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Old, Fake, or Repro: the Story of the Caned Chair

The Longmeadow Historical Society, like many other historical organizations, has a variety of objects with stories attached. Sometimes these legends are true, but sometimes they are just that—legends. That doesn’t mean anyone set out to deceive, but sometimes the stories that get passed down through the years get more interesting with each telling—like the luster bough pot (likely made around 1820) that had a story attached that it had come over on the Mayflower!  






This chair (accession #19xx-104) has an equally interesting story.  The records list it as being from the William and Mary period, which would place it around 1700-1725.  It was further described as having come from the Williams family, of Flemish design, and likely made in England. Over recent years, several visiting furniture experts questioned that attribution, but no one went on the record to state whether it was an original early-18th century piece or a more recent copy.


But our readers will know that we are always looking for more information about our collections, and this chair is no exception.  A visiting curator was asked to look at it, and he said that the chair was familiar—in fact, he was aware of its likely origin! This lead us to two other similar chairs in area museum collections—Historic Deerfield, Inc. and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford.  As it turns out, these chairs were part of a set commissioned between 1828-1844!


According to the information from Historic Deerfield, the original set of chairs was commissioned by “Samuel Wyllys (1632-1709), a magistrate and merchant from Hartford, Connecticut.” The set of chairs remained in his family until sold in 1827.  “Hartford merchant, antiquarian and philanthropist Daniel Wadsworth purchased one of the original chairs and commissioned New York City chairmaker Smith Ely (1800-1884) to reproduce several copies. Wadsworth donated six of the copies plus the original Wyllys chair to the Connecticut Historical Society.  The Wadsworth label on the original Wyllys chair describes it thus: “Extreme verticality, classical turnings, and richly carved scrolls made this chair a masterpiece of the baroque aesthetic.”  I would think that “extreme verticality” might suggest that it was not the most comfortable chair to sit in—no slouching!






Further research is required to prove that our chair is one of those Smith Ely copies, but it could be!


-Contributed by Betsy McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member 


Information about the chairs thanks to Historic Deerfield, Inc. in Deerfield, MA and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT.

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