Important Americana: Furniture, Folk Art, Silver, Chinese Export Art and Prints

Important Americana: Furniture, Folk Art, Silver, Chinese Export Art and Prints

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 35. The McMichael-Tilghman Family "Acme of Perfection" Scalloped-Top Tilt-Top Tea Table, carving attributed to the "Garvan High Chest" carver, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Circa 1755.

Property from the Wolf Family Collection

The McMichael-Tilghman Family "Acme of Perfection" Scalloped-Top Tilt-Top Tea Table, carving attributed to the "Garvan High Chest" carver, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Circa 1755

Auction Closed

January 20, 04:11 PM GMT


800,000 - 1,200,000 USD

Lot Details


Mahogany, wrought iron and brass

Height 28 3/8 in. by Width 31 3/4 in. by Depth 32 3/4 in.

By descent through the McMichael-Tilghman family of Philadelphia to Meta Andrews Shaw (1841-1914) of Philadelphia, who married Walter McMichael (1838-1899), son of Morton McMichael, a Mayor of Philadelphia and owner of the newspaper, The North American and United States Gazette;

To her only child, Mary Carstairs McMichael (1865-1928) of Philadelphia, who married Benjamin Tilghman Jr. (1861-1911);

To her only child, Benjamin Chew Tilghman (1890-1953) of Philadelphia, who married Eliza Middleton Fox (b. 1890);

Thence by descent to their grandchildren, the previous owners;

Sold in these rooms, Important Americana, January 19, 2008, sale 8400, lot 168;

Collection of Erving and Joyce Wolf, New York, Wolf Family Collection No. 1273.


The table was likely originally owned by John Baynton (1726-1773) of Philadelphia, the great-great grandfather of Meta Andrews Shaw McMichael and son of the local merchant, Peter Baynton (1695-1743/4). He was a successful merchant in the firm Baynton & Wharton (later Baynton, Wharton, & Morgan). In 1747, he married Elizabeth Chevalier (b. 1726), the daughter of Peter Chevalier, also a successful Philadelphia merchant, and they had 15 children;

To their daughter, Anna Chevalier Baynton (1765-1805) of Philadelphia, who married Reverend James Abercrombie (1758-1841);

To her daughter Margaret Abercrombie (1786-1835/6) of Philadelphia, who married John Andrews (1783-1860);

To her daughter Anna Baynton Andrews (1811-1882/3) of Philadelphia, who married Edward Shaw (1814-1879);

To her daughter, Meta Andrews Shaw, mentioned above.

William MacPherson Hornor, Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture. (Washington, DC: Highland House Publishers, 1935), pl. 223

Amongst the most important pieces of furniture to survive from Colonial America, this tea table stands at the apogee of Philadelphia Rococo craftsmanship in addition to serving as a masterpiece for the tilt-top tea table form. It is a rare document of the “Garvan high chest carver,” the finest native carver working in America during the eighteenth century. It represents his accomplished early work of the 1750s and serves as a veritable palette for his carving excellence and mastery of design.

In 1935, William MacPherson Hornor aptly published this table as “The Acme of Perfection in American Piecrust Tables” in Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture and further praised its “Magnificent Base” as well as the “Marked Originality Obtained by the Cartouch Knee Carving, and Further Richness Gained by the Striking Application of Acanthus Leaves Bound by Drapery on the Vase Shaped Bulb.” For the following seventy-three years, this table remained in the family of its original owners and was not exhibited or published again. Consequently, this table became famous among American furniture connoisseurs as the “Acme of Perfection” with its whereabouts a mystery until 2008, when it was sold in these rooms, Important Americana, January 19, 2008, sale 8400, lot 168.

Adding to this table’s importance is its history of descent in the prominent McMichael-Tilghman family of Philadelphia. In an undated inventory compiled by Benjamin Tilghman III (1890-1953), a former owner and grandfather of the previous owners, this table is itemized as number “18. Pie-crust table. American c. 1750. Chippendale style. Bulb-shaped pedestal with acanthus leaf carving. (Museum.) Came from my mother’s family, the McMichaels. A very rare and valuable piece of furniture.”1 Benjamin Tilghman inherited the table from his mother, Mary Carstairs McMichael Tilghman (1865-1928), who in turn inherited it from her mother, Meta Andrews Shaw McMichael (1841-1914).2 Meta undoubtedly received the table from her mother Anna Baynton Andrews Shaw (1811-1882/3), who itemized numerous fine furnishings in the codicil to her will including the “Baynton Table” and “Silver Table Scraper.”3 As she married an Irish immigrant, this table most certainly came through her family. An analysis of family genealogy and probate records for both branches of her family indicates four possible original owners. Two of these, John Baytnon (1726-1773) and James Abercrombie (1710-1761), were distinguished citizens in Philadelphia during the mid-eighteenth century. A mariner, General Abercrombie married Margaret Bennett (1727-1803) in 1753 and died in 1761 while serving as Commander-in-Chief in North America of the King’s Forces. He left a moderate estate of a £1,000 bequest to his wife and the remainder to his son James with no itemization of property or furniture.4

John Baynton, the likely candidate for original owner of this table, was a very successful merchant and partner of Samuel Wharton (1732-1800) in the trading company Baynton and Wharton (later Baynton, Wharton, and Morgan). He also served as a Provincial Commissioner, Member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and Trustee of the State House. In 1771, he was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society. On December 17, 1747, he married Elizabeth Chevalier (b. 1726), daughter of the merchant Peter Chevalier. A prosperous businessman by the early 1750s, John Baynton was living by 1754 in a house located on Front Street at Dock Street valued at £1,000 with household furnishings valued at £350.5 His will of 1776 indicates a sizable estate and includes a £10,000 bequest and multiple £5,000 bequests to his wife and 12 living children. The inventory of his estate itemizes significant furnishings such as a mahogany chest of drawers and matching dressing table valued at £20, a set of mahogany chairs valued at £6-10-0, and a “Japan Waiter” valued at £6-7-6, along with numerous other pieces of mahogany and walnut furniture, silver, carpets, books, and the like.6 This table was presumably commissioned in the early 1750s for that house and may refer to the “Mahogany Tea Table” itemized in his inventory in the back parlor at the value of £1-10-0. It descended through five successive generations of the Abercrombie, Andrews, McMichael, and Tilghman branches of the family to Mary Carstairs McMichael Tilghman, and next to her son, Benjamin Chew Tilghman, the great-great-great-great grandson of John Baynton. This table remained the property of his family until 2008 when it was sold in these rooms to Erving and Joyce Wolfe. 

Although anonymous and so-named for his exceptional carving on a high chest in the Garvan Collection at Yale University, the Garvan high chest carver’s masterful work is easily distinguished from his counterparts by its exquisite quality, lushness and fluidity (fig. 1).7 True to the Rococo idiom, he favored leaves, vines, shells and flowers for his vocabulary, which he articulated as if in motion with leaf tips appearing to flip back on themselves. He created rich effects of volume and shading through the use of detail cuts, particularly turned-over ends on the long sinuous leaves and clusters of parallel, straight cuts to shade the ends of the leaves. He consistently achieved an end result of expert carving within a well-integrated scheme.

What little is known about him was first published after one of his masterpieces, the celebrated Thomas Willing card table, was sold in these rooms for the record price of $1,045,000.8 From the splendid legacy of his work, it has been surmised that the Garvan high chest carver was first working in Philadelphia in the early 1750s as a young man in his early 20s learning his craft. He appears to have worked for several cabinet shops until around 1758, when began working for what appears to have been the largest and most successful cabinet shop in Philadelphia. His latest known works in his most fully developed style date to the 1760s and he appeared to have collaborated on several of these with another carver.9

From the use of choice wood to the opulence of the carving and gracefulness of the design, the present table represents the greatest achievement of the Philadelphia tripod tea table form. Made of solid mahogany, it is fashioned with a scalloped top shaped into ten repeated passages above a vasiform-turned pedestal resting on a tripod base. To define the table’s outline and provide a transition between its components, the carver overlaid it with perhaps one of his most ambitious designs. As the focal point for the form, the pedestal is finely articulated with an acanthus carved urn between a fluted and punctured gadrooned canopy and a guilloche ring. To lead the eye up the table and unite its parts, the carver reinforced many of the same elements in the base, which he further enlivened with flowerhead-carved passages, opposing C-scrolls and sinuous leaf carving extending the length of the cabriole leg to powerful claws gripping the balls of the feet. He heightened the effect by undercutting the underside of the legs with C-scrolls and ruffles and relieving the passages between them with large flowerheads on an extremely difficult to achieve smooth ground. This table was clearly created as a rare and luxurious object by its immensely talented craftsman. 

The Garvan high chest carver was also a prolific craftsman for he articulated similar carving schemes on multiple other examples of the form. Other tea tables with his carving include a tea table in the M. and M. Karolik Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 2),10 one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 3),11 the Fisher-Fox family tea table (fig. 4),12  one formerly in the collection of Stratford Hall Plantation (fig. 5),13 one at Winterthur Museum (fig. 6),14 one at the State Department (fig. 7),15 and one formerly in the Hennage Collection now at Colonial Williamsburg(fig. 8).16 Three additional examples are known: one in the collection of Jerald and Betty Jo Krouse,17 one in a private Midwest Collection, and one in a private Mid-Atlantic collection. A firescreen in the collection of the Chipstone Foundation displays a pedestal carved by the Garvan high chest carver with many of the same motifs (fig. 9).18 For this group, the Garvan high chest carver apparently developed a template of elements, which he consistently articulated amongst the tables. These elements include the gadrooned canopy, the acanthus-carved urn, the guilloche ring, egg-and-dart or flowerhead-carved passages, and scrolling leaves articulated near the joint of the leg centering a cartouche of opposing C-scrolls. While all the tables share a related design vocabulary, no two are identical and some have a profusion of carving while others have less. 

Of the tables mentioned above, the present table most closely compares to the one in the Karolik Collection and one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with all three displaying a remarkably similar carving scheme but with the other examples exhibiting a column-, baluster-, and compressed-ball pillar and the present table offering a larger top. With their profusion of carving, the MFA, Boston and MMA examples appear to be very early versions of the form in the Rococo aesthetic. In other examples, including the present table made slightly later, the Garvan high chest carver experimented with the design by modifying elements and articulating less carving to suit the prevailing taste. 

Several other tea tables with compressed-ball pedestals also feature carved elements by the Garvan high chest carver. The aforementioned example at the State Department was owned by the Philadelphian Dr. James Hutchinson (1752-1793), who may have inherited it from a relative in the Howell family.19 That table is very similar to this one in its carving scheme comprised of a gadrooned compressed ball-and-guilloche ring turned pedestal above a base with flowerhead-carved passages and acanthus carving of the same pattern, which similarly extends onto the lower edge of the legs and sides of the base. A second related tea table mentioned above with base carving of the same pattern extending to the underside of the leg and a fluted column standard is at Colonial Williamsburg, Ex-Hennage Collection.20 The latter example displays a top made from the same flitch of mahogany as the table offered here. 

1 This page is in possession of the family. “Museum” refers to the period of time during the Depression when this table was stored at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The accession number 125-1932-2 was added to the table then.

2 Mary McMichael Tilghman, Philadelphia Wills, 1928, no. 200. Meta Andrews Shaw McMichael, Philadelphia Wills, 1914, no. 307. 

3Philadelphia Wills, 1883, no. 516. Meta’s husband, Walter (Philadelphia Wills, 1899, no. 741), came from a prominent 19th century Philadelphia newspaper family. The estate inventory of his father, Morton McMichael, a former Mayor, describes a house richly furnished with 19th century items such as 2 rosewood and tapestry sofas with 2 large and 2 small wall chairs to match, an easel, a piano, a piano stool, cornices and curtains. See Philadelphia Wills, 1879, no. 52.

4 Philadelphia Wills, 1761, p. 67.

5 This property is referenced in an early version of John Baynton’s will, dated 1754. Pennsylvania Archives, Baynton, Wharton and Morgan Papers, 1725-1827, Manuscript Group 19, microfilm roll 6, frame 565. He compiled an inventory, dated March 18, 1754, of his assets the same year in which he valued his house and household goods. Microfilm roll 7, Journal B, 1754-9.

6 Philadelphia Wills, 1776, no. 214.

7 The high chest and its companion dressing table were owned by Henry (1737-1816) and Susanna (Wanshaer) Wynkoop (d. 1776), of Bucks County, who were married in 1761. The pieces are illustrated in Gerald Ward, American Case Furniture, New Haven, 1988, no. 147, pp. 280-3 and no. 116, pp. 226-7.

8 Important Americana, February 2, 1991, sale 632, lot 1459.

9 Thatcher Freund, Objects of Desire, New York, 1993, pp. 23-54.

10 The M. and Ms. Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 39.146. Sold at Christie’s, Important American Furniture, Folk Art and Prints, October 3, 2007, sale 1882, lot 94.

11 The table is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 18.110.14, and formerly in the collection of George S. Palmer, of New London, Connecticut. It is illustrated in Wallace Nutting, Furniture Treasury, Vol. I, New York, 1948, no. 1115.

12 Sold at Christie’s, Important American Furniture, Folk Art and Prints, October 3, 2007, sale 1882, lot 94.

13 Sold at Christie’s, Property Deaccessioned from Stratford Hall Plantation, December 4, 2003, sale 1334, lot 3.


14 Winterthur Museum 58.2215.

15 U.S. Department of State, 82.71.

16 Colonial Williamsburg 1991-82.

17 See Ralph Harvard, “Mississippi Rococo,” Magazine Antiques, January /February 2011, fig. 15, p. 173.


18 Chipstone Foundation, 1992.12.

19 See Clement Conger and Alexandra Rollins, Treasures of State, New York, 1991, no. 84, p. 171. See also William Hornor, Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture, pl. 222.

20 See Elizabeth Stillinger, American Antiques: The Hennage Collection, Williamsburg, 1990, p. 43.