I've become addicted to the "Antiques Road Show" on Public Television. And only partly because it's usually the only non-idiotic lead-in to Ally McBeal.
I get a kick out of the hundreds of supplicants lined up in some auditorium in Wisconsin or wherever, clutching their treasures, waiting to hear the divine word.
Most of the items are wretched, yet a few are miraculous. The range is antic -- furniture, Shirley Temple dolls, green frogs, paintings, prints, porcelains, lamps, rifles, swords, "advertising art" like Speedy the cartoon Alka-Seltzer pitchman (would you believe $3,500-$5,000?), timepieces, bracelets, Indian tobacco bags and God knows what else.
Watching the "Road Show" is like being carried through an upscale flea market in a sedan chair listening to a coterie of experts throw out brisk, formulatic and in-your-face assessments -- "This isn't an 18th-century Newport highboy but an early 20th-century forgery, and for proof just look inside and underneath at this ugly stain that tries (and fails) to disguise the fresh wood, plus the secondary wood isn't pine, it's poplar, but since you bought it for $35 you shouldn't be dismayed." Crunch!
The mavens don't hide their genuine joy when they find something that's wonderful (the discoveries always manage to come on schedule, however) -- "I'm so happy you brought this lamp in, 'cuz it's a splendid Tiffany in beautiful condition and at a well-advertised auction it might fetch between $35,000 and $50,000." Mouth open wide, eyes rolling to the ceiling, "Omigod!"
I thought, wouldn't it be amusing to have a "Road Show" version in which the mavens hit local museums around the country to tell us (and the curators) what's truly grand? To test the idea, I got in touch with American-art-super-maven Wendell D. Garrett, Sotheby's Senior VP of American Decorative Arts, and demanded, "What's the single finest piece of American furniture alive and kicking and why?"
My super-maven didn't hesitate for long. "It's in the Metropolitan, a superbly mixed-up pier table made by an eccentric Irishman, Joseph B. Barry, made in Philadelphia around 1810. You must remember it, it was brought from a private collector in 1976 when you were the director."
Choke! I hadn't.
"Go to the American Wing courtyard, enter the door under the eagle, proceed to the large dining room on the left, turn right and there against the wall in the Jenrette Federal room you'll find it -- Barry's absolutely marvelous table. Rare. Only a dozen pieces by Barry exist."
I found a monumental and strongly squat mahogany table (54 inches wide, 38 high and 28 inches deep) with delicately-turned columnar front legs and flat pilaster back legs embellished with garlands of leafage. Between the back legs there's some "Pompeiian" lyre work and a pair of gryphons. I knew I was in the presence of something fine, and I sensed, a bit quirky. (After all, it had been acquired on my watch.)
"Why is it the best?" Garrett replied, "The mahogany glows. It's a marvel of carving and it's historically key, a rare transitional piece between the Neoclassical and Empire periods. The style is 'melting-pot' and 'rebellious' and says a lot about early American art."
Joseph Barry was born in Dublin and came to Philadelphia not long before 1790. "Smart move," Garrett explained. "The city had been the nation's capitol from 1786 to 1790 and was the center of art and culture (loaded with rich furniture buyers) until about 1810 when New York took over."
Barry started under other cabinet makers and went on his own around 1810 when shortly afterwards his son joined him. He was active for an exceptionally long time and died in 1838. The label underneath the table is printed "Joseph Barry" but has an addition in ink, "& Sons" which dates the piece somewhere between 1810 and 1812.
"Barry was a virtuoso of styles," Garrett went on. "In 1812 his newspaper advertisements boasted he could work in Egyptian and Gothic. A true entrepreneur, he eventually opened show rooms in Savannah and Baltimore."
But he almost quit in 1812. Like so many businesses, furniture suffered grievously during Thomas Jefferson's embargo of all materials in and out of the country during the war of 1812. Barry traveled to France during this time of economic chaos to study and possibly buy materials.
Garrett told me that the pier table, which had been made for Lewis Clapier, could not have been designed in Ireland. The French would never have made it either. It can only have been a product of the New World, an imaginative borrowing and refining of disparate elements. The lyre in the back panel is pure English out of Thomas Sheraton's 1793 design book. The shape and the way the table sits flat on the floor with no feet on a platform with six-pointed stars is new French of the Napoleonic empire.
"In it you can see the Enlightenment; you can see Romanticism. It's something new and modern but preserves a nostalgic evocation for antiquity in the lyre and those gryphons. To me, it's like Jefferson's borrowing John Locke's idea of government by the people entitled to life, liberty, and property and changing it to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' This rebellious table is a gifted mixture which breaks rules, creates something beyond rules, and thus speaks with a distinct American accent. It's got everything, carving, gilding, turning, contrasting veneer, inlay which radiates like a sun burst, ormulu mounts, form, decor and rich materials."
Is it a work of art? I asked.
"You bet," Garrett shot back. "A great one. The table possesses mass, solids and voids, and a feeling of thicks and thins. It stands alone as a sculpture as well as a fine work of furniture."
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.