Federal furniture is the sleeping beauty of the American furniture market. Fine-boned and slender, its clean, neoclassical lines and rich veneered surfaces date from one of the most seminal eras of American history (1790–1810) yet it is often passed over in favor of more "Colonial" styles, like Queen Anne and Chippendale. These pricey predecessors may be more familiar, but Federal furniture is the market sleeper, at prices starting around $1,500.
In the late 18th century, America had triumphantly separated itself from Great Britain, but its cabinetmakers were still ardently attached. London was the capital of the style world, and Americans of means demanded the same fashion-forward furniture that graced the drawing rooms of Mayfair.
By the 1770s, British style mavens had jettisoned the rococo curves of Thomas Chippendale in favor of ovals, swags, and classical forms championed by architect/designer Robert Adam (1728–1792). His influential neoclassicism was echoed in the leading design books of the period—George Hepplewhite’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (1788) and Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1791–94). British patrons clamored for their rectilinear shapes, tapered legs, shield and lyre backs, and inlaid classical motifs. As soon as these bibles of style crossed the pond, Americans did likewise.
Cabinetmakers in Salem, Massachusetts; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Boston; New York; Philadelphia; and Baltimore answered the call. During the Federal period (which takes its name from the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1787) these towns became the nation’s leading furniture-making centers, each with its own style, reflecting local materials, the talents of local artisans, and the interests of their clientele. All were riffs on the Hepplewhite/Sheraton design canon. Shapes were simple, geometric, and perfectly proportioned. Legs were slim and often reeded. Surfaces were mainly flat, enlivened with book-matched veneers of rich, imported mahogany and decorative inlays of lighter, contrasting woods like birch, boxwood, and bird’s-eye maple from America’s forests. To the inlaid urns, medallions, festoons, stringing, and banding mandated by Adam, Americans added their own imagery, including the proud American eagle.
A growing American population supported the production of a wide variety of new forms, including worktables, cylinder desks, and specialized dining furniture. Separate dining rooms—a new development—mandated the creation of America’s first sideboards, as well as sectional dining tables, with leaves that could be added or subtracted. All could be produced in quantity. Improved tools and production techniques allowed leading makers like Duncan Phyfe of New York (1768–1854) to run mini-factories employing dozens of workers and turning out large amounts of furniture.
By 1810, that furniture was changing. French designers now set the style in Europe and, inspired by discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum and by Napoleon’s visit to Egypt in 1798, they had moved beyond classical ornament and were creating original Greco-Roman forms like klismos chairs and curule stools. In the new, "empire" style, shapes were more voluptuous, ormolu mounts more numerous, and imagery shifted from swags and urns to lion’s paws and lyres. Around 1805, cutting-edge American makers like Duncan Phyfe, and Charles Honoré La nnuier, a French émigré who set up shop in New York in 1803, began to make pieces in the new taste and produced neoclassical furniture for two more decades. Once labeled "empire" like their French antecedents, these American pieces are now referred to as "classical."
All of this classicism can make for some confusion. While most experts date the Federal period from 1790 to 1810, long after big-city artisans like Lannuier and Phyfe were turning out classical pieces, smaller makers and rural craftsmen all over America were still making furniture in the Federal style. "We catalog less according to date and more on what a piece looks like," says Christie’s American furniture expert Andrew Brunk. "If it was made in 1825 but still has that Sheraton look with reeded legs and Adam motifs, it’s Federal."
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.
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.
If a Federal piece sports an American eagle inlay, make sure it is original, because many of these price-spiking elements have been added in recent years. "When one dealer’s shop was cleared out after his death, there was a whole stack of eagle inlays hidden in the back," Leslie Keno remembers. While the replacement of bits of veneer or small carved elements won’t compromise a piece, nor, as Elizabeth Feld points out, does "the crack that most New York card tables have across their tops affect their value," other condition problems are deal-breakers: "Cut-down legs or feet should be avoided at all costs," New York dealer Berlin warns. "A serious replacement like a top is the kiss of death, as is a ‘marriage.’" (A marriage consists of period elements put together to form a new entity). "Original" surface condition is less of an issue: Cleaning a piece of 18th-century American furniture may slash its value, but Federal furniture is a different animal: "These pieces were intended by their makers to shine and show off their contrasting woods," says Priddy. "The grime can be removed without damaging the original finish." However, "Don’t do anything yourself," Priddy cautions. "Ask your local museum to recommend an experienced conservator."
"We don’t see many Federal fakes because, with all the veneering and inlay, they are not cost-effective to make," explains Leslie Keno. "We do see revival pieces from the early 20th century being passed off as old. To tell the difference," Keno continues, "pull out a drawer and check for quality of construction, oxidation of age, and proper wear patterns." Wood quality can be another clue. "Period pieces were made with dense, first-growth wood," says Carey. "It’s richer than the second-growth wood used in later pieces." Such 20th-century wannabes are decorative but worth only a fraction of that of a period example.