The world of antiques is littered with famous maker’s names and one of those names is Duncan Fife (or Phyfe). Any given weekend you can find an auction that offers a piece of furniture by this prolific American craftsman
Duncan Fife started life in Scotland; he was born in 1768 near Loch Fannich. When he was 16, his family immigrated to Albany, New York, and young Duncan was apprenticed in a cabinetmaker’s shop, probably his father’s. By 1792, Duncan had moved to New York City and was listed as a furniture joiner. Two years later, he opened his own shop and changed his name to Duncan Phyfe, probably to distance himself from his British heritage in this post-Revolutionary War period.
The workshop of the newly named Phyfe seems to have taken off almost immediately. At its height, the shop boasted 100 craftsmen and over the years they produced numerous pieces of furniture of every variety. Phyfe’s furniture shows an absolute dedication to quality workmanship. Each piece is made of the best available materials and exhibits fine crafting. Joints are tight and each piece is exquisitely formed and carved. Phyfe’s work encompassed a broad range of the period’s classical styles, Empire, Sheraton, Regency, and French Classical among them, yet a keen observer will soon learn to detect the elegant lines and perfect proportions that he made his signature.
A 1922 exhibition of Phyfe’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the 1929 Loan Exhibition in New York City solidified the enduring popularity of Phyfe’s work. Forty-eight pieces of Duncan Phyfe furniture were featured at the Loan Exhibition comprising an entire section of the catalogue. Though Phyfe had long since died a wealthy man (in 1854) the graceful furniture remained as his legacy. The work received well-deserved praise and his work has since been sought and valued by collectors.
The Phyfe workshop produced numerous pieces of high-quality furniture but only about 20 labeled pieces are known. This makes provenance (the documentation of an object) an extremely important issue for the collector. Scrupulous and unscrupulous makers alike have heavily reproduced Phyfe’s graceful designs. While a thorough investigation and examination by an expert could result in an undocumented piece of furniture being attributed to Phyfe, this is a costly procedure. New collectors are wise to spend a great deal of time reading and researching the work of Phyfe and examining known pieces in museums or historical houses before shopping for furniture to buy.
Duncan Phyfe furniture is almost definitive of Federal period furniture. His amalgamation of Regency, Sheraton, and Neoclassical styles into work that was uniquely and identifiably his own has left us a model for elegant and exquisitely crafted Federal period furnishings. Many pieces of furniture sold now with the description Duncan Phyfe actually are in the style of Duncan Phyfe. This is an important point to sort out with a dealer who offers you a Duncan Phyfe table, for example. Is the table Duncan Phyfe, made in the Duncan Phyfe workshop or is it made in the style of Duncan Phyfe? Be sure that the dealer is very clear about this point and puts the information in a written guarantee if you buy the piece.
Always mindful of quality, the Duncan Phyfe workshop used the finest woods. Most often, furnishings will be made from mahogany and may incorporate mahogany veneers. Walnut, rosewood, satinwood and maple are some of the other woods one might find in a Phyfe creation. Finishes are generally dark and will show their age if they are true early to mid-19th century. Wood and wood finishes take on a patina as they age. Patina is the warm glow that wood takes on when it has aged, been handled, touched, rubbed, and polished. It gives the wood a deeper look somehow. If you are new to antique collecting, you will want to spend some time learning about patination. Original finish always adds to the value of a piece of antique furniture.
Ornamental carving is another element found in Duncan Phyfe furnishings. Popular motifs in Phyfe furniture are the drapery swag (a carving that looks like draped fabric), acanthus leaves, oak leaves, reeding, claws and paws, wheat, and lyres. Pedestals are typically vase-shaped with three or four feet extending from them. Flat surfaces will often have one or more bead cuts along the edge. Pulls and knobs were specific in style, often brass, oval in shape, and incorporating Grecian motifs.
If you are shopping for a Duncan Phyfe table, you will have a wide variety of styles to choose from. Styles include long, double or more pedestal-based banquet tables, dining tables, drop-leaf tables of varying sizes, breakfast tables, tea tables, card tables, and sewing tables. Pieces are heavy and substantial but also appear delicate and graceful. Phyfe’s keen eye for proportion resulted in remarkable design.
Early tables will be less ornately carved and be close in style to Regency and Sheraton. Later pieces are more elaborately carved and truer to the Empire style. It is not uncommon to find matched suites of Duncan Phyfe furnishings. To begin the evaluation of a table purported to be Duncan Phyfe, let’s work from the ground up.
The feet of a Phyfe table will likely be carved claws or paws. Sometimes there will be brass feet or claws holding a brass decoration such as a Grecian style vase. The carving will be detailed and crisp. Later pieces are more elaborately carved than earlier pieces and the carving is likely to be foliage like laurel or acanthus leaves.
Legs will likely be curved and reeded or curved and carved with foliage. They sweep gracefully into a vase shaped pedestal that is also richly carved. Larger tables will have two or more pedestals and each pedestal will have three or four legs and feet.
The top of a Duncan Phyfe table will be designed to show off the wood to its best advantage. Beautiful mahogany, satinwood, and rosewood tops are common. The edge of the top will often have multiple beads running around it. Veneers may be used at the top as well. Drop-leaf tables are common, check to see if the hinges are original to the piece. Many reference books show detailed drawings or pictures of early to mid-19th century hardware. You can also look for scarring left by earlier hardware. The table should feel solid, heavy, and sturdy. Joinery should be tight and will look hand worked.
Genuine Duncan Phyfe tables can be quite expensive, running as high as $93,500 for a satinwood sewing table. While this example is on the very high end of the spectrum, it shows that the collector must be well educated in every aspect of Duncan Phyfe’s history. A reputable antique dealer will give you a written provenance, a written guarantee and a detailed written description of a table s/he represent and sells as a genuine Duncan Phyfe. Be sure to insist on these things when you buy them. As you would with any investment, do your homework before you shop.