Mallard, A Chapter in the Legend

A nineteenth century pedestal base walnut oval Renaissance Revival center table

p4A ItemID C227732
The sofa and side chair from a four-piece mid-nineteenth century Rococo Revival rosewood parlor suite

p4A ItemID C227739

A Chapter in the Mallard Legend: The Family Offers His Personal Possessions at Auction

Families that inherit historical artifacts related to their famous or infamous ancestors often possess both a blessing and a burden. So it was for the descendants of Prudent Mallard (1809 to 1879), the renowned New Orleans 19th century merchant and probable cabinetmaker.

When Mallard’s widow, Augustine, died in 1889 (ten years after Prudent) her will contained instructions for the division of the family household furnishings, most of which probably had passed through the Mallard Royal Street retail premises and into the Mallard home. The document, which was translated from the French by Louise Mallard, Prudent’s granddaughter, meticulously identifies each furnishing and names the son or daughter for whom it was intended. While the decades passed and the memory of the Mallard family furniture faded, the legend of Prudent Mallard, the cabinetmaker, grew.

When I wrote a story about Prudent Mallard for Country Roads Magazine six years ago, I believed that the last word on his life and work had not been written. Finally, 116 years after Madame Mallard’s death, in the January 22-23, 2005 New Orleans Auction Galleries’ sale, many of the objects that the widow had dispersed reappeared. The Mallard family of descendants, who had treasured and preserved their patrimony, at last decided that the moment had come to release their responsibility. Concerned about the possibility of their damage or destruction by fire and the ever present danger of hurricanes, the family members decided to sell to others, who would appreciate the beauty and the direct historical connections to the most famous New Orleans 19th century furniture icon.

Eager Bidding for the Mallard Patrimony

There were numerous surprises in the bidding for the Mallard patrimony during the auction’s Sunday session. First, bidding exploded for lot 752, a rare Louisiana oil painting of a bayou scene with a fisherman by Charles Giroux, a 19th century painter with a mysterious biography. Estimated to sell at $20,000 to $40,000, it brought a breathtaking $184,000. Another Giroux Louisiana landscape featuring a hunter found a buyer at $74,000. The prices I note include the premiums charged to buyers on the hammer price. My favorite was the daguerreotype, or early photograph, of Prudent Mallard, his wife, son and daughter. It put a face on the man who is so often credited with creating almost half the old furniture in Louisiana. Someone else fancied it, too, for it sold at $3,910. Mallard’s own bookcase, a piece which had originally been bequeathed to his son, George, found a buyer at $14,950. This was an excellent price in my estimation, considering the impeccable provenance, or unbroken chain of ownership. In the antiques world objects having a proven association with an important historical figure have considerably more value than those formerly owned by us anonymous types.

The Mallards’ four-piece rosewood parlor suite (Lot 865), reputed to have been made for Madame Mallard, consisting of three chairs and a settee, had a surprisingly simple and restrained style. As New Orleans Gallery’s Tom Halverson, commented, “Most of us would not have associated this modest furniture with Mallard. It’s evident that he did not live in the sumptuous style of many of his customers.” Halverson’s observations may have been shared by others who could not relate the simple designs to the more ornate furniture attributed to Mallard. The parlor furniture, estimated at $3,000 to $5,000, did not find a buyer. It was offered a month later at the firm’s St. Charles Gallery and fetched $1,725. In contrast, the three Mallard family 19th century Colt pistols prompted excited bidding from the auction audience, with the 1849 Colt Pocket Revolver ringing up a high bid of $7,475. For our antiques firearms enthusiasts, the 1860 Colt Army and the 1860 Colt Navy revolvers each went for $2,530. Halverson also mentioned the family’s books: “I was surprised that the Mallard family library, also part of this auction sale, did not include any furniture design source books or anything material pertaining to the business. Perhaps they were discarded in the past, but who knows, like the things we offered in this sale, they might turn up in the future.”

The Transfer of Responsibility

The Mallard family members who consigned their inherited artifacts were relative novices to the auction process. Like anyone who places their property for auction and attends the sale, they were nervous as their treasures came up for bidding. Sweaty palms and churning stomachs are the usual symptoms. After all of the Mallard consignment sold, they experienced an enormous sense of relief. Their long-time stewardship had ended. As it turned out, The majority was purchased by local collectors of Prudent Mallard’s furniture, who now had the responsibility to preserve and protect it. One of the family members described her satisfaction with the entire auction process. Reminiscing about the years of care lavished on the Mallard antiques, she shared a personal insight-on the condition of anonymity, “Everyone thinks that their personal treasures are priceless; but when they come up for sale, they just become furniture.” When the auction concluded, Prudent Mallard’s family celebrated in a manner that hopefully would have pleased their famous relative;-they went for drinks at the Napoleon House in the French Quarter. They had successfully passed the torch to another generation that will preserve the Mallard legacy.

Reference Note by p4A furniture editor Robert H. Goldberg, appraiser of antiques and residential contents in New Orleans and Senior Accredited Member of the American Society of Appraisers, who believes that the Mallard family learned the truth about antiques. We do not really own them-we are merely their temporary custodians. For those visiting New Orleans, a magnificent suite of Mallard’s bedroom furniture is on public display with the original bill of sale at the historic Gallier House, 1132 Royal Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

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