Sotheby's recently sold a Stickley craftsman-style china cabinet for $245,000. Another was sold by Fontaine's for $10,000. Yet another was sold for just $1,000. All the items were genuine, turn-of-the-20th-Century Stickley-made pieces. Why was there such a wide range of selling prices, if all were genuine? Can the differences in price be assigned wholly to the vagaries of the auction process?
Certainly, selling at auction has its risks; I've found recently recorded auction sales for Stickley craftsman-style china cabinets as low as $1 (yes, one dollar). But such a low selling price is extremely rare, and admittedly could be a data-entry error.
The most likely reason for the price variations is that there were five Stickley brothers - all furniture makers - producing furniture under at least a half-dozen different company names at various times in the early 20th Century. All Stickley furniture is collectible; even today's new products.
But, some Stickley pieces are more collectible than others. The $245,000 cabinet mentioned above was built by eldest brother Gustav; the $10,000 china by brothers Leopold and John George (branded L & J.G. Stickley) and the $1,000 piece was built by brother Albert in Grand Rapids, Michigan and sold under the "Quaint" brand name.
Though highly collectible, there is much confusion among auction-goers regarding Stickley furniture. The most desirable items are made in the Craftsman style, but not all Stickley furniture has been built in that style. Between them, the Stickley brothers also dabbled in Art Nouveau and period reproduction furniture.
The first step to successfully collecting Stickley craftsman-style (a.k.a. "Mission" style) furniture is to recognize its style and construction characteristics. Next, one should know the history of the brothers: who was building what, and when they were building it. Finally, some familiarity with the shop labels used at various times is helpful in dating a piece.
Stickley Mission style furniture is noted for its simplicity of style and sturdy construction. Gustav's original designs were philosophically influenced by writer John Ruskin, who railed against the British factory system of production, and furniture maker William Morris, whose emphasis was on traditional hand-made products. Both Ruskin and Morris were part of England's Arts and Crafts movement, which emphasized practicality, craftsmanship, and simplicity over the copiously ornamented Victorian furniture of the late 19th Century. The furniture created by Morris was popular among England's wealthy elite; hand-made furniture was expensive to manufacture and carried a hefty price tag.
Gustav, however, wanted his products to be affordable to the "common man", so he was not averse to using factory production methods. He was insistent, though, that only the best joinery techniques and materials be used to build his furniture. To meet these ends Gustav developed a very basic style that he termed "structural". This style emphasized straight lines, hardwoods like oak and cherry, and evident joinery details such as tenon-and-key joints, exposed tenons, and visible doweling. Stickley furniture gave the appearance of being handmade while taking advantage of factory methods and machines.
Gustav was the first of the Stickley brothers to enter the furniture business. When his family moved from their home in Wisconsin to Brandt, Pennsylvania in 1875, Gustav went to work in his uncle's chair factory. In 1883, Gustav and brothers Albert and Charles established the Stickley Brothers Furniture Company in Binghamton, New York. The original partnership was formed as a retail-wholesale distributor rather than a manufacturing enterprise. Charles soon left the company to go into business with his uncle, forming the manufacturing company Stickley-Brandt Furniture. Stickley-Brandt specialized in chairs; their first products were based on Victorian styles but, after seeing the success of Gustav's later designs, switched to their own version of Craftsman styles.
Albert was the next to leave Gustav, moving in 1891 to the "furniture capital" of Grand Rapids, Michigan to team up with brother John George. Their new company was called Stickley Brothers, and they manufactured chairs and tables in a wide range of styles. Stickley Brothers Furniture Company is best known for its "Quaint" lines of furniture: Quaint Tudor, Quaint Arts & Crafts, Quaint Mission, and Quaint Manor, Quaint American, and Quaint Colonial.
John George left brother Albert in 1900 to join brother Leopold in buying the Fayetteville, New York firm of Collins, Sisson, and Pratt. In 1904 the brothers re-incorporated as L. & J.G. Stickley. Their first product was a line of Mission Oak furniture; in 1922 they began to produce Colonial revival furniture as well. The company of L. & J.G. is still in business today, owned by the Audi family, long-time Manhattan, New York Stickley dealers.
Clearly, there was a lot of coming-and-going among the Stickley brothers. The furniture style they are most famous for - Arts and Crafts a.k.a. Mission Style - didn't appear until eighteen years after the original company was founded. Here is an approximate timeline of the companies formed by the brothers and what styles of furniture they manufactured:
Between the years of 1900 to 1915, the firm of Gustav Stickley used eight different shop marks to identify their products. The Stickley Museum displays twenty shop marks used by L. & J.G. and Gustav. Add to those marks those used by other Stickley brothers in their various enterprises and there are more marks than can be addressed in this article. However, there are ample resources to be found online at the site of the Stickley Museum and in the book "Arts and Crafts Shop Marks 1895-1940" by Bruce Johnson.
Mission-style furniture remains popular even today; cheap reproductions can even be purchased at Walmart. Regardless of a seller’s credentials, authentic Stickley furniture should be validated by shop marks and/or other provenance. Because of the value of some Stickley antiques, counterfeit Stickley shop stickers have been produced and sold online. Careful inspection of materials, finishes, and shop marks is recommended before any purchase is made.