Lot 505
  • 505

The Important Ranlett-Rust Family Chippendale Figured Mahogany Bombé Slant-Front Desk, probably by Francis Cook, Marblehead, Massachusetts circa 1770

400,000 - 1,000,000 USD
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  • mahogany, white pine, cedar (Mahogany, Caribbean/West India)
  • Height 42 ½ in. by Width 45 in. by Depth 23 ¼ in.
appears to retain its original surface, hardware, and key.


Possibly Henry Rust (1760—1847);
To his son Henry Rust (1787-1863);
To his son Henry Rust (1833—1881);

The below is documented:
To his daughter Katherine Louisa Rust (1873-1946);
By estate gift to Mary S. Ranlett (1882-1959), wife of Col. Charles A. Ranlett (1874-1961);
To her daughter Evelyn Ranlett Hutcheson (1906-1979);
To the present owners

Katherine L. Rust died without issue. She was a second cousin to Charles A. Ranlett


Secondary wood is white pine and cedar. The desk appears to retain its original surface. Surface with numerous small abrasions, discolorations, stains, and scratches commensurate with age. Each proper right and left front corner of desk at bombe section abraded. Both front foot facings cracked. proper right rear back foot support cracked. Proper left interior lid hinge with apparent minor burn mark. Proper left side of interior side of lid with an approximately 2 inch eliptical burn mark. Lid cracked and reglued along width approximately 2 inches from edge closest to desk with fall lid down. Desk section later fitted in the early 19th century (circa 1815) with a Federal mahogany and glass bookcase and three molding nailed top of desk. Note, these molding have been removed and saved for examination. Photographs are available from the department showing the desk with the later bookcase added. Top with several significant scratches from the top being improperly slid on. Top with several circular water/alcohol stains.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Of all 18th-century furniture forms, the bombe shape is the rarest and most sought-after by American furniture collectors today.  This applies whether the case piece is a desk-and-bookcase, a four-drawer chest, a chest-onchest or a small dressing glass.

Both labor and materials were more costly in making the shaped sides of any piece with the "kettle"shape, and it required a higher level of skill from the cabinetmaker.  One of the rarest surviving examples of the form is the bombe desk.  A review of decorative arts scholarship and auction catalogs turns up only twelve additional known examples, four of which are in museum collections.1  The offered desk is notable from several standpoints, with the word "rarity" as the key denominator.

The condition of this lot is exceptional and it is one of the most original and intact of all known examples.  Only two families have been responsible for its care and the desk has never been offered to the market.  The result is a desk that appears to retain its original finish, "pine tree" brasses, desk lid hinges, and main case drawer runners and keys. An important indicator of its gentle care over the years are the two visually important but seldom surviving small blocks attached to the case sides that shield the lower edge of the desk lid.2

To rarity of form and condition must be added the desk's place of origin.  Scholarship to date ascribes the bombe form to either Boston or Salem.  That the bombe or "commode" shape, as it was called in the period, was highly regarded in Boston is suggested in the bombe chest-on-chest listed in the 1758 household inventory of Charles Apthorp (1698-1758), considered the wealthiest individual in Boston at the time of his death.  Another high-profile figure in Boston, the British Royal Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780), owned a desk-and-bookcase, made in the Netherlands, which incorporated elements of the bombe shape.3  Boston/Charlestown cabinetmakers Thomas Sherburne, Benjamin Frothingham, John Cogswell, James McMillian, George Bright and Robert Glen actually signed or have had bombe pieces attributed to them.4 Surprisingly, however, the first bombe form by a domestic craftsman was not made in Boston, but on the North Shore of Massachusetts—in Ipswich, in 1749, where local cabinetmaker, Abraham Knowlton, was commissioned to build the pulpit for The First Church.  This surviving pulpit predates its more famous cousin, the pulpit in The Brattle Street Church in Boston, by twenty-three years.  It has been suggested that The Brattle Street Church pulpit may have been the impetus for the bombe shape becoming so popular in Thomas Sherburne's shop, as many of his customers were members of that congregation.5 Both pulpits were based on a design in Batty Langley's 1740 The City and Country Builder's and Workman's Treasury of Designs. 

Another group of bombe furniture has long been attributed to the North Shore town of Salem, Massachusetts.  Comprised of desks, a desk-and-bookcase, a chest-on-chest, and four-drawer chests, this group appears to have been made in the same shop.  The discovery of Salem cabinetmaker Nathaniel Gould's (1734-1781) ledgers at The Massachusetts Historical Society in 2007, has helped to identify the shop. Subsequent pairings of three surviving objects to specific ledger entries confirms the elite position held by patrons of this style in Salem.  Gould made numerous sales to such distinguished families as the Cabots, Derbys, Ornes and Pickmans, among others.6

Where the presently offered desk was made—Boston, Salem, or somewhere else—would be determined in the details.  Upon close examination, Boston was eliminated.  The foot returns are longer than typically used in Boston; and the blocking of the feet is more carefully done, with the wood blocks finish-planed and matched to the profiles of the feet and their brackets.  Examination of interior construction corroborated exterior evidence.  The sides and bottoms of the four main drawers measure 3/8 to ½ inches thick (Boston typically used thinner boards), and are more carefully planed than standard Boston workmanship.  Top edges of the drawer sides are planed in a wide-spaced double bead: a molding profile seldom used in Boston, but the most common treatment in Salem and Marblehead. Taken individually, these characteristics are not meaningful, as there are exceptions to most rules in furniture attribution.  But taken collectively, they indicate a North Shore origin for the desk.

Salem needed to be considered as bombe furniture was being made here and family provenance for the desk includes descendants of Salem cabinetmaker Henry Rust.  However, the desk shares none of the characteristics of Nathaniel Gould's work, nor is it constructed in the same manner as the signed Henry Rust desk at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.7  There were further details that suggested a North Shore origin, but not Salem.

As previously stated, a wide-spaced double bead for the top edges of the drawer sides was used in both Salem and Marblehead, but the grain direction of the large drawer bottoms is perpendicular to the front, as practiced in Boston, Ipswich and Marblehead.  Salem's drawer bottoms usually run parallel to the front, saving significant labor and minimizing the possibility of the wood splitting as it shrunk.  This feature was not generally adopted by the other centers until the 1780s. Although care has been taken in finishing the inside surfaces of the secondary woods, the work is not as fastidious as Salem work in the better shops.  Imported English "pine tree" brasses were available in most cabinetmaking centers during the period, but were particularly favored by Marblehead clients.  The ogee bracket feet follow the same form as those on a block front desk made in 1794 by cabinetmaker Ebenezer Martin (1742-1800) of Marblehead.8 Finally, the profile of the center drop is more complex than Boston and is not associated with Salem.  A blocked oxbow mahogany desk, signed and dated by Marblehead cabinetmaker Nathan Bowen (1752-1837), currently in the collection of the Marblehead Historical Society (and sold in these rooms, sale 7253, January 17, 1999, Lot 787), has the same drop as a chest-on-chest stamped "NB1774" (for Nathan Bowen) at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Additional desks and bureaus, with documented family histories in Marblehead, display this center drop.                        

The most important confirmation of Marblehead's familiarity with this much-desired form came when the apprenticeship record of Nathan Bowen disclosed that he had served his time in the Boston shop of Thomas Sherburne.  Three of the surviving bombe desks are from Sherburne's shop. (See footnote 1) Further, it is certain that Bowen made at least two of the extant chests from this shop as he surreptitiously signed and dated them.9  Both these chests have bombe sides and a serpentine-shaped front—the most difficult bombe form to make.  After he completed his tenure in Boston, Bowen returned to Marblehead and commenced his career.  Although no bombe furniture has been attributed to Bowen after his return, there is no question that he had the ability to make the most complicated examples of the form.

Marblehead's wealthier citizens were also cognizant of the bombe form through the oeuvre of Salem's Nathaniel Gould.  His ledgers document the sale of three four-drawer chests (called buro tables in the ledgers) to John Tasker of Marblehead and his widow, the earliest in June 1759.  All five of Gould's surviving chests are bombe in form and the prices charged are equivalent to the Tasker purchases. That case furniture in the esteemed bombe form was a desirable possession for Marblehead's elite is not surprising.  The town had a larger population than nearby Salem, and although many inhabitants were relatively poor fishermen, there was a small cadre of very wealthy and influential citizens who were well-versed in the latest and best taste and who fully understood the power of material goods in proclaiming success.  Jeremiah Lee, Elbridge Gerry and "King" Hooper are a few examples.10


Placing the desk in Marblehead is relatively straight forward.  Identifying the specific cabinetmaker's shop is somewhat more difficult.  Fortunately for scholars today, a higher percentage of Marblehead furniture is signed by the maker than the output of any other Massachusetts town.  This provides a significant lexicon of known makers' working characteristics.  A detailed comparison of construction techniques and of the chalked numbering on drawers was made.  A match was made to a chest-on-chest, signed by Francis Cook (1734-1772), now in the collection of The Marblehead Historical Society.  Matching construction details include:

    · center drops

    · identical placement of the glue blocks supporting the rear and front feet

    · drawer bottoms with grain direction perpendicular to the drawer fronts

    · drawer bottoms attached to drawer backs with eleven or twelve small sprigs (nails)

    · wide-spaced double bead to the top edge of the drawer sides

    · identical style of dovetails with large dovetail at the top; relatively shallow angled pins; no dovetail at

    · the bottom; an average 3/16 inch step from the top edge of the drawer front to the top edge of the sides

Final proof that this rare form originated in Cook's shop is based on a comparison of the chalked numbers on the inside face of the back boards on the chest-on-chest and the numbers on the interior of this desk.

Information on Francis Cook is sparse.  He was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, August 10, 1734, son of Elias and Sarah Cook.  By 1744 the family had moved to Marblehead.  At age 27 he purchased a house from fellow joiner, William Ingalls, and then mortgaged the full purchase price to Marblehead wig maker, Joshua Kimball.  There is no record of his having married.  He died sometime before November 1772.  His estate was valued at £126, a modest sum at the time.  His house and land accounted for 87% of the total estate value.  Joiner's tools, a bench and walnut and pine boards are included in the inventory.  Like many cabinetmakers of the period, he had apparently led a quiet and modest life.

Although few products survive from his shop, Cook had an assured understanding of superior design.  The curvature of the desk sides extends through the second drawer of the main case, eliminating the "pot-bellied" appearance of earlier work.  He also understood the potential weak points of the bombe design.  The bottom two drawers are prone to overloading, due to their size and the outward slope of the sides.  Placement of dovetails in the conventional position might allow the side to be pushed outwards and prevent the drawer from opening.  Cook compensated for this potential problem by reversing the direction of the rear dovetails.  He also reinforced the bottom edge of each drawer side by adding an extra strip of wood which distributes the weight over a wider area and minimized wear to the lower drawer blade.


The desk offered was clearly made for a patron of means.  It has the rare and added cost feature of cedar as a secondary wood.  The buyer apparently wanted a desk that not only indicated his prosperity in the community, but one that would protect important documents from insect damage.  Even the document slides use cedar and are unusually wide, probably indicative of their function as safe stowage of a number of smaller-sized papers. A similar treatment of fluted facings to the document slides is seen on the bombe desk-and-bookcase recently attributed by Robert Mussey to Boston cabinetmaker, Robert Glen.  

The desk entered the consignor's family through a bequest of Katherine L. Rust (1873-1946) in 1947 to Colonel Charles A. Ranlett (1874-1961), a second cousin.  Ms. Rust had never married, had no immediate family, but wanted a cherished family heirloom to remain in the ancestral line.  In addition to the desk, Katherine bequeathed to Col. Ranlett a number of photographs of her father and other family members and a carved document box from her paternal grandmother, Mary Stowell Rust (1791-1846). It is unclear how the desk came into the family before Katherine Rust.  No link has been found in the family tree to Marblehead where the desk was made prior to 1773. A potential original owner of the desk is Captain Henry Rust (1760-1847), son of cabinetmaker Henry Rust (1737-1812).  While his father had founded Norway, Maine, around 1786, Captain Rust was the first of the family to take up full-time residence there.  This occurred after a seafaring life as ship master had adversely threatened his health.  During the time preceding the move to Maine, both he and his wife had resided in Salem, Massachusetts.  The desk perhaps descended to his only surviving son, Henry Rust (1787-1863), who had moved to Norway sometime around his twenty-first year when his father (Henry Rust 1760-1847) moved there in 1808.  Also referred to as Captain Rust, he was active in Norway's town affairs, serving as treasurer, justice of the peace and captain of the militia.  He had one son, General Henry Rust (1833-1881), who was Katherine Rust's farther.  General Rust was born in Norway, Maine.  He was a highly competent soldier during the Civil War.  He had entered service as an orderly sergeant with the 1st Maine Regiment, but only one month later was commissioned a first lieutenant.  Within five months he had been promoted to captain, and within a year he became a lieutenant colonel.  In January 1864 the army made him a brigadier general and assigned him command of a brigade which saw action in the Shenandoah and Red River Campaigns. His leadership skills carried over to civilian life after the War as he was one of the incorporators and superintendants of the Haverhill Hat Factory.

This lot offers the unusual combination of rare form and pristine, original condition. It was made in an important colonial town, a town previously not known to have produced the bombe shape, and it is attributed to a little-known cabinetmaker—one with a sure eye and skilled hands, one who knew well the pride of a job completed in a workmanly manner.

1 The twelve known examples by town of origin, attributed maker (if known),form, original owner (if known), present location and source literature:

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

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

      III. Boston, Thomas Sherburne, desk, private collection, Ibid., fig. 17, p. 86.**

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

       V. Boston, unattributed maker, desk, originally owned by John Rowe (1715-1787), private collection.  See Sotheby's Important Americana (January 2007), Lot 363, pp. 224-227.

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

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

   VIII. Possibly Boston, unattributed maker, desk, private collection.  Sold at Northeast Auctions, August 2, 1992, Lot 614 to C.L. Prickett (Prickett Inventory #92.19).

      IX. Possibly Boston, unattributed maker, desk, whereabouts unknown.  The Decorative Arts Photographic Collection (DAPC) at Winterthur Museum, file #70.591.

       X. Salem, Nathaniel Gould, desk, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.  See Edwin J. Hipkiss, Eighteenth-Century American Arts, The M. and M. Karolik Collection, 1050, no. 27, pp. 46-47.

      XI. Salem, Nathaniel Gould, desk, reportedly owned by the Derby family, private collection. See American Antiques from the Israel Sack Collection, 1988, vol. 3, No. 1362, p. 595.

    XII. Salem, Nathaniel Gould, desk, The Estate of H. Richard Dietrich, Jr., on loan to The Philadelphia Museum of Art.  See The Magazine Antiques (November 1944), advertisement by Ginsburg & Levy, p. 255.

*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 bombe 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 Important Americana (January 2003), Lot 580, pp. 250-256, and an addendum issued prior to the Sale.

2 The only exception to its original condition is the later addition of a bookcase or secretary top which was probably added in the early 19th century at a time when the aesthetics and functionality of the Federal secretary desk were much admired.  The practice was fairly common: two of the twelve surviving desks previously cited had bookcases added subsequent to their manufacture (see * in footnote 1).
3 See Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, pp. 150-153.
4 See Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century for Cogswell example, no. 125, p. 178; for Bright example, no. 124, p. 177; for Frothingham example, no. 97, p. 142.  See Sotheby's Important Americana (October 2007), Lot 314, pp. 224-227 for Robert Glen example.
5 See Mussey and Haley, pp. 73-77.
6 For a discussion of Gould and his customers, see Kemble Widmer II and Joyce King, "The Documentary and Artistic Legacy of Nathaniel Gould," American Furniture 2008, pp. 1-13.
7 For a full comparative analysis of Gould's and Rust's construction characteristics see Widmer and King, pp. 13-14.
8 The desk was offered in an uncatalogued sale in Bourne, Massachusetts, on November 20, 2004.
See **in footnote one above. The second four-drawer chest, with carved initials and date, "NB 1772", is in a private collection.
10 See Kemble Widmer II and Judy Anderson, "Furniture from Marblehead, Massachusetts," The Magazine Antiques (May 2003), p. 99.