A rare and imposing pair of Cuban mahogany sacristy chests

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Lot 408W
A rare and imposing pair of Cuban mahogany sacristy chests

Sold for US$ 180,000 inc. premium

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A rare and imposing pair of Cuban mahogany sacristy chests
second quarter 18th century
Each with a shaped molded top over an undulating case fitted with four long drawers, raised on scrolling rocaille form feet.
height 47in (1.28m); width 4ft 5in (1.35m); depth 30in (76cm)


  • The Cuban sacristy chest (cómoda de sacristía), with its undulating design, is the quintessential expression in furniture of the eighteenth-century island Baroque style, and later of the Rococo.

    Historically the sacristy cupboard or chest originated in fifteenth century Spain. A large architectural fitting built into a wall of the church sacristy, a room behind or to the side of the altar used for storage of sacred ceremonial vessels and ecclesiastical garments. The Cuban Baroque block-front sacristy cupboards and chests were crafted during the first half of the eighteenth century and are consistent with the other documented cabinetry work throughout Cuba’s grand churches’ and cathedrals’ sacristies.

    Cuba’s elite class who contributed generously for the construction of local churches commissioned the island cabinetmakers to create smaller sacristy chests for their private chapels and urban mansions. Made smaller and free-standing with block-fronts, these extravagant chests mimicked the grand, ostentatious pieces first built into church sacristy walls. The possession of this adaptation of what was originally a religious expression of form gave the owner an increased sense of importance, and thus was considered a pièce de résistance of any collection of furniture belonging to a member of the upper echelons of Cuban society.

    The smaller free-standing form of these extravagant chests, with their undulating block-front façades, was believed to have possibly originated in Mexico or Brazil, but recent research points to a Cuban origin.

    Originally, the block-front was carved from a single thick piece of island mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), with a West Indian cedar (Cedrela odorata) interior. As the eighteenth century progressed Cuban cabinetmakers created ever more exaggerated serpentine fronts, with the design continued on the sides and the feet protruding farther forward.

    The Cuban sacristy chest was copied by craftsmen throughout the New World. Portuguese rococo sacristy chests are found in Brazil; Dutch bombé examples are found along the northern coast of South America and in the Dutch islands nearby. Examples can also be found in urban centers of Mexico.

    As serpentine block-front sacristy chests were made in Cuba as early as the 1730’s, the North American claim to be an origin of the form seems dubious. A theory was put forth in 1928 by William Goodwin, who visited Havana and saw the sacristy chest in the Cathedral of Havana. He wrote:

    My theory is that Job Townsend or John Goddard or both of them shortly after 1741 visited
    Havana for the purpose of choosing and selecting fine mahogany for their work, and at that
    time visited the cathedral, saw this piece, and recognized the unusual quality of its
    workmanship and evolved the type known as the American Block Front.

    Goodwin’s theory resulted in a photograph of the cathedral’s sacristy chest being published in Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury.

    It is difficult to establish a direct connection with documented evidence to show how the block-front style was transmitted from Cuba to North America, but there are shipping records of merchants who visited Havana to select and purchase island mahogany for cabinetmakers. Regardless the Cuban sacristy chest of drawers is not only a rare expression of form, but is evidence of the skill and innovative sense of design of their anonymous Cuban makers.

    There are inventories of pairs of Cuban sacristy chests, the vast majority of which have been destroyed or separated since the colonial period. While there are a few auction records for Portuguese examples similar in form and time span, there are virtually no auction records for pairs of Cuban examples. The offered lot provides an extraordinary opportunity to see these exceptional chests as they were meant to be displayed side by side in all of their majestic glory.

    Quoted in “Speculations on the Rhode Island Block-Front in 1928”, comp. Wendell D. Garrett, “The Magazine Antiques”, vol. 99, no. 6 (June 1971), p. 882

    Courtesy of Michael Connors, Ph.D.
A rare and imposing pair of Cuban mahogany sacristy chests
A rare and imposing pair of Cuban mahogany sacristy chests
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