“The law is an ass,” famously remarked Mr. Bumble in Dickens’ Oliver Twist. His wisdom has held strong over the 180 years since.
In 1760 or thereabouts, Thomas Chippendale made a gentleman’s commode for the London residence of Sir Rowland Winn.
The commode is, quire simply, a masterpiece. “It’s got incredible presence and power — [Chippendale] never gets it wrong,” said Christie’s International Deputy Chairman Charles Cator.
Cator went on to comment that Chippendale was not only “brilliant at design but brilliant at the technical side, too. One of his specialities was having access to incredible timbers. The colour, the patination, the figuring of the timber, which is one of the great glories of this commode, is all something which is very, very special to Chippendale.” (Cator has an English accent, so I’ve put his words in English spelling.)
So what is Christie’s doing in all this? Chippendale and James Christie (1730-1803), the founder of Christie’s, happen to have been friends, but it’s unlikely that their friendship was why the Winn estate chose Christie’s when, in 1991, it decided to sell the commode. And it certainly had no bearing upon the buyer’s decision to consign it to Christie’s again in 2018.
At the 1991 auction, the commode became the most expensive piece of English furniture ever sold, fetching a record £935,000. It was bought by an American collector and crossed the Atlantic with him to its new home.
The Law is an Ass
In 2018 Christie’s, London, planned a special “Chippendale Sale” to mark the 300th anniversary of the famous cabinetmaker, whereupon the American owner of the commode decided, not unreasonably, that this would be the best place to sell it. Christie’s estimated the commode to sell at £3 million to £5 million.
And now, Mr. Bumble’s wisdom becomes apposite. The US has banned the export of ivory, and this commode contains not only drawers, but 20 pigeonholes, each inlaid with a small ivory letter.
Knowing the law (and committing an act of stupidity rivaling that of the law itself) the collector had the original ivory letters replaced with ones of ivorine, a faux ivory celluloid invented in 1899. The commode could now cross the Atlantic legally.
The catalogue for Christie’s “Chippendale Sale” (July 2018) properly and correctly identified the letters as ivorine.
The commode, the highlight of the sale, failed to sell.
The desecration of the masterpiece is the only possible reason for its flop. Even in a tight antiques market, masterpieces always sell, often far above their estimate. I hope with all my heart and soul that the original ivory letters have been preserved, and that somehow, some day, the commode and the letters can be reunited, even though they are (presumably) on opposite sides of the Atlantic. And the letters could not be mailed legally from the US to the UK for the reunion to take place. The law is, indeed, an ass.