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Christie’s Americana expert and deputy chairman, John A. Hays, reveals surprisingly dramatic tales behind remarkable furniture discoveries and record-shattering art auctions — let the bidding begin

Visko Hatfield

One blustery morning not too long ago, John A. Hays, deputy chairman at Christie’s in New York, made his way toward the auction house’s overflowing saleroom at 20 Rockefeller Plaza. Colleagues kept drawing him aside to whisper excitedly in his ear; midway up the main staircase a svelte young woman stopped to murmur something about a million-dollar commission. Hays marched onward, pleasantly harried, thumbing his BlackBerry as he went. “The contemporary stuff’s off the charts,” he told a reporter in tow. “It’s insane.”

The previous evening, Christie’s had presided over the sale of Mark Rothko’s abstract No. 15 for $50.4 million and Lucian Freud’s painting of a very large naked woman for $33.6 million — the new record for a living artist. The newspapers marveled at such gravity-defying performances amid all the bleak economic news (“What slowdown?” asked that morning’s New York Times). Christie’s postwar and contemporary art sale was continuing now, and a room full of nicely plumed, suntanned personages watched as works by great American artists of the last half century — Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns, Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Robert Indiana, Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler and Richard Diebenkorn — rotated dramatically into view on a spotlighted turntable.

But the object that most delighted John Hays’s eye was ... the auctioneer’s podium. It was nice all right — a glossy hunk of wood that rose above the floor like a ship’s prow. “See that podium?” Hays whispered as the bidding for an Ed Ruscha acrylic passed a million dollars. “That’s an exact replica of the one Thomas Chippendale made for his friend James Christie.” The original was destroyed when German bombs rained down on the London Christie’s during the Second World War. But for Hays, even this replica carries a talismanic charge: Two notable English histories converge in it.James Christie founded the venerable auction house in 1766 — chamber pots were among his first offerings — and Thomas Chippendale was the most influential cabinetmaker of the day.

Hays specializes in Americana. At Christie’s, he has presided over the sale of the rarest and best pieces in the field, such as Charles Willson Peale’s 1779 George Washington at Princeton, which went for $21.3 million in 2005, the record for an American portrait; and Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom painting from 1849, which fetched $6.2 million, then the most ever paid at auction for a work of American folk art. Hays is especially passionate about American furniture of the late Colonial period, when the Founding Fathers roamed the landscape, hashing out ideas for a new republic. “His enthusiasm is both infectious and genuine,” said his friend Morrison Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Of course, we’re all enthusiastic about what we do, but he is to an exceptional degree.” (This enthusiasm can be witnessed on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, where Hays regularly appraises American furniture and folk art.)

If a copied British podium gets Hays’s blood pumping, then imagine him on the subject of an authentic pre-Revolutionary American treasure. “I brought you a catalog of what I consider to be the greatest discovery in American furniture,” said the forty-eight-year-old Hays, whose professorial bearing (bow tie, black-frame glasses) doesn’t quite obscure his solid ex-wrestler’s build. “It was in a pile of furniture meant for the Salvation Army.”

The cover showed a carved mahogany tilt-top tea table, which had descended through an old-line Philadelphia family. The top is cracked and slightly warped, but boasts the scalloped edge that denotes a classic Philadelphia “piecrust” tea table. The table’s pedestal and three arched legs are densely carved with acanthus leaves, C-scrolls and assorted rococo flourishes. And from the whole of the piece emanates the grimy glow of antiquity that experts prize. “This has the best surface on any piece of furniture to ever survive from the 18th century,” Hays said. “It’s the original surface, never been cleaned.” Most early- American furniture has been refinished, which can sharply diminish the value. “As in painting, the final one-sixteenth of an inch is very, very important. Here is the cabinetmaker’s finish that he intended to be on it.”

And who was this artisan? Known only as “the Garvan Carver” (after a chest of drawers by the same man in the Garvan collection at Yale), he is considered the Michelangelo of pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia cabinetmakers. Avidly collected for decades, all surviving Garvan Carver pieces had been believed to be accounted for. So, for hardcore American furniture buffs, the appearance of this tea table was not unlike an exemplary van Gogh coming suddenly to light.

Until the summer of 2007, the table sat unnoticed in the corner of a modest house in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The owner was preparing to move to a nursing home, and family lawyers were organizing the house for sale, ridding it of old possessions. One lawyer, after spreading her work papers over the dining room table, was looking for a place to set down her Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. It was then that she spied the little tilt-top. She later told a reporter, “I saw all the dust on it and thought, 'I don’t want to get dust in my coffee.' ”

Since an antiques appraiser had already been to the house and picked through the supposed best pieces, the lawyers called in an auctioneer, Michael Wilson, to deal with the rest. By chance Wilson arrived with Martin Jolles, an elderly appraiser who had gone with Wilson to a previous appointment. As the lawyer, John Hook, and Wilson entered the dining room, they began examining some tired drapes, but Jolles went straight to the table. “Did you see this pre-Revolutionary piecrust tea table?” he said. “It might be worth as much as the real estate.” John Hook, anxious to get on with the dispersion, doubted it. “This house,” he said, “is worth more than three-quarters of a million dollars.”

Jolles rested his hand on the tea table. “So’s this,” he said.

“He didn’t know whether to get me a cold glass of tea or get my head examined,” Jolles recalled later. Hook quickly placed calls to the regional offices of Christie’s and its chief competitor, Sotheby’s. Nicole Wood of Christie’s in Villanova came right over, and soon her digital photos alighted on Hays’s computer screen in New York. Hays took one look at them and caught the next Amtrak Acela to Philadelphia. He knew the table could bring $2 million at auction, perhaps as much as $3 million — extremely rare for any piece of furniture. Leslie Keno, Hays’s rival at Sotheby’s, also hustled down to Philadelphia, but the consignor, impressed by Hays’s fervor, settled on Christie’s. Hays and colleague Martha Willoughby were waiting in a rented Cadillac Escalade when word came; then they nervously drove the 1750s treasure back to New York.

By auction day, October 3, 2007, the “Fisher-Fox Family Tea Table” was famous. Even casual antiques lovers had become steeped in the lore of tea tables: “It was around tea tables like this where the elite met in the 1760s to discuss whether there was going to be a revolution,” Hays noted. “It makes your heart beat faster.” Hays himself (“a born entertainer,” according to his sister Laurie) conducted the auction. The bidding raced past Christie’s high estimate of $3 million, past $4 million, past $5 million. When Hays thumped the gavel down, a Pennsylvania antiques dealer representing an anonymous client had acquired the table for $6.7 million, a record for Philadelphia furniture. “That truly was one of the most exciting events of my career,” Hays said. “This table went from being totally unknown to selling for millions.”

The Fisher-Fox Tea Table reveals much about Hays’s view of art. An object may be interesting to look at, but for him it should also tell of a time, a place, a people. “Great objects tell such amazing stories,” he said. This is something Hays feels the bold contemporary artworks (being auctioned as he spoke) simply can’t do. “As exciting as it is down in the saleroom to watch $30 million paintings that were painted, you know, last year — nothing can beat this, to me. Nothing can tell you more about who we are today than these objects.”

Of Christie’s $6.3 billion in worldwide sales last year,  contemporary art, one of eighty-odd departments, accounted for nearly a third. “There are many people who want to be cutting edge; they want to show they’re ahead of the curve, and contemporary art has that appeal,” Hays said. “Of course, there’s also shock value in some postwar art.” While there’s no shock value in American antiques, they do have their own allure: the thrill of the treasure hunt (disappearing, though not gone, as the tea table proves), a proximity to momentous events and the miracle of their endurance through chaotic times. And then, in the best pieces, we see the emergence of a distinctly American art.

Consider the Nicholas Brown desk and bookcase, built in Newport in the 1760s, probably by John Goddard. By collectors’ lights, Philadelphia and Newport produced the finest pre-Revolutionary War furniture (followed by Boston and New York). Philadelphia’s formal, elaborately carved pieces were influenced heavily by London and the designs in Thomas Chippendale’s important Gentlemen and Cabinet-Maker’s Directory (originally published in 1754). Newport furniture, though ornate to 21st-century eyes, exhibits a comparatively stripped-down elegance. “Philadelphia and Newport furniture had nothing in common except the quality of execution,” noted Morrison Heckscher. Where cosmopolitan Philadelphia was “a haven for the best English work,” Newport, with its strong memory of Quaker persecution, “did not welcome and was not beholden to the styles of England,” Heckscher said.

Newport’s masterpieces were made by the Goddards and the Townsends, intermarried cabinet-making families whose workshops were situated near the docks, where they could get their pick of the best mahogany arriving from the Caribbean. “The Goddard-Townsend family is, in many people’s minds, the greatest and most evocative of all the Colonial American cabinetmakers,” Hays said. “They produced these pieces of furniture that have carved scallop shells — unique, unique in furniture. And Nicholas Brown’s was a six-shell desk and bookcase, one of nine known to survive from the 18th century. Each of the four Brown brothers had one made, and Nicholas’s was the biggest and grandest of them all.”

The Browns were a founding family of Rhode Island (Nicholas was an original signatory of the College of Rhode Island, later renamed Brown University for benefactor Nicholas Jr.), and the mahogany secretaries were meant to show off their wealthy merchant status. Nicholas’s desk and bookcase was no great discovery in the manner of the Fisher-Fox Family Tea Table; the surprise was that it came up for sale at all. But the Nightingale-Brown House on Providence’s Benefit Street, where the desk and bookcase had stood for 175 years, was badly in need of repair. “One icon is saving the other,” said descendant and namesake Captain Nicholas Brown, a retired United States Navy officer, explaining his decision to let it go.

Hays and Christie’s sold the Nicholas Brown desk and bookcase in 1989 for an astounding $12.1 million. (The late dealer Harold Sack bought it for Robert Bass, a Texas billionaire.) Then the highest sum ever paid at auction for an object other than a painting, it shattered the previous record for furniture of $2.97 million, for a Louis XVI console table sold at Sotheby’s in London. After nearly twenty years, $12.1 million remains the record auction price for a piece of American furniture.

 Hays’s career in the art world was somewhat preordained. His grandfather, the lawyer Mortimer Hays, was an excellent painter; his father Richard Hays, a physician specializing in kidney diseases, is also a talented artist, though more in the nature of cartoons. His mother, Susan, comes from a family of art historians. (One relative, Arthur Upham Pope, was the preeminent authority on Persian art.) Though Laurie Hays, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, said her younger brother’s earliest ambitions were to be a farmer and a weatherman, Hays soon fell into the grip of art history — in the collecting of political campaign buttons. (Though a Democrat, his prize button is a boldly designed one for Wendell Willkie, who challenged FDR in 1940.) “It was a serious thing,” recalled Hays, who grew up off Stanwich Road and now lives in Manhattan. “I hung the moon on every election. And campaign buttons teach you a lot about American history. As I look back on it, my interest in American history was always there. What I sell today, half the value is in the history behind the pieces.”

Hays attended Greenwich Country Day School, Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, graduating in 1982 with degrees in English and art history. He joined Christie’s in the fall of 1983 — with a very meager salary. But Susan Hays remembers the exact point at which her son made himself valuable. Early on, Christie’s sent him up to Nahant, the tiny Massachusetts resort town, to look at some American furniture that a family hoped would pay for their mother’s nursing-home care. The furniture wasn’t very valuable. But while working out the appraisal at the dining room table, Hays glanced up and saw two small paintings on the wall. “Nice Brueghels,” he said. “Oh, no,” the family replied. “We took them to the Museum of Fine Arts [in Boston]. They said, ‘school of.’ Our father bought them for our mother on their honeymoon in London in 1911. We have the receipt around here somewhere.”

Hays returned to New York with a painting under each arm and presented them to Christie’s Old Masters expert Ian Kennedy. “The missing two!” said Kennedy, referring to the well-known “season” paintings by the Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1638) last seen in London many years before. “Right,” said Hays. “And here’s the receipt.” Together, the Brueghels fetched $400,000 at auction, big money in the mid-eighties.

In many ways, 1983 was a watershed year in Hays’s personal history. On December 23, he disembarked at Greenwich Station and made his way to a little bench by the taxi stand, loaded down with Christmas presents for his family. A young woman with long dark hair sat down beside him. Snow was falling. “It was a terrible snowstorm,” Hays said. “A wonderful storm, I should say. Her brother was twenty minutes late picking her up, and mine was as well.”

The woman’s name was Constance Laibe. She grew up in Greenwich and Hong Kong, where her father John Laibe was an executive with the Exxon Chemical Company. Hays indoctrinated Connie in the delights of Americana. “Connie was fluent in Chinese and had a great interest in China, and she used to tease me about American art. She would say, ‘That’s just modern art compared to China.’” John and Connie married in 1986 and had three children, Sophie, John and Henry.

Their careers made rapid headway. At the time of their wedding, Constance L. Hays was a fledgling business reporter for the New York Times. She would later become a star, known for her coverage of Martha Stewart’s travails and for her book The Real Thing: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company (Random House, 2004). She also wrote a number of the Times’s 9/11 obituaries, called “Portraits of Grief,” for which she shared a Pulitzer. John, meanwhile, started Christie’s American Folk Art department in 1987, to address the suddenly brisk trade in weathervanes, carved sea captains, duck decoys, stylized folk paintings and the like. “After the painter Edward Hicks, the hottest part of the market today is weathervanes,” Hays said, noting that they bring as much as a million dollars. “They’re so valuable that people bring them inside now. They’ve been stolen — plucked up by helicopters.”

As Americana emerged from the shadows — particularly those cast by European furniture — Hays’s responsibilities grew. In 1989 he took over the entire American decorative arts group, including furniture and folk art. And in 2000 he was named deputy chairman, a job that entails working across departments. (He had to interrupt the interview to go bid on the American painter Sam Francis’s abstract Sunrise for a contemporary art client.)

But his heart lies in 18th-century furniture. “The mere survival of these pieces is fascinating to me,” he said. “By the 1820s they were out of fashion and relegated to the attics, the servants’ quarters, the barn. They were thrown into the fire, they broke or were mistreated. You get past the fact of their survival and you have a piece that was the prized object in an 18th century home — the most significant piece, the most expensive to make. Only the cutting-edge merchants, the top of the food chain, could afford these pieces. Then, of course, there’s the beauty.”

It is the question of survival that seems to stir him most: both that of the furniture and the nation. “The fact is, our sitting here today is a miracle. If you read 1776 [by David McCullough], then you understand how just a change of the wind could have brought the British Navy up the East River and wiped out Washington’s army there.” We don’t know how our defeat would have changed the course of an incipient American art. But it probably wouldn’t have helped. And so, in the best 18th-century American furniture, we see both our survival and our emerging national identity reflected back to us across centuries. “As far as I’m concerned,” Hays said with a mischievous grin, “these pieces are actually undervalued.”

Hays is one of those rare people who discover their calling early and flourish in it ever after. His life might be close to perfect but for one overarching sorrow. Connie died of cancer on December 5, 2005, at age forty-four. One imagines that in the face of such intimately personal devastation, work becomes hollow. What could old tables, desks and chairs really matter? What could anything really matter? But these questions are the start of a living death. Connie would not have approved. Nor would a man for whom the mysteries of survival and renewal are central. “I would say I’m a born-again patriot,” he remarked when asked if Connie’s death changed his perspective on work. He held up the catalogue featuring the Fisher-Fox Family Tea Table. “When you walk in the door here in the morning, you never know what you’re going to see. If, on your computer screen, you find something like this, you could be on a plane to South America, or a train to Philadelphia. I’m always, always, always interested in what’s new.”