Hadley chest fetches $800,000 at auction

NORTHAMPTON — A buyer would be hard pressed to come across a “Hadley Chest” in a Craigslist furniture ad or for sale at any local outlet. That’s because they can set a buyer back more than $1 million.

One such chest — an intricately decorated, more-than-300-year-old cabinet fixture — was bought through Christie’s, an international fine arts auction house, last month at a New York auction of American furniture, folk art and silver. An unknown buyer paid $1,025,000 for it — $800,000 for the piece plus buyer premiums and related costs, according to Christie’s.

The piece of furniture was originally expected to ring in at about $500,000, according to Christie’s. It is one of only four known examples of a multicolored Hadley chest, all made by the same artist.

“This would’ve been considered a very high-end piece of furniture at the time,” said Suzanne Flynt, curator at Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, which has one of the other three Hadley chests. “It would’ve required the talents of a joiner as well as a decorative painter.”

The most important characteristic about the Hadley chest recently purchased, Flynt said, is that it retains its original paint, complete with subsequent layers of varnish above it that likely aided in the preservation of the design.

“For a piece of furniture that was used every day, that’s very unusual,” she said.

The chest came from a private collection, and was found to have joinery and motifs consistent with similar works made in the upper Connecticut River Valley in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to Christie’s.

The few chests fitting this description came to be known as “Hadley chests” after an antique collector purchased one of these distinctive chests in Hadley in 1883, according to Historic Northampton.

“(Just before the auction) was the first time anyone had ever seen it,” said Christine Ritok, associate curator at Historic Deerfield. “They were given to women or daughters for their marriage.... That’s the reason many of them do survive because they (often) have such rich family histories.”

Ritok said the buyer information is kept confidential at Christie’s, and that the chest was bound for a private collection.

“I think we can tell, in particular, how well-constructed these were simply by their survival,” Ritok said. “I think contemporary furniture would be hard pressed to last 300 years.”

During the 17th and 18th centuries, this kind of furniture was also an expression of family identity — usually engraved with the initials of its owners.

There are less than a handful of similarly crafted Hadley chests across the United States: one in Memorial Hall Museum, another at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, and the final chest at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Michael Majchrowicz can be reached at mmajchrowicz@gazettenet.com.