Lot 835
  • 835

The Hopkins Family Very Fine and Rare Chippendale Block-and-Shell Carved and Figured Mahogany Block Front Kneehole Dressing Bureau, Providence, Rhode Island, Circa 1790

300,000 - 500,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • mahogany


According to family history, this bureau descended in the Hopkins family of Rhode Island:
To Charlotte Wells Sweetland (1829-1899) of Providence, the great-great-granddaughter of Stephen Hopkins (1707-1785), the Governor of Rhode Island and Signer of the Declaration of Independence. She was the daughter of Elisha C. Wells (1797-1864) and Harriet Amanda Hopkins (1801-1879) of Providence, granddaughter of Stephen Hopkins (1762-1830) and Mary Rodman (1762-1849) of Providence, and great-granddaughter of Rufus Hopkins (1726-1809) and Sarah Olney (1732-1785) of Providence. She married Thomas A. Sweetland;
To her nephew, William Wells Tapley (b. 1867) of Springfield, Massachusetts, who sold it to Israel Sack;
Israel Sack Inc., New York;
American Art Association, Anderson Galleries, One Hundred Important American Antiques … Acquired from Notable Collections by Israel Sack, January 9, 1932, sale 3940, lot 59;
Collection of Diane and Norman Bernstein, Washington, D.C.;
Sotheby’s, Imporant Americana from the Collection of Diane and Norman Bernstein, The Lindens, Washington, D.C., January 22, 2006, sale 8160, lot 173.


Brook S. Mason, “Pride: Masterpieces of Americana on the Market,” Art & Antiques (January 2006): 61;
Lita Solis-Cohen, “Masterpieces” Pepper the Bernstein Sale,” Maine Antique Digest (April 2006): 18-E;
Rhode Island Furniture Archive – Yale University Art Gallery, Object number RIF1234.

Catalogue Note

Recognized by Wallace Nutting as a “supreme piece of cabinetwork,” the four-shell kneehole bureau represents one of the most high-style and regionally specific forms of eighteenth century American furniture. This bureau is the effort of an accomplished Rhode Island cabinetmaker from Providence or Newport. It is distinguished by exceptionally-articulated shells, a finely executed block front, use of densely grained mahogany, rare diminutive proportions, and the retention of a majority of its original brass hardware.

This bureau was sold to Israel Sack in the early 20th century by William Wells Tapley (b. 1867), a descendant of Stephen Hopkins (1707-1785), the Governor of Rhode Island and Signer of the Declaration of Independence. At time of sale, Tapley stated that the bureau had always remained in the Hopkins family. He inherited it from his aunt, Charlotte Wells Sweetland (1829-1899) of Providence, who was the great-great granddaughter of Stephen Hopkins.  As this bureau was made in the 1790s and post dates his life, it was likely originally owned by his grandson, Stephen Hopkins (1762-1830), and his wife Mary Rodman (1762-1849) of Providence, and descended to their daughter, Harriet Amanda Hopkins (1801-1879) and her husband, Elisha C. Wells (1797-1864), Charlotte’s parents. After William Tapley inherited it from his Aunt Charlotte, he later sold it to Israel Sack and it was included in the sale One Hundred Important American Antiques … Acquired from Notable Collections by Israel Sack held at American Art Association, Anderson Galleries in 1932.

Upon examination of this bureau prior to this sale, it was determined that the cabinetmaker who assembled the case did so in reverse and patched the mortises to conceal his error. It was also discovered that in constructing this bureau, the maker used a combination of rosehead nails and square nails. The period cut square nails were used in the applied beading, drawer supports, and drawer guides. Since nails of this type did not come into use until the 1790s, this chest dates to that time. The popularity of block-and-shell furniture prevailed in Rhode Island and it continued to be made until the late 18th century, when John Townsend made a block-and-shell chest of drawers in 1792 for Sarah Slocum (1771-1859) of Newport.1 That chest bears the paper label “MADE BY / JOHN TOWNSEND / NEWPORT,” which is inscribed in ink “Sarah Slocum’s” and dated “November 20th 1792.” The Slocum chest is identical to a chest made by Towsend twenty-seven years earlier, which speaks to longevity of Rhode Island case forms and the conservatism of the clientele.2 A block-and-shell chest of drawers at Colonial Williamsburg dates slightly later than the Slocum chest as it displays a paper label used by John Townsend between 1793 and 1797.3

1 See Morrison Heckscher, John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005): no. 19, pp. 115-117.
2 See a Townsend chest of drawers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art illustrated in ibid, no. 18, pp. 112-114.
3 See ibid, no. 20, pp. 118-119.