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A Cool Hand and a Keno Eye

When asked by a client to produce a condition report on a piece of furniture, Leigh arrives with bright lights and a series of instruments, looking more like a forensic pathologist than a furniture dealer. Amazingly, such detective work is not limited to showrooms and salesrooms. At the homes of collectors, he says, "It's not unusual at a cocktail party to flip a piece upside down to inspect it. Believe it or not, that's not considered a faux pas." This cavorting is often viewed with horror by aficionados of British and French furniture, he admits.

Hearing devotees of American furniture extolling the virtues of unrestored furniture, you could swear they were speaking of the Holy Grail, not of a few pieces of nicely carved old wood. "It's almost a seal of authenticity, you know?" Leslie says, eyes ablaze as he peers at the desirable dirt at the base of a Philadelphia high chest being stored just outside his office. "You get to see all the natural and honest wear patterns on the surface shellac that are intact with the original finish. And it tells a story -- it speaks to you in an honest way that screams out authenticity and integrity."

While it is considered perfectly respectable for a masterpiece by Rubens or a Versailles-quality French boulle cabinet to be cleaned a couple of times in 200 years, such maintenance is heresy to many collectors of American furniture. "With European pieces, they clean it up within an inch of its life," Albert Sack says. "But Americans love the authenticity."

Coveting honest-to-goodness gunk and unrestored perfection, serious buyers are almost immune to aesthetic beauty, according to Leslie. "They're not buying for the look, they're buying for the object," he says. "We're talking someone who's willing to own furniture with a grungy surface -- who's paying millions for the privilege of having those stains."

While exceptional objects remain scarce, the currently booming seller's market for Americana appears to be enticing families who have owned pieces for more than 200 years to take the plunge. Among the cream of its 330 lots on sale this week, Christie's has six such hallowed items, including an ornately carved mahogany high-style Philadelphia card table expected to go for between $1 million and $2 million, which is being offered by George G. Meade Easby, a direct descendant of the original owner, Cornelius Stevenson. "It's rare to see pieces with that kind of provenance at auction," Hays says gleefully.

Sotheby's 733-lot sale, meanwhile, has 21 items of direct-descent provenance, including 14 being sold by the Beekman Family Association, descendants of James W. Beekman, a prosperous eighteenth-century dry-goods merchant and landowner. One of the sale's highlights is Lot 718, a pair of mahogany five-legged gaming tables, identified as having been commissioned for his country house, Mount Pleasant, which once occupied what is now Beekman Place. Also identical twins, the tables are estimated to fetch between $400,000 and $600,000.

With combined sales of American furniture and folk art for 1999 of $25.9 million, however, Sotheby's still has a way to go to match Christie's $27.5 million.

This year, Christie's has gone to the expense of producing a separate 52-page catalogue for a single object identified as having been in the same family for over 300 years: the Joseph and Bathsheba Pope valuables cabinet, a carved-oak piece the size of a small safe, from Salem, Massachusetts. Drawing potential purchasers' attention to the historical chic of the notorious Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the text describes how the original owners, after being accused of dabbling in witchcraft themselves, ratted on fellow Puritans by claiming to have witnessed the demonic powers of several local witches.

Though the catalogue says "Estimate on request" -- a further marketing ploy to arouse speculation and interest -- John Hays points out that the cabinet is expected to realize between $600,000 and $900,000. If so, it will break the $528,000 record for seventeenth-century furniture. "We always hope for millions," Hays says cheerfully. "But who knows?"