Connecticut's 'Mona Lisa' sits inside a shuttered Landmarks house

This cherry and chestnut chest of drawers, made in 1780 in Colchester, was bequeathed to the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, which is now known as Connecticut Landmarks, with the Amasa Day House in the East Haddam village of Moodus by Katharine Chaffee Roberts in her 1961 will. (Submitted)
This cherry and chestnut chest of drawers, made in 1780 in Colchester, was bequeathed to the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, which is now known as Connecticut Landmarks, with the Amasa Day House in the East Haddam village of Moodus by Katharine Chaffee Roberts in her 1961 will. (Submitted)

When Zeke Liverant of the fabled Liverant Antiques in Colchester first laid eyes on a cherry and chestnut chest of drawers in the Amasa Day House in the East Haddam village of Moodus, his son Arthur recalls, he "almost passed out" because of the beauty of what he saw.

Zeke Liverant, who died in 2000, was a member of the board of Connecticut Landmarks, then the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, and the Amasa Day House and its contents, including the beautiful chest, had been left to the preservation society by the bequest of Katharine Chaffee Roberts.

I paid a visit last week to Liverant Antiques, the family-owned business that has been brokering antiques with museums and serious collectors since its founding by Nathan Liverant in 1920, after hearing about the remarkable chest and the Liverants' assessment of it.

Someone who knows the chest well, calling it Connecticut's "Mona Lisa," was the person who first told me it was part of the collection at Landmarks' Amasa Day House, which has not been regularly opened to the public for more than 10 years.

I was curious to learn more about the chest, since I found it hard to imagine such a rare and valuable antique left inside the Amasa Day House, which is closed up tight, apparently unheated, with paint peeling and mildew growing on the outside walls.

It actually has to stay there, according to the terms of Roberts' 1961 will, which says: "I hereby direct that none of the above described real estate and contents thereof shall be sold, nor shall any of the contents be removed therefrom."

Arthur Liverant, when I caught up with him at the 1845 Baptist meeting house on Colchester Green, which serves as offices and a showroom brimming with handsome antiques, was glad to talk about the Amasa Day chest, which he called "a masterpiece of American design."

Indeed, Liverant's eyes light up and he becomes almost wistful in describing what makes the chest, believed to have been commissioned by the Day family from a Colchester furniture maker in the late 18th century, so remarkable.

In the same way that a Porsche is so different from a Chevrolet, even though they both have tires, a steering wheel and engine, the Day chest is extraordinary for the design, fine detail and craftsmanship that distinguishes it from other furniture of the period, Liverant told me.

It is a little like what distinguishes an athlete who can jump 45 inches off the basketball floor from one who can only jump 33 inches, he added.

It is especially remarkable, he said, that such a fine piece was crafted from wood in a small New England town like Colchester in 1780, a time when people worked hard just to stay warm.

Liverant refused to estimate its value, saying "people will only focus on the number."

He said an $800,0000 valuation from some years ago that someone mentioned to me would be on the high side. He allowed that the value could certainly be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Its mate, an almost exact duplicate, is part of the permanent collection of the storied Winterthur museum in Delaware founded by Henry Francis Dupont.

The person who first told me about the chest said it was moved a number of years ago to Landmarks' Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, possibly because the Amasa Day House no longer was open regular hours and the Hale house then had a caretaker. Liverant also told me he believed it had been moved at one time to Hale, although he said he doesn't know where it is now.

When I first asked Landmarks Executive Director Sheryl Hack, by telephone Monday, about the whereabouts of the chest, she told me she would have to get back to me, to be sure she had the right answer. She called back Tuesday afternoon to say it is at Amasa Day House and to the best of her knowledge has never been moved from the house, which she said has a security system.

I asked to see it, and she said it wouldn't be possible this week, in part because of the impact of the week's snowstorm on schedules. She agreed we could try sometime in the future.

Meanwhile, I heard back this week from a spokesman from the office of Attorney General George Jepsen, after asking about whether the office's investigation into bequests to Landmarks for Forge Farm in Stonington and the Palmer-Warner House in East Haddam might include the Amasa Day House. She said the investigation has widened.

"I can confirm that our office's investigation has expanded to include a comprehensive review of Connecticut Landmarks' processes and performance in complying with charitable restrictions and obligations on assets its holds and manages. We would decline to comment further while this review is ongoing," said a statement from Jaclyn M. Severance, director of communications for the attorney general.

I look forward to Hack letting me see the chest at Amasa Day House, now that I have caught the Liverants' excitement.

I got the impression Arthur Liverant doesn't use the word "masterpiece" lightly when talking about antiques.

I would think a museum would want to show off and brag about what is most likely the most valuable piece in its collection.

Of course, it adds another sad note to the story of Roberts' generous bequest, which included an endowment with $100,000 in 1967 dollars.

All these years later, her Amasa Day House is buttoned up, and the public can no longer see Connecticut's "Mona Lisa."

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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