Friday, March 22, 2013

Thanks Ancestors, You Just Cost Me Two Million Dollars!!!!

On January 25 of this year Christie's, the famous New York auction house, auctioned off a Chippendale block & shell bureau table crafted by Jonathan Townsend of Newport, Rhode Island for the remarkable sum of $2,210,500. Yes, you read that right, over two million dollars. Mr. Townsend was a member of a talented eighteenth century furniture making family that is known for creating some of the finest, if not THE finest, examples of furniture in their day. The Townsends catered to Newport's merchant elite and the Bureau, which is signed and dated 1767, was recently discovered in the New York apartment of the Pell family.

Jonathan Townsend Bureau Signed and Dated 1767

While I am sure the Pells are pleased with their recent windfall, the extensive research conducted on such a notable piece prior to the sale shows the family was not descended from any of Newport's old families and that the bureau may have come into their posession upon their 1850's purchase of a house on Mary Street in Newport. The house in question was no ordinary house. Built long before the grand cottages of the summer elite that descended on that town in the nineteenth century, the house represented the best of what was before the American Revolution one of America's wealthiest cities. Built by my ancestor "King" David Chesebrough in 1737, so named for his economic dominance in that city, it was an exact copy of the Hancock mansion in Boston. "King" David, known for his charitable works, also had exceptional taste and the house was famous for its extravagant interior mahogany woodwork, likely executed by Christopher Townsend, Jonathan's father.  The house was filled with luxurious furnishings which included an impressive collection of family portraits, which fortunately have survived the march of time.

Hancock Mansion in Boston copied by David Chesebrough in Newport
David's only child Abigail, who married Alexander Grant Esq. the illegitimate son of a Scottish baronet, moved to London, England. The Chesebrough house was taken and used by British General Clinton as his headquarters during the American Revolution and David was forced to flee to one of his country estates, he had two, and leave many of his things behind. According to a letter from Abigail dated 1783 she also left the furniture given to her upon her wedding "with my venerable parent to save his feelings," when she moved to London. Abigail's heirs sold the house to their cousins the Grant-Champlins in 1795, who sold to the Pells in the 1850s. When the house was demolished  in 1908 by none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt, another "King" of his day, a collection of family papers dating back to the Chesebroughs and Champlins was discovered in the house. This indicates that at least some of the family's possessions were left in the house when the Pells purchased it. While it is impossible to know exactly what happened so long ago Christie's researchers believe the piece they sold at auction was either left by the Chesebroughs or brought to the house by the Champlins. While I understand that my ancestors lived through a very tumultuous period in American history and certainly couldn't keep everything, I rather wished they had hung onto this one little piece!

For more information on the Chesebrough/Grant family and their dramatic lives, see my three part series on the family published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register in July & October of 2002 and January of 2003.