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Putting Theory into Practice

Examples of three different styles of fancy or Hitchcock chairs in the Pavilion Collection.
The accession record from 1970 provided very little detail and the Object ID numbers were assigned room by room rather than keeping sets together.

Ready access to institutional documentation during cataloging is a topic that comes up frequently because it truly can’t be stressed enough. Our peers of decades past made notes that go beyond how an object came into the collection and a short physical description. Knowing about loose parts, repairs, and where to find identifying marks inform how we handle those objects and help distinguish between pieces of a set. These notes are even more important in remote cataloging where only digital records are readily accessible. To date, more than 250 object records for the Pavilion Collection have been brought in line with best practices using digitized archives. However, one group of objects presented a challenge that no amount of historic documentation and existing photographs could untangle.

This chair is the oddball that caused so much confusion. This chair had been accessioned instead of another chair that was part of a larger set, which slipped past previous catalogers.

Eighteen painted and stenciled side chairs in the Pavilion Collection present a particularly confusing case. Frequently referred to as ‘fancy’ or Hitchcock chairs whether they were manufactured by the Hitchcock Chair Company of Connecticut or not, this style of chair has remained popular since the early 19th century. The Collection’s chairs are not identical and come from a number of different sets. We relied on three documents to catalog the chairs: the Museum Register includes eighteen chairs accessioned in 1970; in 1988 four sets of chairs (eighteen total) were included in an insurance appraisal made by Christie’s; and a wall to wall inventory from 1994 documented a total of twenty-five. The additional chairs recorded during the wall to wall inventory were not the source of confusion since the other two documents were selective rather than exhaustive. The origin of our confusion was that the description in the accession records did not correspond to those made in 1988 and 1994.

No amount of pouring through documents and looking over existing photographs shed further light and a trip to offsite storage was planned. Armed with historic photographs and database records, the first step was to exclude the obvious outliers–red, green, and unpainted chairs—bringing the number down to nineteen. These records were discounted because the term Hitchcock refers to black or grain painted chairs with stenciled decorations.

One chair remained unaccounted for. We circled back to the accession records to identify the suspect. By matching up chairs with rush seats and solid seats to their records we were able to whittle down to “Hitchcock chair” without further descriptions. Comparing the remaining chairs in storage against photographs from 1963, we determined that one chair out of a set of four with cane seats was not accessioned. Instead, a number was given to an oddball with a solid wooden seat.