Implausible Provenance

 

 
Arus Auctions of Framingham, Massachusetts recently held an estate sale in Marlboro. It included a pair of Windsor rocking chairs with the representation that they belonged to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and came out of their Springfield home. The chairs included several pieces of provenance, none predating the 1920’s. Estimated at $3,000-$5,000, with an opening bid of $500, they seemed to have potential. The letter describing their history was pasted to the bottom of one chair. It asserted that the chairs were given by the Lincoln’s to an “intimate friend & a near neighbor”, Miss Olmsted (spelling uncertain). We decided to delve further into the story. In early 1861, the Lincoln’s sent some personal belongings on to Washington, rented out their house, put away some of the better pieces of their furniture and sold the balance of the furniture to druggist Samuel H. Melvin for $82.25 on February 9th. It does not appear that they gave any of it away. A search of “The Lincoln Log” for the name “Olmsted” or “Olmstead” did not produce any results. Another search for information about authentic or verifiable furniture from the Lincoln home produced a list of typical Victorian furniture. There were no Windsor rockers. The accredited chairs generally had rush or cane seats. The provenance for the Arus chairs indicates they were stripped some years back (revealing an original coat of white paint in the process) and subsequently stenciled. It is possible, of course, that such chairs might have been used in the kitchen area or back porch. They would certainly not fit in with the décor of the furnishings of the main house. Based on our findings, we believe that the chairs did indeed belong to a Miss Olmsted who traveled to Europe and sold them to Mrs. Touchard with a “buy-back privilege”. We suspect Miss Olmsted needed the money and, in order to maximize her proceeds, told the buyer that the chairs were given to her by her “intimate friends”, the Lincoln’s. Not surprisingly, Miss Olmsted did not exercise her “buy-back” privilege. This tale then took on a life of its own and became family history. That’s how it appears to us, anyway. The chairs failed to meet the reserve and did not sell.

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