Historical society: How the Raymond highboy came back to Darien

One week after Hurricane Sandy, Darien Historical member Tracy Goodnow walked into Executive Director Jack Gault’s office carrying an auction house catalogue. She opened it up to a full page picture and description of Lot No. 312 — “the important Raymond family Connecticut Queen Anne Cherry Highboy, Darien-Rowayton Area.”

Acquisition opportunities like these do not present themselves very often. Both Goodnow and Gault could not believe that this beautiful country highboy with its refined scallop carvings might be lost from Darien forever — what mattered the most to them was that it had graced Raymond homes in Middlesex Parish and Darien for more than 250 years, and it was made here or in a nearby town.

After strategizing about how to go about this opportunity, Gault thanked Goodnow for her advice and for alerting the historical society about the highboy.

Next, he circulated information about the highboy to the society’s board, its curators and historians. However, he wondered how it would ever be possible to raise such substantial funds for this on such short notice — not only was the auction in New Hampshire, it was only eleven days away and the estimated market price was tens of thousands of dollars, and that was before an 18% buyer’s commission that would add up to perhaps another $10,000.

The next day, Ken Reiss, the society historian, came up with a clever idea — why not try to sell another highboy in the society’s collection and use the proceeds towards purchasing the Raymond highboy. The other highboy was a beautiful walnut William & Mary highboy, circa 1720, that was owned by the prosperous Leetes family of Guilford, Conn., which is where it most likely was made.

The rationale for this idea was that society’s mission is to tell and preserve the story of Darien, so this “trade” for the Raymond highboy would make sense.

The question arose, how likely and how quickly could the society sell its Guilford highboy. An acquisition team of Goodnow, Reiss, Gault and Darien Town Historian, Marian Castell, went to work. Goodnow, who had been an antique dealer earlier in her career, contacted several American antique dealers, as did Reiss, asking them to come look at the Guilford highboy, and Gault contacted the president of the Guilford Historical Society. Goodnow also arranged for a dealer to inspect the Raymond highboy in New Hamsphire and to report back to the Society on its condition and authenticity. The idea was to construct a contingent sale of the Guilford highboy in the event that Darien Historical won the bidding for the Raymond highboy.

While pursuing this swap opportunity, a number of society members expressed their affection for the Guilford highboy that had been in the Bates-Scofield House for nearly forty years : yes, it was the society’s mission to be focused on Darien history, but the Guilford highboy was still from a nearby Connecticut town and quite handsome and in perfect condition, and in Furniture of the Pilgrim Century, Wallace Nutting, the great antique expert, author and photographer of the early 1900s, called Darien’s Guilford highboy “a great rarity.”

With time running out and some reservations about selling the Guilford highboy, the Goodnow Family stepped forward and offered to donate funds in an amount that would reflect the proceeds that might have come from the sale of Guilford highboy.

Tracy Goodnow said, “We were very pleased to be able to provide funding to the Historical Society for the acquisition of this rare and beautiful highboy that has such a clearly delineated heritage to Middlesex Parish.”

The society still needed to raise the balance of the funds for the auction. The acquisition team decided that the Society should not use operating funds to purchase the highboy and determined that certain non-core assets of the collection might be used to pay for the highboy.

Next, the team asked the Board of the Historical Society to advance funds for the auction bid that would be paid back over the course of the year from the sale of these non-core assets.

With extensive auction expertise, Board members Bruce Sargent and Kathy Karlik were added to the acquisition team to help plan the bidding strategy.

The most logical non-core asset to sell was an English George II walnut chest on chest that stood where the Raymond highboy would be placed. This chest on chest was given to the society to be sold in one of its antique sales for operating funds, but was instead put on display given its beauty as an antique. However, such a chest on chest was out of character in a home like the Bates-Scofield and it was not a Darien area piece. The acquisition committee identified other assets for sale that had no relation to Darien, or for that matter to Connecticut, but were given to the society many years ago by local donors as general historical artifacts.

Each of these items would be reviewed as to the terms of the original donation and then discussed and approved by the Board prior to being sold.

A day or so later, the historical society bid for the highboy via telephone on a Saturday afternoon, and Darien won the auction at an attractive price that was thought to be near the reserve price.

Historian Ken Reiss said, “This highboy is far more than just a piece of furniture. In colonial times, when it was new, it was a very expensive piece, affordable only by a very, very few families in this area. Who was the original owner? Had one of the Raymonds had such good fortune? Or perhaps they bought it after the Revolution, when the state auctioned off estates confiscated from Tory families, a few of whom had been affluent, Church-of-England members loyal to the King. Perhaps we’ll find out someday.”

A week later, the Raymond highboy was transported back to Darien and now sits in the “Middlesex” room of the Bates-Scofield House museum along with other treasures rich in Darien history. Town Historian Marian Castell noted, “Another star was added to the historical society’s collections with the addition of an important 18th century highboy that was owned by one of the most important historic of Darien families — The Raymonds.

The society’s mission, which is focused on the collection, preservation and exhibiting materials of local historical value, has a new centerpiece that will be admired for many years to come that fits so perfectly with these goals.”

And thanks to the great generosity of the Goodnow Family, the Society can display its priceless, local Raymond highboy along with its beautiful Guilford highboy in another room!

The treasures in the Middlesex room include a Federal tall—case clock, 1808, with its face signed by Richard Bell (1784—1865) of Middlesex who worked as a silversmith, goldsmith and, for two years as a clockmaker. The Bell family was prominent in Middlesex Parish, and Darien was nearly named Bellville!

Richard Bell assembled this clock’s standard eight-day brass movement. Its wood case is simple but handsome, with a broken scroll pediment, columns with brass caps, canted and fluted corners, reeded lamb’s tongue, and simple bracket feet. This clock was the Society’s largest purchase prior to the Raymond highboy and was acquired at a Sotheby Parke Bernet auction of furniture from a New Canaan estate

On one wall hangs a hand—drawn map of Stamford & Greenwich, circa 1791, that shows the various parishes in the Town of Stamford: Middlesex Parish which remained part of Stamford until 1820, when it was incorporated as the town of Darien, the North Stamford parish (formed in 1781) and the Canaan Parish (incorporated into the town of New Canaan in 1801). In this map, the line between Middlesex and Stamford ran a half—mile or more east of the Noroton River, the present town boundary, and Middlesex also extended into Norwalk until 1820, when the town’s eastern boundary was fixed at Five Mile River.

Chinese export china, circa 1795, sits in a corner cupboard.

This china came to Darien from the New Haven family of Lucy Miles (1800—1884), who in 1830 married Darienite George Walmsley (1795—1854), the second son of Revolutionary War veteran William Walmsley. Many of the pieces relate to tea-drinking, including tea-bowls and saucers; a tea set with teapot, sugar bowl and creamer; tea caddy, small plates, and a spoon tray.

There is also a coffee pot, cider flagon and punch bowl. Most pieces are decorated with an “armorial” mantle widely used on wares made for the American market, and bear the initials of Lucy’s mother, Betsy Davis (Miles), with her dove-and-olive branch device. The cider flagon bears an “MM” monogram, the initials of Betsy’s husband, Marcus Miles.

A punch bowl with the Masonic decoration may have belonged to Marcus or to his innkeeper father, John Miles.

Catherine Scofiled’s needle—art sampler, 1828, hangs over the fireplace and was made by the 14-year-old Catherine Selleck (1814—1884) while she lived in the very same house that is now the Historical Society’s museum. Catherine was the second daughter and fourth of nine children born to Elizabeth and Ezra Scofield, who owned the house from 1825 to 1832.

More info: historical.society.org

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