His Desk Sold for $12 Million, but ‘Van Gogh of Mahogany’ Died Poor


Financially speaking, when John Goddard died his shirt didn’t quite meet his pants.

On balance, that is, he was broke. Having 15 children may not have helped. Too bad. Just 204 years later, a desk almost certainly made by him has been sold for $11 million--plus 10% commission, for a total of more than $12 million.

John Goddard (1723-85) was a cabinetmaker. He was the unsung Vincent van Gogh of mahogany. It was die now, get rich later. Much later.

In the 1760s Goddard thought, correctly, that he was making a handsome bookcase desk for John Nicholas Brown, a Providence merchant. Brown did not know that the desk would make tidal waves in the antiques market in June, 1989, when his descendant and namesake sold the family heirloom through a New York auction house.


The highest bid of $12.1 million was quadruple the previous world record price paid for a single piece of furniture. That was $2.97 million, paid in 1988 for a Louis XVI table that once belonged to Marie Antoinette.

Colonial cabinetmakers, even superstars such as Goddard, didn’t die rich. Their customers did. The Goddards served them in death as in life, eking out a living between masterpieces by making coffins--or hammer handles or cheap furniture for export to the Caribbean, whence came the expensive mahogany logs they used to make fine pieces.

Goddard’s home, one of many Colonial buildings in this seaport, still stands on 2nd Street near Pine. So does his shop adjacent to the three-story, gabled house. It’s about as big as a one-car garage--one compact car, that is.

John Alden, the Mayflower immigrant, was the first cabinetmaker in the Colonies. His product was crude as a broadax, rough-hewn for the ages. As the Colonies prospered, hardscrabble utility began surrendering to refinement. Quality furniture became a confirmation of status, gentility, wealth.

And wealth in the Colonies was concentrated at the seaports. Philadelphia, second-largest city in the British Empire, was the capital of cabinetmaking. Newport by the mid-1700s was home to 11,000 people. It had more than 50 rum distilleries and a growing class of entrepreneurs becoming rich in the triangular trade of rum, slaves and sugar cane.

Newport also had a family of Quakers named Townsend and Goddard. Three generations of Townsends and Goddards intermarried both nuptially and vocationally, producing a line of some 20 cabinetmakers and a golden age of furniture--wooden Parthenons for the drawing rooms of the rich who could afford the best and found it, providentially, within walking distance.


John Goddard was born in Dartmouth, Mass., son of a shipwright, one of the crafts that gave rise to Colonial cabinetmaking. By age 20 he was master of the sloop Bashsheda, plying between Philadelphia and Newport. In 1746 he married Hannah, daughter of cabinetmaker Job Townsend. Goddard’s brother, James, also married a daughter of Job’s. The brothers began to learn “the art, trade and mystery” of cabinetmaking.

The first quality furniture in America was either imported from Britain or copied from English books of design such as Thomas Chippendale’s “The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Director,” published in 1754. Gradually, each of the American port cities evolved its own furniture style.

Philadelphia’s furniture the most elegant and richly carved. New York was an unadorned and “put it there” kind of town, and so was its furniture. Boston, already in decline as a seaport, produced a frugal style that resisted change as well as ostentation. And in Newport, which had 67 cabinetmakers during the century, the best, remember, were Quakers.

The tools of their trade were almost prehistoric by today’s standards.

“All you needed were sharp planes, saws and chisels,” said Robert Emlen, the curator who shipped Goddard’s desk off the auction block. “They finished wood with scrapers, pumice and rottenstone or sharkskin--but for that you had to find a shark.

“Screws were expensive, and they were only used where absolutely needed,” said Jeff Moore, who restores furniture for the Newport Preservation Society. “They used (animal) hide glue--it’s still holding. Blacksmiths made files, and they had molding planes and jointer planes and rifflers and sandpaper made out of crushed glass glued to paper. They weren’t fools. They did it the easy way wherever they could.”

Humble woods were used where they wouldn’t be seen, but the visible mahogany surfaces were flawlessly carved and dovetailed.


Future cabinetmakers apprenticed for seven years, beginning at about age 13. After the dog work they became journeymen, traveling from job to job until they acquired enough rifflers and planes and sharks to open their own shops. Roughly, it took a journeyman eight days to make a table four feet long, six days to make a plain desk, 22 days for a highboy.

Each city’s style became subtly distinctive, an aid to future antiquarians since few pieces in the Chippendale era were signed. It was an anonymous business presumably because everybody knew who made what. Ball-and-claw feet were squared off at the bottom in New York, carved with pronounced knuckles in Philadelphia, lacked webbing between the talons in Newport.

The Townsends and Goddards became known for their block-front furniture, with convex panels surrounding a third, concave panel and topped with a carved scallop shell, a common adornment, along with stars and radiating suns. It was a style that came to Newport from Italy by way of Boston.

Customarily, several craftsmen contributed to a block-front desk-bookcase: the lathe turner, the brass hardware maker and sometimes the carver. They would turn over their pieces to the cabinetmaker, who put them all together and got credit for the final product. So it was, presumably, with John Goddard’s $12.1-million block-front desk, although he probably did the carving himself.

Actually, no one is positive that Goddard made the desk. It is unsigned. “It’s a reasonably good bet he made it, but we’re not sure,” Emlen said.

Aside from the distinctive touches on the piece, there are letters between Goddard and the Browns, who were of such importance and wealth that the College of Rhode Island was renamed Brown University in their honor. A 1763 letter to Goddard from Nicholas’s brother, Moses, accuses the cabinetmaker of falling behind on an order and of working for another client when he should have been finishing Brown’s furniture.


Goddard the Quaker wrote back, hat in hand, that Moses should understand he had “to keep my boys Imploy’d . . . so I hope thou will think better of thy friend.” He went on to describe a “Chest on Chest of Drawers and a Sweld (block) front which are costly and ornamental.”

Such a costly and ornamental desk-bookcase, now known as a secretary, might have sold then for 400 pounds. Nicholas, when he died in 1791, left a “bookcase with books”-- probably the very same one--valued at 95 pounds in the widely fluctuating currency of that day. That was a high value for the times.

There were 10 such desks made. One was lost in a fire; eight are in museums. The Brown desk had remained in the family from the day it was made, in about 1767. After it was moved to the ultimate Brown family home in Providence in 1814, it left there only twice, both times on loan for an exhibit.

When he died, Goddard left “all my stock of mahogany” to his sons “to be worked up for the support of my wife and minor children.” A year later, the Newport Mercury carried a sad epitaph, a notice that Goddard, “represented insolvent . . . all those indebted to said estate are desired to make immediate Payment . . .” And so he faded into obscurity.

The desk, meanwhile, was passed down through the eldest Brown son and gradually acquired the status of a “family icon,” said Emlen, “a pinnacle of the family fortune. The Browns had the means to change the interior decor every 20 or so years, but the desk always remained.”

For years it had received little more notice than Goddard himself. Then in 1913, it was mentioned in Vincent Lockwood’s “Colonial Furniture in America.” Goddard was similarly rediscovered, as were his town and his works.


Newport had been invaded by the British during the Revolution and 400 homes were torn down for firewood. In the aftermath the town languished, its motto being “Eat it up, make it do, do without.” In this environment, old furniture stayed at home and out of antique shops. As the mahogany took on the blood-maroon, glowing patina of age, the cabinetmakers of Newport were recalled from their graves as “craftsmen (whose) output in quality, design and originality (was) unsurpassed by any other urban or rural setting throughout the world.”

The Goddard desk, almost 10 feet high, rose above the finicky, precious details in the auction house catalogue: “molded scroll pediment . . . fluted urn flame finials . . . stop-fluted quarter columns . . . shell-covered prospect door . . . scroll-carved bracket foot . . . .”