The FRANKLIN Mint, the company that has made a business from mail-order "limited edition" objects for collectors, has arranged for a $100,000 donation to the State Department's Diplomatic Reception Rooms - in return for the right to display a Chippendale desk in the rooms. Franklin Mint is selling copies of the desk by direct-mail brochures for $4,800, delivered. The orginal desk, a fine block and shell design signed by John Townsend of Newport in 1765, is owed by Stanley Sax of Birmingham, Mich, owner of the Stan Sax chemical compound corporation. Sax said in a telephone interview that he bought the desk in 1975 from the firm of Israel Sacks, New York. "I paid pretty close to the current appraised value, $250,000," he said.
This marks the first time the State Department Americana collection has received money from the commercial reproduction of an object.
However, Clement Conger, curator of both the State Department collection and the White House and chairman of the State Department Fine Arts Committed, set up an arrangement in 1971 with the Franklin Mint whereby the White House Historical Society receives a 15 per cent royalty from Frankilin's sale of "unlimited edition" presidential and First lady medals, mini-coins and plates.Royalties from these sales, according to the White House Historical Society, have announced to $2,082 million through 1976.
That plan was not warmly received by everyone. At the outset, William Walton, former chairman of the State Department Fine Arts Committee and a former White Historical Assn. board member, called the arrangement a "crummy commercial deal," but there have been no recent objections.
In December, 1972, the State Department committee had an offer from Kittinger furniture company to license reproductions, in return for a 6 per cent royalty, but at that time some committee members considered the idea too commercial. Conger now says Kittinger "didn't offer us enough money. But we now are at the point where we would authorize reproductions if the price were right. Everybody is doing it - the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institute , Williamsburg and Historic Charleston, for instance."
However, there is also some criticism of the latest Franklin arrangement.
Mrs. George Maurice Morris, a member of the State Department Fine Arts Committee, and herself the owner of a historic house and a notable antique collection, said last week in a telephone interview, "I can't help but feel inside that it cheapens the important antiques. Some years back, a company wanted to reproduce some things from my collection and I wouldn't allow it. I suppose it does not allow people to see copies of good things when they might not have the chance to see the real thing, but I'm afraid I resented the idea, for myself at least I wasn't at the meeting when Clem presented the plan. I would have to study the idea."
Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art, said he did not think his board of directors would accept such a deal. "I doubt that we would lend our prestige to a promotion of private benefit. I think the whole procedure is something that should be looked into carefully.
"I am not against reproductions, you understand. Especially since this is a Newport desk, and I'm from Newport. I think reproductions serve an educational purpose. But at the National Gallery we do not license exclusive rights to any firm. We believe that, since we are a public body, the public has the right to a nonexclusive use. We do not believe that reproductions from our collection must be carefully monitored so the copy is faithful and marked as a copy; educational information is accurate and the advertising and promotion truthful and tasteful."
Copying furniture in the State Department collection, according to State Department legal adviser Gene Malmborg, is legal. "Anyone is free to come into the Reception Rooms, if they don't disrupt its official use, measure, photograph and copy the government-owned property that is there. What would be complicated legally would be to give an exclusive contract to any one firm licensing a reproduction of a government-owned property: It could be done, but it would more trouble that it was worth."
The Franklin Mint arrangement neatly avoids the legal question since the desk is privately owned and merely on loan to the State Department. About half the 18-million American collection of historic portraits and other paintings, antique furniture, procelain and silver in the rooms is on loan, though many others have been bought or donated, all with private funds.
Knittinger already reproduces a three-shell, four drawer chest, also signed by John Townsend, R.I., 1765, once on loan to the State Department from a private collector. The chest has been reproduced since about 1962 Royalties go to the Newport Preservation Society.
Conger said, "Last year Franklin Mint came to us and looked at pieces in our collection, because they wanted (to reproduce and sell) something on public view. Franklin Mint liked our New York Chippendale secretary, but they were afraid it would be too tall for some people's houses. Then they heard about the Chippendale block and shell desk from Harold Sacks of the antique firm. They approached the owner with the arrangement whereby he would contribute the fee to the State Department and put the desk on view here. Who was I to say no? It didn't cost me anything. Of course I brought it up before our board. We got the desk last fall."
Sax said he agreed from the beginning of the discussion with the Franklin Mint that the loyalty payment to him of the $100,000 would be donated to the State Department. The contract, he said, stipulated that the desk must be left on view in the diplomatic rooms until the end of 1977, the period during which the desk is being offered by the Franklin Mint. The desk is in the entrance hall of the top-floor Reception Rooms.
After January, Sax is free to sell the desk. Asked if its value would be enhanced by the State Department display and the Franklin promotion, Sax said: "It might be, though some people have told me that all those copies around may make the desk seem too common."
Conger and his architectural adviser, Edward Vason Jones of Albany, Ga., are quoted in the front and back respectively of the Franklin brochure. Conger calls the desk "one of the great masterpieces of American colonial furniture." Jone is quoted as saying: "What a rare opportunity for lovers of fine American furniture to acquire and enjoy a re-creation of a great masterpiece, crafted with integrity and complete authenticity."
In fact, Conger said neither he nor Jones nor Sax has seen the entire completed Franklin Mint reporduction. They have seen the front lid panel with the three shell carvings. Sax said Jones made suggestions for improving the carving and color. Conger said he thought the shells were far better than he'd expected. "In my own home, I do have some reproduction furniture - Kittinger Williamsburg," Conger said."But of course not on the first floor."
"We're having the reproductions made by Henredon in their North Carolina factory," explained Robert Kress, head of Franklin Heirloom Furniture. "We talked with several furniture companies. Baker Co. does fine work, but they couldn't handle the volume we need."
Kress, by telephone, said he didn't expect to sell too many of the expensive reproductions: "Anyone who says we'll sell 500 of them would be very wrong." The cutoff for ordering the desk is Aug. 31, but the company reserves the right to send out more "invitations" to buy in October, with Nov. 30 as the second cutoff date. The reproduction is only offered by mail from Franklin Mint, not by stores. Kress says if this edition is successful, they will offer a reproduction of another piece next May. The Franklin Mint is offering "easy terms": $400 down and 11 $400 installments.
In the last few years, the Franklin Mint has offered through direct mail "limited edition" medals, porcelain and silver plates, leather-bound books, crystal, pewter and jewelry. The reproductions have capitalized on the interest of people in collecting and investing in items they believe may become rare.