a formal sitting room with tombstone arched paneling (see Fig. 4). Keeler crafted his own miniature hardware for his creations: diminutive latches, hinges, and andirons. He also searched long and hard for just the right woods. For a Queen Anne figured maple Spanish-foot armchair (see Fig. 5) and matching side chair, he selected wood with an exceptionally tightly figured grain. In this way he managed to reproduce not just the form and joinery of the original, but also the wood graining in an appropriate scale.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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