Reverend Edward Holyoke Portrait (1749) & 18th-Century Boston Chair

Value (2003) | $85,000 Auction$95,000 Insurance

Uh, the portrait is a distinguished ancestor of my wife, Cathy. It's the Reverend Edward Holyoke, who was president of Harvard College for several years. I think he was the second-longest-ranking president of that school. So we've had the portrait in our home for several years. It's always occupied a place of honor.

Well, it's always an assist when you can see that a picture is signed, and this case John Greenwood painted the picture in 1749. And of course you know a lot about the Reverend Holyoke because he was the tenth president of a very important university. How many students were at Harvard when he was the president?

My wife tells me 100.

100 students. Well, it's grown quite a bit since then. And tell me about the furniture, then.

Now, the chair, the family tradition has it, the chair belonged to the Reverend Holyoke, but we know nothing about who made it or what it's worth or anything. So that's why we brought it also.

Well, I can tell you, when I saw the chair, my heart started racing because for many, many years this form was always thought to have been made in Newport, Rhode Island, because of this shell. People used to see that, and say, "Aha, a Newport shell." Recent scholarship, however, has determined something quite different: the possibility of these chairs having been made in Boston in the middle of the 18th century when Reverend Holyoke took his position at Harvard. We now know that chairs of this type, with a beautiful scallop shell, with shell-carved knees, such as this, a return-- a knee return-- like this, and most importantly, these very distinctive feet, were on Boston-made furniture. And history has been rewritten now. All of the early textbooks on American furniture stated that these chairs were made in Newport. They weren't. They were made in Boston. And I got very excited because what a match with this fantastic history of Reverend Holyoke. It helps reestablish the fact that these chairs were made in Boston because here we have the patron who lived in Boston and probably had it at Harvard. Chairs like this are highly prized in the American furniture world. They were exported out of Boston to Newport, to New York. They were very popular in the 18th century. Did it ever occur to you that the value of the chair might even surpass this wonderful portrait?

Not at all. I never... I never had any idea that could be.

Colonial portraits signed by the artists are very rare, and this was probably rendered from life. It really does appear as if the artist was looking at the Reverend Holyoke himself, and I would say it probably is in the neighborhood of $25,000 today, in the market.

Oh, really? Okay.

Maybe a little bit more. I'd insure it for $25,000 to $30,000. The chair... is extremely rare, in marvelous condition. Chairs like this-- Boston chairs made in the middle of the 18th century with this wonderful shell-- bring somewhere between $60,000 and $70,000 at auction.

Oh, my goodness. Well, we'll have to give it more respect now.

What did you think when you heard the news? Your chair is worth $60,000 to $80,000. What was going through your head at that moment?

It was incredible, you know. I mean, we haven't... We've given this chair no respect, and, you know, it's been used for a bunch of different things, but...

Such as?

Well, we put things on it-- store things on it. And, uh, well, we're not going to do that anymore.

Appraisal Details

New York, NY
Appraised value (2003)
$85,000 Auction$95,000 Insurance
Chicago, IL (July 26, 2003)

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