At Penn State, $2 million endows a chair.
But in New York City, almost as much buys a table.
We’re not talking Ikea here. Manhattan isn’t that expensive — not yet.
No, back in January at a sale run by Keno Auctions House, bidders vied for something rare and beautiful: an ornate 18th-century Chippendale mahogany tea table from Philadelphia with a tie to Centre County.
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But first the price: The winner took Lot 1 home for $1,895,000, or roughly $50,000 per inch across its scalloped top.
That’s one serious piece of furniture. It’s a whole month’s salary for some struggling pro baseball players.
Why would a table not even 3 feet high fetch a sum that might make Donald Trump blush through his tan? Let Keno Auctions, which specializes in fine art and rare antiques and documents, explain:
“If one employs the four factors used to evaluate a scalloped-top Philadelphia tea table, quality, rarity, condition and provenance, this example ranks at the very top,” the auction catalog said.
“It is quite simply, an unequivocal masterpiece and represents the apogee of Philadelphia Rococo craftsmanship.”
Adding to its allure, the table has been in the same family for more than 250 years, its provenance traced back to an important Centre County figure.
The Potter-Crouch-Jordan Family Tea Table, as it was called for the auction, was likely commissioned by Gen. James Potter in 1755 in Philadelphia when he married his first wife, Elizabeth Cathcart.
Potter led the first Colonial exploration on record to the region that later became Centre County, presumably leaving his tea table at home. In 1777, he built a stockaded fort for settlers near present-day Centre Hall before going on to distinguish himself in the Revolutionary War.
During the fight for independence, Potter commanded Pennsylvania militia troops at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine and Germantown. Afterward, he farmed a huge plantation in Penns Valley until his 1789 death from an injury suffered while helping a barn raising. He also served for a spell in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, including as vice president.
Today, we have Potters Mills and Potter Township to remind us of him.
As for the table, it went to Potter’s daughter, Margaret Potter, from his second marriage to Mary Patterson. It’s also possible Potter and her husband Edward Crouch inherited it from his parents, Col. James Crouch and Hannah Brown.
Whoever commissioned the table from cabinetmaker Henry Clifton had deep pockets and refined taste.
“The exuberantly carved tea table would have been, when acquired, one of the most costly versions of the form available, and possibly this artisan’s piece de resistance,” Keno Auctions stated.
According to Keno Auctions, Clifton was “one of the most accomplished and talented artisans” of his time in Philadelphia when he built the tea table in Clifton’s Shop. A partial chalk signature on the underside of the top — just “Henry” with the rest illegible — matches a “Henry Clifton” signature on a high chest of drawers in the Colonial Williamsburg collection.
Moreover, the intricate, scrolled carving on the tripod legs and elsewhere have been attributed to an unidentified craftsman nicknamed “The Spike Carver,” whose distinctive touch adorns several notable mid-18th century Colonial American commissions.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns a similar tea table with identical dimensions and carvings, suggesting the two tables were made as a pair — itself a rarity in an age of individually crafted furniture.
Through seven generations of the Jordan and Bacon branches of the Potter-Crouch family the table passed, retaining an original finish touched neither by wax nor varnish.
Along the way, it belonged to a U.S. congressman (Edward Crouch), a Pennsylvania state senator (Benjamin Jordan), a Civil War Union Army general (Thomas Jefferson Jordan) and a wind tunnel engineer who worked with Orville Wright (David Jordan).
Who has it now Keno Auctions didn’t say. But one can assume that, wherever it is, nobody’s going to hold tea parties around it any time soon.
Personally, I think almost $2 million seems a little steep for furniture, but I suppose it’s a matter of perspective. The Tufft Table, a hand-carved 1700s piece featuring pierced fretwork, curved legs and detailed ball-and-claw feet, sold for $4.6 million.
And both are downright bargains compared to The Dragon’s Chair, a wood and leather masterpiece made by the Irish designer Eileen Gray around 1919. Yves Saint Laurent, the late fashion king, bought it for a cool $27.8 million.
You definitely keep the cats away from that one.
But with the tea table, the astronomical price almost makes sense, given its unique combination of beauty, preservation, lineage and connection to Pennsylvania history. As much as a Monet painting, it’s an irreplaceable art piece, only even rarer.
Someone now has a great story to tell if anyone wants to pull up a $94 chair and listen.