Hidden in a Closet
Arguably the single most important piece of American painted furniture that we ever had the pleasure to have handled is this country Chippendale style hanging wall cupboard.
Constructed of yellow pine, it was made near present day Luray, Virginia about 1800 for the Reverend Jacob Strickler by an unidentified cabinetmaker and decorated by a neighbor, Johannes Spitler (1774-1837). Spitler was only identified by name in 1975 by Don Walters, then an associate curator at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. The key to his identification was a remarkable paint-decorated tall clock inscribed: JACOB STRICKLER / 1801 / JOHANNES SPITLER / NOMBER 3” (now in the American Folk Art Museum) and then owned by Jesse T. Modisett of Luray, Virginia, a direct descendant of the original owner and recipient of the clock, Jacob Strickler (1779-1842), a Mennonite preacher and important Virginia Fraktur artist.
The Modisett homestead yielded Walters a treasure trove of material related to both Spitler and Strickler, but unknown to Walters, and unrecognized by the family, was this extraordinary cupboard, hidden from view in a closet of the Modisett home.
After the death of Jesse Modisett’s wife Ruth, in 2004, the cupboard was finally discovered and recognized for what it was by an estate appraiser working for Virginia auctioneer Jeffrey S. Evans, found in an under-stairs closet and used as a medicine cabinet! Its remarkable state of preservation has been attributed to the fact that it hung for more than 100 years with virtually no exposure to sunlight or other damaging elements. In order to fit the cupboard into the cramped space of the closet, the cornice had been carefully removed, but incredibly it had been preserved by the family along with five of its original nails!!
The cornice was reattached, and the cupboard along with the rest of the estate went to the auction. Recognized as a newly discovered masterpiece of American folk art, and skillfully marketed by Evans, it attracted national attention, and sold for a record price of $962,500. For more about Spitler, and a thorough examination of this piece and it’s fascinating history see the essay “Jacob Strickler’s Cupboard,” by Philip Zea in the book “Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence, Selections from the Jane Katcher collection of Americana,” published in 2006 by Marquand Books in association with Yale University Press.
Written by David Schorsch