Intriguing Dolphins

A phone caller enquired one day if I would be interested in making some copies of pieces of furniture for a client. I replied that I may be interested, subject to visiting the client and viewing the furniture to be copied.

I was informed that wouldn’t be possible, but they could arrange to have the furniture made available for my inspection elsewhere. At this point, I would normally have said “Thank you, but no thanks!” However, my curiosity had been piqued, so I made the appointment to view the furniture.

My Mother enjoys antiques and what I do in general, so I invited her along on the outing to ‘hold the other end of the tape’. We arrived at the industrial lock-up at the appointed time and a man with an officious looking badge on his sleeve admitted us. Standing alone in the middle of the vast empty unit were a single giltwood bergere chair and an en suite giltwood sofa in the Regency taste, stamped ‘B:HARMER’.

My Mother “Ooo-ed” and “Ahh-ed” appropriately and I spent a few hours sketching and jotting down measurements. When I had finished, I thanked the Man with the Key and we left. About a week later I was contacted by the Man on the Phone again who accepted my estimate without hesitation and agreed to the payment of a substantial deposit.

The suite of furniture is very much in the fashion beloved by the flamboyant Prince Regent (later, George IV) who was responsible for the decoration of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton between the years 1815 and 1822, incorporating lavishly gilt fantasies such as pineapples and grotesque dolphins etc.

The seat frames were made out of beech (as were the originals) and it didn’t take long to get them to the stage where they required gilding. I can gild with some of the best, but this Dolphin Suite was large and causing a traffic jam in the workshop, so the frames went out to a good friend in the trade as this type of work was his bread and butter.

One evening I dropped in to see my Mother on the way home from work and she was very excited about an article she had read while in her dentist’s waiting room that morning. She handed me the copy of Country Life that she had borrowed from the dentist. There, in black and white, was a picture of one of the dolphin chairs! A suite of dolphin seating consisting of two chairs and two sofas formerly belonging to Viscount Courtenay, the 18th Earl of Devon, had apparently been sold at auction by Christies in London.

How curious! I wondered if this was the original Dolphin Suite that was sold at auction, or the one I had made; if it was some form of scam, or had Lord Courtenay fallen on hard times and replaced the valuable originals with somewhat cheaper copies?

Christies estimated the Dolphin Suite at £80,000-120,000. It sold on Thursday the 5th of July 1990 for £242,000.

The patterns for the Dolphin Suite.

One of the dolphin arm supports.

One of the sofa frames in-the-white.

The article that appeared in Country Life on the 2nd of August 1990.

The photo that accompanied the Country Life article.

One of the chairs from the Dolphin Suite sold by Christies.

One of the sofas from Christies’ sale.

Sotheby’s held a further sale on the instruction of Hugh Courtenay, the 18th Earl of Devon on Tuesday, September 29, 2009 to clear debts on his estate.

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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