Listeners to this podcast will recognize the name Freeman’s—for more than a year, the Philadelphia-based auction house has been Curious Objects’ lead sponsor, and its no exaggeration to say the podcast wouldn’t exist without them. This month we paid a visit to their Center City showrooms to record a live episode, focusing on a quartet of curious objects that are on the block as part of Freeman’s April 30 American Furniture, Folk, and Decorative Art sale: a marble-top pier table long believed to have belonged to General Washington’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman, a quirky painting of Noah’s Ark by foppish Lancaster polymath John Landis, and two stoneware wine bottles in the shape of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Freeman’s specialist Lynda Cain provided the intel and Michael Diaz-Griffith charms in his debut as Curious Objects co-host.
Lynda Cain: You have to see it. You have to feel it. You have to sit in it. And that's one of the glories of an auction. You can come and touch.
Benjamin Miller: Hello and welcome to Curious Objects, brought to you by The Magazine ANTIQUES. I'm your host, Ben Miller. This is a really exciting episode for me for two reasons. First, it was a live podcast event hosted by our sponsor, Freeman's Auction, in Philadelphia. Freeman's has been a longtime supporter of Curious Objects, and I think they were as excited as I was when we came up with the idea of doing a live podcast recording at their auction house in Philadelphia. They have an Americana sale happening on Tuesday, April 30—if you're listening right when this is published, that's tomorrow, so get on their website! As you know if you've been listening to recent episodes, Freeman's is the oldest auction house in America, and in today's episode you'll have the chance to hear some great stories and insights from one of their specialists. We'll get to that in a second.
The second reason this is an especially exciting episode for me is that I get to make an announcement. I am thrilled, along with The Magazine ANTIQUES, to welcome a new voice to the podcast: Michael Diaz-Griffith. Ok, it's not a completely new voice—you've heard him back in January when we devoted an episode to the New Antiquarians, the group Michael and I are organizing to encourage fresh interest in old objects. You also heard him in August of last year when he was one of the contributors to the #MyCuriousObject episode with his wonderful eighteenth-century folk watercolor.
Michael is a dear friend and an important voice in the world of antiques and decorative arts. In addition to the New Antiquarians, he has started a promising new consultancy called Material Cult. He has a wonderful Instagram account, @michaeldiazgriffith. And I'm so excited that he is officially joining Curious Objects! You're going to be hearing a lot more from him going forward. Michael joined me at Freeman's for this episode, and starting in the next episode, Michael and I are going to kick off each episode with our own conversation. We're going to talk about what's on our minds about art and antiques, and Michael is going to help me talk through what's exciting and intriguing about each upcoming guest and their curious object. I know you're going to love Michael, if you don't already, and again, I'm absolutely thrilled to have him on board.
Ok. With that said, for today, Michael and I went to Freeman's, where we had a conversation in front of a live audience with Lynda Cain. Lynda is vice president of Freeman's and heads up their American Furniture, Folk, and Decorative Arts department. She also organized the Americana sale happening on April 30. Michael and I took the chance to ask Lynda about a few of her favorite objects from the sale. Here we go!
Michael do you want to pick a piece for us to start with?
Michael Diaz-Griffith: Yes. I'd actually like to talk about this object right here.
Lynda Cain: I mean that's a great place to begin. Well this is a very special piece of . . . It is the Tilghman family Chippendale, marble-top and mahogany pier table.
Benjamin Miller: So for the sake of our podcast listeners can you tell us what it looks like?
Lynda Cain: Oh yes yes. Well it's a wonderful . . . it has a a gray and white King of Prussia marble top that has a molded edge and it echoes the shape of a serpentine apron. It has four cabriole legs on ball-and-claw feet and each knee is carved with a beautiful acanthus leaf ornament. When this came to us quite late in the property-getting game every auction we were about to lot the sale. This came from a local estate. So and I recognized . . . they send you pictures of the property that they were going to offer and it rang a bell. You've seen things before. So dashed over there. We made arrangements and it came to the sale. And this table initially came to the public's awareness in an ad in ANTIQUES magazine in 1956. David Stockwell of Wilmington Delaware had acquired it from a Tilghman family relative in Maryland.
Benjamin Miller: I just want to note for listeners that Lynda is recounting all this without notes, does not have a genealogical tree in front of her, does not have a list of auction records.
Lynda Cain: Well the interesting thing, though, when a subject has a history like this and it has been catalogs. You kind of take the history for granted. You think that someone has to check this out and this is a flaw in our, an error in our, in mine . . . I will accept eternal responsibility for this. You should always . . . that awful expression "trust but verify." So. This had been associated with Tench Tilghman for 60 years. But the history of it was that it came from. From Talbot County, Maryland. And from an estate "Heritage." Well there is no estate or plantation by the name of Heritage. But there were several plantations by the name of "Hermitage." So I think this is a type . . . it's a typo that just kept on going on and it's definitely probably is Tilghman. But probably Matthew—there were two Matthew Tilghmans who were a little older than Tench Tilghman and had grand houses. Were extraordinary wealthy planters so a table like this could have been used . . . It makes much more sense that it was one of the Matthew Tilghmans from Talbot or Queen Anne's county Maryland. Of Philadelphia origin. They did a lot of business in Philadelphia. One of these Tilghmans was married to a Lloyd family who had had Philadelphia relations. And it's just . . . so we tried to correct that history but it's still a . . . it's a great piece. That's a rare piece. These pieces when they were made originally they were called. Frames for marble slabs. They were only available in mahogany not walnut. They were very expensive, they were for entertaining and were for putting your refreshments on with food. And they're often sold in pairs. But they're a very rare form. Extremely expensive.
Benjamin Miller: So let's talk turkey. This was offered at Sotheby's for a telephone number. What are you putting it in for now?
Lynda Cain: We have it at $80,000 to $120,000. It's a very rare piece. It's also you know at auction one has to deal with consigners, and one has to deal in this case with family members. And it was purchased not that long ago by their mother. So we had to come in some sort of a range that is some sort of equivalent to $90,000.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: We're tabulating the numbers.
Benjamin Miller: It's so interesting to me because I think there’s a wide-spread misperception about the auction world and the world of art and antiques generally that there is some kind of objective price or value for an object but you're saying that there's a negotiation process.
Lynda Cain: There is always a negotiation. And you know I . . . we all long for the great old days when you didn't have to put an estimate and I think that was . . . I love looking at those old catalog books where it's just a description. But that's gone.
Benjamin Miller: When did that change?
Lynda Cain: Oh I think it's quite late, I think it's in the '80s when that comes about. But we do have an idea. We do check the various auction websites, do maintain records on what things bring. You also have something in the back of your mind. But it was always proven to be conservative because you want to inspire interest in something, inspire bidding. And it doesn't mean . . . An estimate doesn't determine what an item will actually bring at auction.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: A technical question: So when you determine that there's no plantation called Heritage, what did you do.
Lynda Cain: Then we publish an addenda with our . . . and we tell people this is what we think now. This is not . . . It's not a fact but I just think this is much more accurate. And. I think . . . So we try to make people aware of it. It goes immediately on online. A correction. And then addenda are printed and they're offered to anyone who comes to look at the objects or look at the exhibition. So these things happen. You know, you just. You know you just make . . . auctions move fast you do the best job you can. But oftentimes you're the one who finds out these wonderful things about something. But this one I let it go. You know I just took it for granted what had been written.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: But you then caught it. You know you don't spend very much time with these objects. It's a brief interval.
Lynda Cain: It is a brief interval. You know I'd love to say we had months to deal with all these things. I have two sales annually so you have some six months to put together a sale. You do what you can. We try very hard to do the best we can.
Benjamin Miller: Of course, as a dealer, I have to hope that you miss things once in a while because that's where we might be able to make a profit.
Lynda Cain: Well but that's one of the glories of the internets, too. You can't miss a lot in this era.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: So we're talking about all of the factors that are relative like value. Could you talk a little bit about the features on this object that make it exceptional? And I might even say "objectively exceptional"—the carving . . .
Lynda Cain: Well number one it's a rare form. I think when you look at something at auction you sort of put it in context of fellow objects or other things like it. Where does it fall. Is it the best? Is it the medium? What is the condition and what is the history behind the many factors. This form is so rare, it's so unusual that it's hard to characterize that. But it seems to have its original top which is rather rare. It appears to be as such. It has replaced glue blocks or some blocking on the base. I mean he's in good shape. It's in good shape. So I think you know a rare form, original elements primarily.
Benjamin Miller: It fits into modern life in a seamless way. Can we talk about another object? Are we ready for that?
Lynda Cain: Sure sure sure! We have a couple things but let's do this one.
Benjamin Miller: This is a scene of Noah’s Ark done in watercolor and ink by the publisher John Landis. And you’ve put it in for sale at an estimate of $5,000 to $10,000.
Lynda Cain: He was a publisher. He ran lotteries and went to law school. He hated it. I think a remarkable thing is that he traveled. He was a world traveler and he was very proud of this. He went several times and traveled to the Middle East. And I think it's so interesting when you look at this Noah's Ark is as old as you know as old as man and every culture has [its version]. There was even Mesopotamian . . . It's the survival of civilization and animal life. Due to the horrible wrath of God or something. So he is . . . If you look at this carefully he's really been inspired I think by some of the Middle Eastern experiences that he's had. It's almost the character of Noah and his wife and the animals and it's an extraordinary piece. But he was well known in Philadelphia. He was a you know by all standards a religious zealot. He published screeds on religion and all sorts of things but he was an outrageous dandy. So he was you know velvet outfits and elaborate canes you know. But at the same time . . . and always declaring himself a genius. But anyway he did historical portraiture that he offered to museums for $30,000. You know this is an 1840. I mean he was. I think this was absolutely charming.
Benjamin Miller: I want to know why the ark looks sort of like a barn.
Lynda Cain: Well you know it's traditional. I mean you can see the ark in many engravings and medieval engravings and everything and it often is sort of like that. But the appeal of this, the color is brilliant, the animals are charming.
Benjamin Miller: What are the curious figures climbing up the tree?
Lynda Cain: Those are monkeys but they're very much like people. If you look at these. They're. Kind of frightening.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: They have very clearly defined abdomens on their backs.
Lynda Cain: Yeah. I just think it's just so it's so compelling it's charming, it's a little bizarre, but it's just, the color's brilliant, I just think it's a wonderful, wonderful piece.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: Brilliant!
Benjamin Miller: Onward and upward?
Michael Diaz-Griffith: Onward and upward. I think that there are two objects . . .
Lynda Cain: Oh these are just fun!
Benjamin Miller: So these are actually a pair of objects: two lamps in ceramic that are in figural form, in the form of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Lynda Cain: These are not necessarily Americana but Americans have always been interested in British royalty. And especially I think timely with the miniseries on Victoria and Albert. And these were lamps in the Gachot house. And they just kept on appealing. But on the back of them they they give the name of the wine merchant in London who had these made to commemorate the . . . you know about 1840. They're English-made but they're in great condition. They haven't been. They've been mounted as lamps but they haven't been drilled or anything and I just think that they're very they're compelling. They're wonderful we know who made them. And it's at least probably 1840 to 1845. And these have a remarkably low estimate of $400 to $600.
Benjamin Miller: I have to say, I mean they're diminutive. Would that not be a little insulting to Victoria and Albert?
Lynda Cain: But they were wine bottles. These are bottles. So you can see the holes in their heads.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: Well that's not insulting. You know in both the Noah's Ark picture and in these lamps I think there's a kind of global history enfolded in an American story. I think that's an important thing to remind ourselves about. You know an Americana sale isn't, quote, just about American makers, objects that were produced here. Almost everything in this room has or bears a relationship to Europe to England to the Middle East.
Lynda Cain: Absolutely. Well so much of furniture is based on pattern books that came from England, they were inspired by . . . Yes!
Benjamin Miller: So we've looked at three objects that are each one of a kind. And each of them is in good condition and each of them tells a very interesting story. And one of them seems to be worth somewhere in the range of six figures. And one of them seems to be worth somewhere in the range of five figures. One of them seems to be worth somewhere in the range of three figures. So as someone who comes to Freeman's—looks around the showroom, is thinking about what might be interesting to me or what might be worth looking at, worth paying attention to, and bidding on and buying and owning—how do I decide where to put my efforts? How do I find what’s going to speak to me?
Lynda Cain: You have to see it. You have to feel it. You have to sit in it. And that's one of the glories of an auction. You can come and touch and turn it over and we'll assist you in that. We'll do condition reports and send photographs. So you know that's what auction houses do. So. I mean we're here to do the best we can for our consigner. That is our goal. We tried it very hard here. I think you can see by the display the way we want to set things off to their best advantage. So that's what our goal is.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: Do you have any advice for younger collectors or would be collectors who might be attending tonight's event and looking at the objects thinking about how to begin collecting.
Lynda Cain: Oh I think so. Again. Ask questions. And look at things. I think so many—we were speaking earlier—how many early American things look fabulous in a contemporary setting. If that's what one likes a great reading chair a great pair of Windsors against a contemporary, a white wall. A contemporary setting. A great quilt. These are modern arrangements. They're modern . . . almost. I just think people should . . . you have to learn you have to be aware and I think that's one of the sad things about our time and I eagerly look at the design magazine every time every time it's published in the New York Times and I love to see there's more and more of the eclectic rooms are coming back. I just think it's exposure. When this building was built. And when The Magazine ANTIQUES was established in the 1920s, antiques, American antiques, were everywhere. In important exhibitions. Antique dealers that were established started selling Americana. There was just as there was this great . . . there was academia, there was interest in folk, in all these things. And I think it's got to start again. And we're almost 100 years so I think we're good. I think we're getting there.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: It's time for the pendulum to swing back toward us.
Lynda Cain: Yes the cyclical view of history, yes. And we're confident that it is doing so even now.
Benjamin Miller: I think Michael and I are very confident about that. On that note I want to turn a question to you, Michael. We've spent a little bit of time walking around the show floor and looking at the sale catalog. There’s an enormous range of material here. And you and I are interested in antiques and art and design. There are certain things we collect but we're by no means in most of the material that’s on display here. So give me your amateur eye and your amateur perspective: as you walk around the floor here, How do you approach an object and how do you relate to it? What's your entry point? Because sometimes it can be intimidating to approach an object when you don't have Lynda standing next to you to explain it to you.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: I would prefer to have Lynda by my side.
Lynda Cain: That's so sweet.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: You know I do two things. I try to look at the very best examples of the objects that are agreed upon as best examples.
Lynda Cain: Established.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: Established examples to learn from them to understand you know the sort of traditional standards of good, better, best. Right. I want to know what fits into those categories. So that there are some parameters around my looking. And I love looking at this table and understanding its history the craftsmanship that produced it and where it exists in the market today. All of that is important. When I walk into this room I'm also looking for objects that I can collect. That means I'm looking at objects that are estimated in the $100s not the $100,000s. And as someone with a very eclectic sensibility I right now am looking at quilts and works on paper. And I've spoken to you of them about works on paper on Curious Objects. I love watercolors. I love them and I think that they're so expressive you can really feel not just the hand of the artist as in an oil painting, but something about the spirit or the character of the artist.
Lynda Cain: They're fresher.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: They're fresh! And unmediated by—
Lynda Cain: You can't overwork it.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: True and so there are two lots here that contain four or five works on paper each. I think those are a fabulous find because you may only be drawn initially to one of the objects in that lot and you may get three or four surprises of things that you weren't going after. And then you have a little family of objects and maybe only one of them is an object that you're seriously interested in keeping. You could give the other ones as gifts. You could create a grouping that just looks great as a grouping. And I'm interested in how we as young collectors can begin building collections. That kind of fill our spaces and fill our lives with interest, character, the histories that these objects can contain, even while we're saving up to begin collecting some of the objects at the best level.
Benjamin Miller: We have to start making our determinations about what's best for us.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: And what's best for us. And I really do think (I've said this before) that we're exiting the minimalist phase.
Lynda Cain: I agree.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: I think you're very wise to be looking at the design magazines to see what is going to be popular among those who care about such things. The interiors that are in vogue today are full of color and pattern. Younger people I think love narrative. They love the kinds of stories that you tell, Lynda. And we're in a room surrounded by all of those things.
Benjamin Miller: I want to turn to the audience for some questions now before we turn ourselves loose on the wine and cheese and the showroom. If anyone is interested in asking a question Sam here has a mic so that we can capture you for the podcast if you don't mind having your voice preserved for eternity on the Internet.
Audience 1: It's sort of a trick question: What would be your dream consignment?
Lynda Cain: I should be able to answer this.
Audience 1: It can be more than one. You can have two.
Lynda Cain: There are a couple of museum storage units I'd like to sell. I’ve been in a few of those.
Benjamin Miller: Hard to argue with that. Any other questions from the audience?
Michael Diaz-Griffith: Perhaps about the material that you collect that may be represented in this room?
Benjamin Miller: We can do an Antiques Roadshow set right here.
Audience 2: I was curious that you said the [pier table], that these tables were often done in pairs. And I was wondering what you think the prospects are that this might be one of a pair.
Lynda Cain: Well I think it could have been I. You know I don't know. They were often offered in pairs as were card tables. They you know you often got two card tables because I suppose if you were entertaining you know you had to think you might like two. I think there's a possibility it may have been. We don't know that I just think that and that they were used in pairs in grand houses elsewhere in England and things like that. So.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: To maintain classical order in those symmetrical rooms.
Lynda Cain: It's order, yeah.
Benjamin Miller: And if there were pair to it of course it could have been lost over time. Or the provenance could have been forgotten.
Lynda Cain: Or just were destroyed in some way or many times they just split up you know with descendants. We often find that both sets of chairs you get . . . I've never understood it that you might get a huge set of chairs and they give each person three chairs. It's such a curious thing.
Benjamin Miller: Anyone else or should we run to the bar?
Audience 3: I think what may be the sort of [epitome] of Philadelphia furniture might be the Cadwallader furniture. I know that some of the pieces have interesting stories—came from Ireland, found in Ireland—do you think there's any more pieces out there?
Lynda Cain: I bet there are. And that I'm glad you brought that up because I totally forgot that in the past that was my dream consignment, consigning a Cadwallader chair. Or one of the lost sofas. I'm glad you brought that— They don't know. What happened. I think who knows. They have shown up. Never say never. You know I think that you always think we've seen the last of something and then something appears. So I think there's a good chance. It's a very good chance. So. It was something extraordinary like that it'd be tough to just throw it out in the ashbin or destroy it, so.
Michael Diaz-Griffith: So if you think you have a Cadwallader sofa out there—
Lynda Cain: Give us a ring! Give us a ringy-ding-ding!
Michael Diaz-Griffith: Call Lynda! Any more questions?
Benjamin Miller: All right. Well thank you everyone. Thank you so much Lynda for guiding us through this. I hope everyone will enjoy the. I hope you'll enjoy the wine and cheese and I hope you will also enjoy the wonderful display and take a good look because all of this is available for sale. So enjoy yourselves and thank you for coming. Thank you.
That wraps up today's live episode from Freeman's Auction in Center City, Philadelphia. Go to freemansauction.com to explore and bid! Thanks so much for listening. As always, you can reach me with questions, comments, or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Instagram at @objectiveinterest. And you can help me out by giving the podcast a rating and a review.
Today's episode is produced and edited by Sammy Dalati. Our music is by Trap Rabbit. Michael Diaz-Griffith is our co-host, and I'm your host, Ben Miller.
Lynda Cain serves as a vice president of Freeman's, and is the department head for American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts. Growing up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan Ms. Cain was greatly influenced by the rich collections of American paintings, furniture and decorative arts held by Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum. She began her career in American decorative arts as assistant curator at the Detroit Historical Museum. In 1984 she became Curator of Costume at the Detroit Historical Museum, and in 1986 relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts and switched from museum work when she joined the American Furniture and Decorative Art Department at Skinner Inc., Bolton and Boston, Massachusetts. Ms. Cain joined the cast of the popular PBS series Antiques Roadshow in Season 19.