Lot 256
  • 256


500,000 - 700,000 USD
635,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • mahogany
  • Height:  45 inches
    Width:  44  1/2  inches
    Depth:  21  3/4  inches


Descended in the Capen family of Massachusetts
Mrs. Benjamin Harris (Charlotte) Maeck, Jr., San Francisco, CA
Milly McGehee, Dallas, TX, June 1983


San Francisco, CA, De Young Museum, American Art Gallery, 1982
Seattle, WA, Seattle Art Museum, An American Sampler: A Selection from the Local Collection of Ruth J. Nutt, May 18, 2002 thru May 16, 2004

Catalogue Note

This exceptional bombé desk is one of currently fourteen known examples of the form.1  It is the most highly embellished of the known examples with fully carved ball-and-claw feet and returns and a remarkable blocked and fan carved interior with urn-and-flame pilasters and demi-lune concave pigeonhole drawers.  A bombé desk-and-bookcase at Historic Deerfield and block front desk declared a Masterpiece by Albert Sack have identical interiors. The visual success of this bombé desk lies in its perfect proportions.  The cabinetmaker considered three important design features when he crafted this piece. The first was to begin the curvature of the bombé swell at the base of the top drawer, providing the necessary visual lift that is absent on many bombé pieces when the curve is started lower down. The second was to parallel the shape of the drawer sides to the curvature of the case.  This congruent line visually lightens the piece by omitting the perceived heft the earliest bombé forms have with drawers that do not follow the case’s shape.  Lastly the case is supported on bold and tall feet.  The size of the feet provide the necessary support and their all-important height give an essential lift off the floor.  These three attributes work symphonically together to produce a consummate design.

The rare leafage carving and star punched ground on the knees and returns of this desk relate closely to two pieces at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  The first is a block front desk-and-bookcase that descended in the Cooke family and the second is a bombé blocked-end serpentine-front chest of drawers that descended in the Derby family (see figs 1-3).  The chest’s carving is the most similar with the carving framed by a flat border.  Interestingly, in a few areas the carver mistakenly struck the base molding with the start punch tool indicating that the punch decoration occurred after the feet were applied.3

As the present lot descended through the Capen family of Massachusetts, one probable candidate with the financial means to request such an imposing piece is Hopestill Capen (1730-1807), a dry goods merchant who resided at 41-43 Union Street.  Capen was active in the Ancient & Honorable Company and a Sandemanian.4 The notorious political newspaper Massachusetts Spy was published at the Capen house by Isiah Thomas between 1770 to 1771 (Isiah Thomas’s powder horn is being offered in Sotheby’s auction of Important Americana, January 25, 2015).  Hopestill’s son, Thomas, succeeded his father as shopkeeper in the home, and owned the property at the time of his death in 1819. On August 3, 1826 the restaurant Atwood & Bacon Oyster House, today known as the Ye Olde Union Oyster House, opened at the Capen house and is the oldest restaurant in continuous service in America.

1 (a) Boston, Thomas Sherburne, desk-and-bookcase*, owned by Joseph Barrell (1739-1804), Winterthur Museum (Nancy E. Richards and Nancy Goyne Evans, New England Furniture at Winterthur, no. 225, pp. 492-493 for extensive analysis);

(b) Boston, Thomas Sherburne, desk, private collection (Robert Mussey and Anne Rogers Haley, "John Cogswell and Boston Bombé Furniture: Thirty-Five Years of Revolution in Design," American Furniture, 1994, fig. 9, p. 82)**;

(c) Boston, Thomas Sherburne, desk, private collection (Robert Mussey and Anne Rogers Haley, "John Cogswell and Boston Bombe Furniture: Thirty-Five Years of Revolution in Design," American Furniture, 1994, fig. 17, p. 86)**;

(d) Boston, possibly by Thomas Sherburne, desk, whereabouts unknown (Winterthur Museum Decorative Arts Photographic Collection (DAPC), file #69.4218 (The Magazine Antiques (November 1969), pp. 652-653);

(e) Boston, unattributed maker, desk, originally owned by John Rowe (1715-1787), private collection (Sotheby's New York, Important Americana, January 21, 2007, lot 363);

(f) Boston, possibly by James McMillian, desk, originally owned by George Cade (1739-1789), United States Department of State (Clement E. Conger and Alexandra W. Rollins, Treasures of State, 1991, no. 73, pp. 158-159);

(g) Boston, desk-and-bookcase*, originally owned by William Greenleaf (1725-1802), New Bedford Whaling Museum (Walter Muir Whitehill, ed., Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, 1974, Nos. 132, 133, pp. 188-189);

(h) Possibly Boston, unattributed maker, desk, private collection (Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, August 2, 1992, lot 614);

(i) Possibly Boston, unattributed maker, desk, whereabouts unknown (DAPC, file #70.591);

(j) Boston, unattributed maker, desk, private collection (Christie’s New York, Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver, Prints and Decoys, January 19, 2007, lot 527)

(k) Salem, Nathaniel Gould, desk, Museum of Fine Arts Boston (Edwin J. Hipkiss, Eighteenth-Century American Arts, The M. and M. Karolik Collection, 1950, no. 27, pp. 46-47);

(l) Salem, Nathaniel Gould, desk, reportedly owned by the Derby family, private collection (American Antiques from the Israel Sack Collection, Vol. 3, 1988, P1362, p. 595);

(m) Salem, Nathaniel Gould, desk, Philadelphia Museum of Art (Ginsburg & Levy advertisement, The Magazine Antiques (November 1944) 255).

(n) Marblehead, probably by Francis Cook, desk, private collection (Sotheby’s New York, Important Americana, January 22, 2010, lot 505)

*Two desk-and-bookcases are listed in the group, but are considered to be desks with later additions of bookcase sections.

** Originally attributed to the Cogswell shop, the later discovery of a signed Nathan Bowen bombé chest and the discovery of his apprenticeship papers binding him to the Thomas Sherburne shop in Boston placed this group of desks in the Sherburne shop.  See Sotheby's sale of Important Americana (January 2003), Lot 580, pp. 250-256, and an addendum issued prior to the sale.

2 Dean Fales, The Furniture of Historic Deerfield, (New York: E.P. Dutton and company Inc., 1976), pp. 236-7, no. 475 and The New Fine of Furniture: Early American (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993), p. 159.  The Gay family bombé desk-and-bookcase illustrated in Gilbert T. Vincent, “Bombe Furniture of Boston,” Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1972), p. 187 fig. 131 and the Prescott-Inches family desk-and-bookcase illustrated in Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye, New England Furniture: The Colonial Era, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984), pp. 246-50, no. 51 have closely related interiors.

3 Another interesting construction characteristic is that the drawer dividers are not dovetailed through the case sides but rather they are set into mortices and toenailed in from their bottom into the case.

4 Rev. Charles Albert Hayden and Mrs. Jessie Hale Tuttle, The Capen Family: Descendants of Bernard Capen of Dorchester, Mass., (Minneapolis, MI: Jessie Hale Tuttle, 1929), pp. 60-1, no. 145.