|Best BidsThe Insider’s Guide to Buying at Auction
By Dana Micucci
Furniture made throughout the 18th and 19th centuries by indigenous craftsmen in the West Indies on sugar-rich islands such as Barbados, St. Croix, Jamaica, Martinique, and Antigua is heating up the market. Prized by collectors and connoisseurs for their elegant designs and richly grained hardwoods such as mahogany and thibet, West Indian antiques integrate European styles, ranging from Regency and Empire to early Victorian, with whimsical African interpretations expressed in carved sunburst, pineapple, and palm-frond motifs, among others. Wealthy sugar plantation owners commissioned these beautiful pieces for their luxurious great houses.
Craftsmen on islands such as Jamaica and Martinique borrowed from the English and French designs favored by their colonizers, while those from the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Croix, St Thomas and St. John), colonized in part by Denmark, were inspired by neoclassical Danish furniture. The distinguishing features of West Indian furniture include parquetry and marquetry veneers in contrasting tropical woods, caning on chairs, which allows for air flow, and lathe turning, which takes the form of elaborate rope twists, vase shapes and bobbin and melon motifs on chair legs, bedposts and other elements.
“West Indian furniture has begun to attract international attention,” says Michael Connors, a leading expert on West Indian antiques and author of Furniture of the Colonial West Indies, who sells from his collection at his downtown New York City showroom. “It’s of a newly discovered period and style that few people ever knew existed. Its casual elegance appeals to a nineties audience, and it is still relatively affordable when compared to English and French furniture and other European and American antiques.”
Many finely crafted West Indian antiques can be found at the Whim Plantation Antique Furniture Auction on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This outdoor tented auction is held every March and is attended by designers, dealers and antique collectors. The Whim Plantation Museum, housed in an elegant neoclassical great house on the grounds of an 18th-century sugar plantation, has one of the world’s best collections of West Indian antiques.
>West Indian furniture also turns up occasionally at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. However, it is often identified simply as “colonial” furniture in austion catalogs, along with Indonesian, Anglo-Indian, and other colonial-tropical antiques.
The majority of West Indian furniture can be bought at auction for less than $15,000. Armoires generally bring from $7,000 to $8,000; four-poster beds fetch from $10,000 to $15,000. Cupping tables (small servers for cups and utensils) sell for from $3,000 to $5,000, while sets of chairs with hand-caned seats have sold for less than $4,000. Caned planter’s chairs, with extended arms on which weary plantation owners rested their legs, bring from $3,000 to $4,000.