In the early 20th century, Federal furniture had another name—Duncan Phyfe. His high profile caused every neoclassical piece to be automatically attributed to him. "If every piece said to be by Duncan Phyfe had actually been made by him, he would still be working today, and we could visit him," jokes Elizabeth Feld of Herschel & Adler Galleries. In the teens and ’20s, Phyfe’s fame contributed to a revival of interest in the Federal style, which was also fed by two exhibitions—Masterpieces of Duncan Phyfe at the Metropolitan Museum in 1922, and a New York loan exhibition of American furniture held to benefit the Girl Scouts in 1929. A market began to develop, supported by prescient collectors like Henry Francis du Pont (founder of Delaware’s Winterthur Museum), but it soon lost ground to earlier styles. "In the 1940s and ’50s, Federal furniture wasn’t considered ‘old’ enough," says Ambler, Pennsylvania, dealer Jay Carey. "Even in the 1970s, there was a very limited market for anything but the very best pieces."
That began to change as—thanks to new scholarship on the Federal style—collectors became awake and aware: "Prices more than doubled from the 1970s to the 1980s," Carey recalls. Six-figure sales became common, and in 1998, an inlaid, demilune game table (1794–96) by Boston maker John Seymour sold at Sotheby’s for a record $541,500. That may sound like a fair chunk of change, but the record price for a piece of American Chippendale furniture is $12.1 million, paid in 1989 at Christie’s for a Newport ( Rhode Island) desk and bookcase. Why the discrepancy? "Nostalgia for the Colonial period is still with us," says Christie’s Brunk.