An 18th-century mahogany bonnet-top highboy has long been the centerpiece of the furniture collection of the Snoot Museum in East Upscale, Massachusetts. The piece was built in 1769 and signed by local cabinetmaker Josiah Gale. It had been in continuous possession of a local family until being donated to the museum in 1923 on the recommendation of Wallace Nutting. The museum announced last week that the piece will be discarded, due to the recent discovery of Gale’s workshop.
Gale’s shop was located in the small town near Boston, on the lower level of a building with the only entrance on the side of the structure. The ground sloped from the front of the building to the rear, and the entrance to the shop was below the level of the street at the front. Gale died in 1774 of a fit of apoplexy, and before his family could come from England to settle his estate, another building was erected on the vacant lot next door that directly abutted the building that housed Gale’s workshop and covered the entrance. Within a year, the American revolution broke out, and Gale and his business were forgotten.
The adjoining building was destroyed in a fire last winter, and construction workers clearing the site discovered the hidden entrance. What they found behind the ancient door was an intact shop complete with a work in progress, stacks of raw material, a workbench and period woodworking tools. “The man literally left this place at the end of a workday, locked the door and never returned” said Uriah Hai, director of the museum. “What we found however, has led us to re-evaluate the piece in our collection” Hai continued, “and to keep our conscience clear, we need to remove it as soon as possible.”
Head curator Eustice Mightee described what was found when the shop was first examined. “Frankly, the place was a mess. Tools and shavings were everywhere, parts of furniture pieces weren’t stacked neatly, and we couldn’t even find a broom. Moreover, there weren’t enough tools, and those that we did find were of the inexpensive garden variety.” Among the disturbing finds were the condition of the benchtop, where researchers found a hollow measuring .006” toward the back of the right hand side. In addition, three chisels were found in need of sharpening. “Clearly the man was a complete slob, unintelligent, immoral and quite likely overweight and out of shape. As such he couldn’t possibly have produced a piece of museum quality furniture” stated director Hai. Both Hai and Mightee confirmed that the decision to remove the piece from the museum’s collection was based on the deplorable condition of the shop, not on the quality of the highboy.
“Back in the 1920s when we acquired this piece we didn’t have the research tools available to us today,” said Mightee. “At the time, all the curators had to go on was the appearance of the finished piece of furniture, the overall proportions, the fit and finish of the joinery, the detail in the carvings. It was well-made, in fine condition and had its original finish, but thanks to the internet, we now know that Josiah Gale was not a competent furniture maker and as such we have no choice but to remove this piece from the museum. Part of our mission is educational, and we have to think of the influence something like this could have on the hundreds of school children who are forced to visit us every year. One of them might get the idea that good furniture could be made with a minimal amount of tools in an untidy shop. We shudder at the consequences of the possibility of that happening.”
The museum has no plans to sell the piece, in spite of the fact that similar pieces have been sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. “We’re kicking that piece of junk to the curb and sending it to the dump, so that no one else will perpetuate our unfortunate error. We believe it’s our moral responsibility based on what we’ve read from the experts online” stated Hai. “We owe it to the children.”