Duncan Phyfe (Furniture History and Value Guide)
Paul Williamson – June 29th, 2020
Paul Williamson – June 29th, 2020
During any given weekend, estate sale goers in large cities and small towns are shopping for fine furniture. In particular, they’re always searching for Duncan Phyfe furniture. Phyfe furniture has a rich history, which adds to its appeal. The collection features high-quality materials with neoclassical influences. If you come across a piece of Duncan Phyfe antique furniture, know that you’ve hit big. Before attending your next estate sale, learn how to spot a classic Duncan Phyfe furniture piece.
The evolution of Duncan Phyfe furniture is an American cabinetmaker’s success story. From humble beginnings, Phyfe became known for his contributions to fine American furniture.
Duncan Phyfe was born in Scotland in 1768, and he moved to the United States with his family in 1784. Phyfe and his family moved to New York state, where his exposure to fine furniture began. At first, he apprenticed in a cabinetmaker’s shop in Albany, New York. Soon after, Phyfe moved to New York City and opened his own furniture-making business on Fulton Street.
By the early 19th century, Duncan Phyfe’s furniture had become increasingly popular with wealthy East Coast customers. He often crafted entire furniture suites for affluent clients.
Duncan Phyfe’s appeal didn’t stop in the 19th century. Throughout the 20th century, Phyfe enthusiasts continued to purchase his original works along with numerous reproduction pieces. Even in 21st century America, he is often called the most famous American cabinetmaker. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City contains numerous Phyfe-attributed or authenticated pieces. One such furniture suite includes a Duncan Phyfe sofa, two armchairs, ten side chairs, and two footstools.
Duncan Phyfe didn’t achieve his wide acclaim by inventing an entirely new furniture style. Instead, he based his designs on fashionable European styles of the late 18th century and early 19th century.
Phyfe was known for his furniture’s excellent proportions and graceful lines, both well-known Neoclassical style hallmarks. Around 1800, Phyfe’s furniture craftsmen were producing delicately-finished furniture pieces in the Sheraton, French Directoire, and Regency styles. By 1825, buyers’ preferences shifted to the heavier Empire style, so Phyfe changed with the times, and began producing pieces in that genre. Fortunately, his well-heeled customers continued to purchase his furniture.
Duncan Phyfe was a furniture manufacturing pioneer. When his furniture-making business was at its peak, he employed over 100 skilled craftsmen to turn out Phyfe-style furniture. In addition to their prolific production, numerous cabinetmakers copied the Phyfe furniture style during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
As a result, your odds of finding Phyfe-style furniture at an estate sale are fairly good. However, you’ll find it difficult to tell an original Phyfe piece from a quality reproduction.
During the early 20th century, American furniture makers began marketing reproduction Duncan Phyfe furniture. These Duncan Phyfe style items often resemble original Duncan Phyfe pieces and have largely retained their value. A reproduced Duncan Phyfe dining-room set from the early to mid-1900s recently sold for thousands of dollars.
Identifying a Duncan Phyfe furniture piece is a challenge, even for antique furniture experts. For perspective, more than 300 cabinetmakers crafted Phyfe-style furniture in the period from 1810 to 1820.
Many Duncan Phyfe-era cabinetmakers placed their company’s name on every finished furniture piece. Phyfe, on the other hand, put his signature on only a few creations. This means that the great majority of Phyfe furniture pieces have no signature or other identifying marks.
In addition, there is no evidence that Phyfe’s skilled craftsmen labeled their work. However, their furniture would carry the Duncan Phyfe furniture shop pedigree.
If your piece doesn’t have a signature, there are other ways to confirm you have a Duncan Phyfe original. The most obvious way is with reliable documentation or provenance. Finding a 175-to-215-year-old bill of lading for the piece would be ideal. Or, look for a document or invoice that confirms that the furniture’s original owners (or family members) commissioned Phyfe to craft the piece.
If that’s not possible, track the piece back to its original owners’ relatives. The original owners should be able to confirm the furniture piece’s authenticity.
You can also look for Phyfe’s style. Compare carvings on mahogany dining table legs or knees with those of known Phyfe items. Antique books, online resources, and museums are good reference sources.
Each Duncan Phyfe furniture piece combines then-fashionable style features with his sense of refinement. Certain identifiers appear in many Phyfe furniture pieces.
Each Duncan Phyfe chair back features a five-thunderbolt motif with a center bow knot. Phyfe’s scroll-backed chairs often carry this characteristic flourish.
Phyfe’s solid wood tabletops often feature a lovely patina. Duncan Phyfe mahogany table tops may contain wide-band grained wood borders.
Single- or double-pedestal Duncan Phyfe dining tables often feature carved legs with animal-style feet. Table legs frequently showcase reed carvings and acanthus leaves.
Duncan Phyfe designs often exhibit Neoclassical style elements that utilize ancient Grecian symbols. Lyres, scrolls, and acanthus leaves are common.
Emerging style elements such as claw feet, ribbons, and lion heads enhance Phyfe’s furniture pieces. Furniture backs and legs typically feature flowing lines.
Duncan Phyfe crafted his furniture from quality materials. For the frames, he chose from domestic and exotic hard woods. Mahogany Duncan Phyfe furniture pieces are common. Phyfe also used rosewood, black walnut, cherry, and maple woods.
Duncan Phyfe frequently embellished his tables with paper-thin veneers. He also added striking finishes made from ivory and gilt brass. Phyfe’s upholstered furniture often features decorative damask.
Duncan Phyfe and his talented craftsmen produced an impressive collection of quality furniture. View this extensive list of Phyfe furniture pieces and some of the markers of an original Phyfe.
In the past, antique experts estimated that an original Duncan Phyfe table was worth $50,000 to $150,000. However, relatively recent 21st-century selling prices are far below that price range. The following are average auction selling prices for Duncan Phyfe furniture pieces. Averages were calculated from the mean sale price of four pieces of similar furniture.
When you attend your next estate sale, keep a sharp lookout for Duncan Phyfe furniture. Look for the classic chairback thunderbolts, hand-carved legs, and solid wood tabletops that are Phyfe hallmarks. Whether you find an authentic Phyfe original, or a well-made reproduction, you’ll snag a piece of classic Americana for your home.