Lot 4241
  • 4241

The Highly Important Lee Family Chippendale Carved and Figured Mahogany Desk-and-Bookcase, possibly by George Bright, Boston, Massachusetts, circa 1765-1785

200,000 - 300,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • mahogany
  • Height 97 in. by Width 49 in. by Depth 26 in.
retains its original cast brass hardware, lacking trailing garlands from rosettes.


Descended in the Lee family of Salem and Boston, Massachusetts;
Likely originally owned by Joseph Lee (1744-1831) of Salem and Boston, who married Elizabeth Cabot (1746/47-1786);
To their son Henry Lee (1782-1867), of Boston, who married Mary Jackson Lee (1783-1860);
To their son, Colonel Francis L. Lee (1823-1886);
Willed to Alice Lee of Sacramento, California;
To Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Hale of Cambridge, MA, her niece and nephew;
Guy Hunter Lee of Wellesley, MA;
Francis and Jeanne Lee of Boston and Connecticut;
George Subkoff, a Connecticut dealer;
David Stockwell, Wilmington, DE;
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eddy Nicholson;
Christie’s, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eddy Nicholson, January 27-28, 1995, sale 8082, lot 1093.
A Private Connecticut Collection;
A Private New Jersey Collection.


Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye, New England Furniture: The Colonial Era, (Boston, 1984), fig. 50d and 50e, p. 256.
David Stockwell advertisement, Magazine Antiques (January 1976): 1.
Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards, (Tenafly, NJ, 1984), fig. 3.40, p. 121.


Eagle finial replaced. The glass on the prospect door is cracked.
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

This opulent desk and bookcase is an iconic example of American craftsmanship with a design influenced by English shop traditions and design sources. With its use of finely-figured mahogany, block-front façade, richly carved ornamentation, pilasters with Corinthian capitals, mirrored paneled doors, and imposing interior composed of a multitude of shelving, drawers and cubbyholes, this desk represents the highest level of furniture production in pre-Revolutionary Boston and reveals the exceptional cabinetmaking skills of its maker. It is distinctive for its massive hairy paw feet with separated hairy talons grasping a ball, the design for which has been taken directly from feet on a desk-and-bookcase pattern illustrated by Thomas Chippendale in The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director (London, 1754, pls. CX). The originality of these feet to the case has been conclusively determined by a surface analysis conducted by Jennifer L. Maas, Ph.D, President of Scientific Analysis & Fine Art.1

Handsomely proportioned and rare in form, the desk served as conspicuous proof to the prosperity of its original owner, a member of the Lee family of Boston. It was likely originally owned by Joseph Lee (1744-1831), son of the Boston merchant Thomas Lee and himself a sea captain and successful merchant in Boston, Beverly and Salem. He was a skilled naval architect and Captain during the Revolutionary War and built a fleet of ships that he sent out as privateers. He operated his own merchant business with his father-in-law, Joseph Cabot (b. 1746), as Cabot & Lee, maintaining mercantile trade with the West Indies and Spain. His son, Henry Lee (1782-1867) was likely the next owner of the desk. He was a Boston merchant and educated at Phillips Academy in Andover. His son, Colonel Francis Lowell Lee (1823-1886), a farmer and Colonel of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, owned the desk next and it descended through four more generations of the Lee family until it was sold to George Subkoff, a Connecticut dealer in the mid-twentieth century.

This desk possibly stems from the shop of George Bright (1726-1805), one of Boston’s most accomplished cabinetmakers, on the basis of many shared similarities with his known work. Born in 1726 into a large Boston cabinetmaking family, he probably apprenticed to his father, John Bright, who was a chair-maker. He was considered by his contemporaries to be “an extraordinary good Workman” and “esteemed the neatest workman in town.”2 He was chosen by his peers to lead the Boston cabinetmakers in the Federal Procession of Mechanics and Artisans in 1788 and in the Washington procession in 1789. His clientele included the prominent Bostonians, Thomas Hancock (1703-1764), a merchant, and Caleb Davis (1738-1797), a merchant and member of the Sons of Liberty, among others, and his account books record professional connections with the Ipswich cabinetmaker, John Cogswell (1738-1819), and the carver, Simeon Skillin Jr. (1756-1806).

The Lee family desk closely relates closely to a bombé desk-and-bookcase signed by George Bright and made for the Boston merchant, Samuel Barrett. It is currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.3 The two pieces similarly exhibit common design elements such as the profile of the scrolled pediment, cornice molding arrangement, serpentine molding of the bookcase doors, the double beading on the interior shelves of the upper case, and similar articulation and stance of the pronounced hairy paw feet. They also exhibit identical brass hardware. Both display carved gilt eagles, with the eagle on the present desk dating to the period but not original to the piece. The Lee family desk also has a carved fan with fourteen lobes identical to the one found on a block-front chest of drawers in the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities documented to George Bright by an extant bill of sale dated August 10, 1770.4

A desk-and-bookcase likely representing the same shop tradition with a closely related form and hairy paw feet is in the collection of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.5 It was originally owned by William Foster (1745-1821), a Boston merchant and ardent patriot. Both case pieces have similar block-front facades, desk interiors, and upper case details, including identical bands of carving along the upper edges of the pediment moldings. Although the catalogue entry for the Foster desk describes the feet as replacements, they could be original to that piece, given their similarity to the original hairy paw feet of this desk, but later altered.

Another Boston-area block-front desk-and-bookcase of the same form with very closely related original hairy paw feet probably representing the work of the same carver is illustrated in Wallace Nutting, Furniture Treasury, Volume I (New York, 1948), no. 707.6 Hairy paw feet of the same pattern and execution are featured on a Boston slab table at Winterthur Museum.7

1 See the Scientific Analysis & Fine Art Report that accompanies this lot, dated March 13, 2016. It was conducted by Jennifer L. Maas, Ph.D. and President of Scientific Analysis & Fine Art.
2 Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye, New England Furniture: The Colonial Era, (Boston, 1984), p. 144.
3 See Richard Randall, American Furniture in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, 1965), fig. 64, p. 89.
4 See Jobe and Kaye, no. 15, pp. 142-6.
5 Ibid, no. 50, pp. 241-6.
6 This desk is also illustrated in Luke Vincent Lockwood, Colonial Furniture in America, Volume II (New York, 1926), fig. LV.
7 See Nancy Richards and Nancy Evans, New England Furniture at Winterthur: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods, (Winterthur, 1997), no. 129, p. 252.