Any collector willing to move forward a few decades can benefit from this bias. “Federal furniture is still very undervalued,” according to Brunk. “You can buy a beautiful New York breakfast table made in 1810 for a couple of thousand dollars—not much more than the price of a new one—and many other pieces are available for under $20,000.” Last January, Christie’s sold a Federal inlaid mahogany sideboard circa 1790–1810 (est. $6,000–$9,000) for just $7,768. Six months earlier, at Sotheby’s, a circa-1810 carved Federal mahogany lolling chair (which in the late 19th century became known as a Martha Washington chair) attributed to Lemuel Church of Boston was purchased for $14,400 (est. $6,000–$9,000).
”There has been a huge gain in the popularity of Federal armchairs in recent years,” notes Pennsylvania dealer Carey. “People also like dining room furniture, secretaries, and small tables—and sofas, which are actually very comfortable when you upholster them as they were done in 1800, with lots of pillows.” All these pieces are appealing and versatile: “People like Federal-period furniture because it mixes well with both 18th-century and modern pieces,” says dealer Sumpter Priddy of Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s crisp, clean, and very good quality.”
Of course, some Federal pieces are better quality than others: “The quality of the design, the wood, the construction, and the inlaid decoration all influence the price,” says Leslie Keno, senior American furniture specialist at Sotheby’s and the co-host of the television show Find. Among inlay motifs, adds New York dealer Leigh Keno, his brother and co-host, the American eagle is the Holy Grail. “A games table that would sell for $3,000 would top six figures with an inlaid American eagle on it,” Keno notes. And while a stellar provenance or attribution to a famous maker adds value, “proportion is the most important variable,” says New York private dealer Carswell Rush Berlin. “For example, if a Federal sideboard’s case is in good proportion to the length of its legs, everybody wants it. If it’s not, you can’t give it away.” The Hewlett family Federal mahogany eight-legged New York sideboard offered at Christie’s in January of 2000 had it all—excellent proportions and provenance, a bow front, eight legs, and shell within oval and bellflower inlays. It sold for $299,500 (est. $70,000–$100,000). The simple elegance of four side chairs (circa 1810) at Leigh Keno Antiques and their attribution to Duncan Phyfe elevate their price to $98,000; at Hirschl & Adler, a mahogany sofa by Phyfe (circa 1810) was just sold to a museum for $125,000. These top-flight pieces, which experts estimate to make up only 5 percent to 10 percent of the Federal furniture market, are more expensive and less available but as an investment is the better choice.