Eve Kahn has a fascinating look in The New York Times at scholar Patricia Kane’s website tracking the fabled and forgotten furniture makers of Rhode Island, many of whose work is now worth millions of dollars.
A decade ago she started collecting data for Yale’s online Rhode Island Furniture Archive, intending to cover all the state’s cabinetmakers and their surviving products in private and museum collections. But the site,rifa.art.yale.edu, soon ballooned past her expectations.
Scheduled for completion in a few years, the site already lists 1,800 artisans and 2,000 objects, searchable by the names of workshops, hometowns and owners, among other terms. […] Auction descriptions mention Yale’s Web site. Ms. Kane’s team has scoured Rhode Island government archives, recording references to anyone who built furniture, houses, ships and coffins. Such dry paperwork has yielded vivid moments: when artisans went bankrupt, their tools were meticulously inventoried. “It all felt very real,” Ms. Kane said.
New details have emerged about obscure makers like Goddard’s nephew Thomas Spencer. His workshop in East Greenwich, R.I., is known to have made only one object, a 1770s mahogany desk and bookcase. The piece belonged to the Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene and is now at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Spencer briefly dabbled in woodworking, Yale reports, and then became a storekeeper and real-estate developer around Albany.
Yale tries to note the most up-to-date locations for each piece. But longtime high-profile owners, including the Chipstone Foundation near Milwaukee and heirs of the Rhode Island historian Joseph K. Ott, have consigned works to the January sales.
“I hadn’t anticipated all the little steps involved in keeping it current,” Ms. Kane said.
18-Century Artisans, Tracked the Modern Way (New York Times)