Civil War photographer’s chair seats $449,000, tripling estimate

NEW YORK – Bonhams sold an important and historic item for $449,000, including premium – three times the low estimate and a record for that particular item – Oct. 26 during the firm’s Fine Furniture, Silver Decorative Arts and Clocks auction. Referred to as the “Lincoln chair” or “Brady chair” – it was reportedly a gift from Abraham Lincoln to Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, who used it in his studio to make portraits of the “who’s who” of American history-makers.

The boldly carved, oak chair made by Bembe & Kimbel, a Victorian-era furniture and decorative arts

Historic 'Brady chair' (Photo courtesy Bonhams)

Historic ‘Brady chair’ (Photo courtesy Bonhams)

firm founded in 1854 and based in New York, was one of 262 chairs commissioned for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1857. Photographer Mathew Brady – who was responsible for producing the most important visual documentation of the Civil War era – purportedly received the chair as a gift from Abraham Lincoln, a friend and subject he photographed many times over the years.

No less than five U.S. presidents sat in the chair for portraits, as well as senators and civil servants, Civil War soldiers, Justices and Native Americans.

“There is perhaps no other single object that connects with so many important people, all prominent figures in 19th-century American history,” said Madelia Ring, Bonhams specialist of American & English Furniture & Folk Art. “What also gives the Brady chair such distinction, is that while other commissioned chairs occasionally surface at auction, those bearing the stamp of Bembe & Kimbel are rare.”

The chair was in Brady’s studio by February 9, 1864 and used when Lincoln and his son, Tad, were photographed in what would become one of the most iconic and poignant photographs of Lincoln.
Often referred to as the “father of photojournalism,” Brady photographed 18 of the 19 American presidents, from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley. He made portraits of countless senior officers in the Civil War, such as Ulysses S. Grant, Nathaniel Banks, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Brady photographed President Lincoln multiple times over the years, and his portraits have been repurposed as Lincoln’s likeness on the $5 bill and penny.

Photographs taken by Brady and his associates, Alexander Gardner, George Barnard and Timothy O’Sullivan, are housed in the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Destitute and an invalid at the end of his life, Brady sold his studio in its entirety to William Stalee in 1893, three years prior to his death in 1896. Stalee subsequently sold the studio and its contents to Will H. Towles in 1903. Frank B. Kaye was working in the Studio when Towles acquired it and his 1940 affidavit attests that the Lincoln Chair was included with the rest of the furnishings. The chair remained in the Towles and Pattison families until it was offered at the Bonhams auction with an estimate of $150,000-$250,000.

Anton Bembe and Anthony Kimbel, one of several firms commissioned to outfit the new House of Representatives Chamber at the U.S. Capitol, carved the Rococo Revival armchairs, designed by Thomas U. Walter, for members of Congress.

For more information on the Brady chair, as well as other fine examples sold during the sale, visit http://bit.ly/ATBonhans102615.

COMMENT