The Six-Hundred-Thousand-Dollar Chair

Actually, the Samuel McIntire chair below is worth $662,500, its realized price (against an estimate of $30,000-$50,000) at a January 21 auction at Christie’s in New York.  As reported in yesterday’s Salem News by staff reporter Matthew Roy, the chair, or its buyer, set a world record.

When you compare the winning bid on this chair to that of other McIntire pieces in completed auctions on the Christies’ website, you see a  divergence.  Its comparatively greater value is apparently due to its “possibly original” finish and its commission by Elias Hasket Derby (whom Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to as “”King Derby” in the Scarlet Letter) for the grand mansion that he erected between 1795-99 in the midst of an elevated and landscaped prospect from which he could survey his wharves, ships, and goods-in-transit.  This legendary, short-lived house is referred to as the Derby Mansion to distinguish it from the Georgian brick Derby House which is presently part of the Salem Maritime Historic site on Derby Street.

Robert Gilmor, Derby Mansion (1797), Boston Public Library


Derby House, Historic American Buildings Survey (1933), Library of Congress

Elias and Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby lived in their new mansion only a few months after its completion in 1799; they both died before the new century turned, and the house and its specially-commissioned contents were disbursed to their seven children.  Given the mansion’s central location and the fact that there were many Derby houses on the North Shore, the mansion was not long for this world; it was demolished in 1815 and the new (now “old”) Town Hall was erected in its place.  The $662,500 chair was part of a set of eight, and companion pieces are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Winterthur Museum.  For some semblance of how the chairs might have looked in the Derby mansion, the newly-reinstalled Oak Hill parlor period room in the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing should suffice, after all it was also the creation of  McIntire and a member of the Derby family, in this case Elias and Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth Derby West.

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