20 Mar Chapter 12: Evaluating Antiques, Furniture
Anyone setting out nowadays to furnish their home in early American, whether it be formal pieces labeled Queen Anne, Chippendale, Federal or whatever, or less formal “country” pieces, should keep one thing in mind: Of all the categories of antiques that have taken a hit in value and price the past ten or fifteen years, nothing may have been a poorer investment than furniture. Chapter 1 presented some data illustrating contemporary price declines for coffee mills, Terry pillar & scroll clocks, redware plates and wedding ring quilts, along with a longer term view of prices for Antonio Jacobsen’s ship paintings. Figures 12-1a through 12-1d show that furniture has been anything but immune to this trend. Looking first at Figure 1-1a, we of course need to keep in mind that the data reported here take no account of inherent quality. Our figure includes the best of the best, highboys that have had repairs, as well as those whose tops and bottoms are “together by association” (i.e., the top came from a different piece than the base). Nevertheless, the data show that even for the brief six year period considered, average auction prices have decline by roughly $1,800 per year. That’s a pretty ugly number and means that if you bought a highboy in 2011 or 2012 at the average price for those years of $11,500, its has declined to a bit over $4,000 today. Of course, one can object to this calculation by arguing: “Yes, average prices have surely declined, but only because the last few years didn’t see any superb examples coming onto the market.” It’s reasonable to speculate that in a declining market those who in the past made a heavy investment in the highest quality examples will try to hang on until price declines reverse themselves and that the absence of those higher end pieces magnify the appearance of price declines. As Figure 12-1b shows, though, even if we eliminate from consideration those highboys that sold for more than $20,000, prices still discernibly decline — now by an average of $700 per year so that if you paid the average of $6,500 for one of these less exalted examples in 2011-12, today you could expect it to sell for $3,700!
Fig 12-1a: Realized Auction Prices for Flat Top Queen Anne Highboys
Fig. 12-1b: Realized Auction Prices for Flat Top Queen Anne Highboys < $20,000
Lest you think that such price declines are unique to highboys, Figures 12-1c and 12-1d document similar declines for Federal cherry Hepplewhite chests and cherry slant lid desks, and here we see even steeper declines than for highboys.
Fig. 12-1c: Federal Cherry Hepplewhite Chests
Fig. 12-1d: ca 1800 Cherry Slant Lid Desks, OG Feet
Such data, despite whatever qualifications we attach to them, offer several lessons. First, naturally enough, they tell us that a five or ten year old price guide is a poor basis on which to judge the value of something. With suitable attention to the comparability of things, such guides might give you a fair indication of relative value, but they will most likely overstate absolute value. But there is a second and perhaps more important implication by way of advice to the beginning collector; namely avoid compromised pieces. I know that fifteen or so years ago I’d not have blinked at paying $2,000 or even $3,000 for a married cherry highboy if the marriage was a good one (i.e., the top and base were the appropriate matching sizes, the wood matched as did any embellishments such as shell carvings, finish and color). There was still profit to be had then. Today I’d think twice at even $1,000 and most likely would still walk away. With uncompromised pieces now falling into the price range of what compromised pieces once sold for, and with compromised pieces now often selling for less than what a new some-assembly-required particle board chest might cost you at the local furniture mart, compromised pieces are going to remain crappy investments for the indefinite future. Moreover, if dealers are themselves avoiding compromised pieces, think of the trouble you’ll have trading yours in when attempting to upgrade your collection. I suppose, of course, that if you just want the look, then you can take advantage of the likelihood of finding a mish-mash highboy for under a thousand or Hepplewhite chest with replaced feet for a few hundred bucks, but don’t expect any dealer to come running to your house to buy it in the event you want to replace it with a better one. And I’d also guess that if and when price trends reverse themselves, compromised pieces will recover their value more slowly (if at all).
OK, enough of this depressing recounting of prices and trends, and on to the subject itself. But let me tell you now that if you think I’m going to discuss every furniture style for every period for which the label “antique” is applicable – Pilgrim, William & Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Federal, Empire and the three or four discernible Victorian styles, — you’re nuts. There’s too much there. So I have to limit myself, and one way to do that is to lop off the 17th century and a good part of the 18th, along with the latter half of the 19th. There are good reasons for this. First, I don’t know that much about Pilgrim and William & Mary furniture. It’s rare, it’s expensive and, quite frankly, it’s often too difficult to distinguish American from English pieces. Throughout the 17th century furniture styles were pretty much the same on both sides of the Atlantic – at least what little there was of it — as was the wood used by cabinet makers. Just because a piece was made of oak (the favorite then), and just because it was made of American or European oak (good luck telling the difference) is not definitive of anything. American oak can be (and was) exported to Britain (what else could the colonists export … rocks?). Alternatively, and as noted earlier, what do you think they did with those oak ships that sailed to America and sprang a leak or smashed onto some shoal? Answer: They took them apart and made something with the wood. And what if some 1640s of 1650s colonist traveled to America with the family bible in an English-made bible box, which thereafter was handed down in the family from generation to generation. Is that any less an “American” bible box than are those succeeding generations? There are, admittedly, decorative carving styles in certain pieces such court cabinets and the famed Hadley Chests of the Connecticut River Valley specific to this side of the Atlantic (see Figure 12-2, courtesy of Bonham’s Auction House), but you’d have to be an expert to correctly identify the origin of any specific piece. So when you’re attempting to evaluate something from the 17th or early 18th century, until proven otherwise one’s priors should be that what you have before you is British (or Continental) in origin. The estimated population of the American colonies in 1700 (excluding Native Americans who I don’t think owned a great many William & Mary court cupboards) was no more than 250,000 souls wandering about in the wilderness. The population of England, Wales and Scotland, in contrast, was around 6.5 million. Now it’s true that a good share of that 6.5 million couldn’t afford beans, literally; but the same was true of those 250,000 (ever play tourist at, say, Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts and see how the Pilgrims lived? Pretty pathetic actually). In the late 17th century, Philadelphia was a bustling ‘metropolis’ of 600 souls and exceeded in size by the likes of Salem Massachusetts. New York was already well on its way to becoming America’s most populous city with 5,000 residents, but that was largely because the Dutch were scrambling to bite off a bit of North America for itself. It wasn’t until 1820 or so when the population of the US surpassed the UK’s. In other words, during the heyday of Pilgrim and William & Mary styles, there were a lot more of “them” than of “us”. Indeed, if you could afford, say, a court cupboard in England, it was most likely housed in the gazillion square foot mansion of a member of the landed gentry whereas in North America you were considered well-to-do if you had wood as opposed to dirt floors. Thus, there were a lot more tables, chairs, blanket chests, bible boxes, etc. on the other side of the pond than here. Besides, white folks on this side of the Atlantic in the first half of the 18th century were far too busy killing or being killed by Native Americans or figuring out how to feed themselves when all they really knew how to do was read the bible. Often enough, moreover, an entire village went up in flames during some uprising along with all of the village’s never-to-be-antiques — a tragedy no doubt for museums and future antiques dealers, but the Wampanoag chief Metacomet in King Phillip’s War (1675-78), the Yamasees in South Carolina (1715) or France’s Iroquois allies in the French and Indian War (1754-63) didn’t give a twit as to what the Met, Wadsworth, Deerfield or Winterthur might like to have in their collections some 250 years hence.
Fig. 12-2: Ca 1700 Hadley Chest
Another error is to imagine people in the 17th and early 18th century living in homes furnished much like ours today, albeit more primitively. Nothing I fear could be further from the truth. First, unless you were part of that wonderful 1%, your home didn’t have rooms set off as “bedroom”, “kitchen” “living room” and so on. The central and possibly only room would serve multiple if not all purposes. More than likely you didn’t sit on a chair … you sat on a bench or stool. We might think of chairs as coming in sets of six. However, it wasn’t until the early 18th century when, for example, the probate inventories of the reasonably prosperous village of Wethersfield Connecticut reported a mean above six for the number of chairs owned by the deceased (Kevin M. Sweeney “Furniture and the Domestic Environment in Weathersfield Connecticut, 1639 – 1800” in Robert Blair St. George, ed., Material Life in America 1600- 1860, Northeastern Univ. Press, Westford, Mass., 1988). Indeed, throughout the 17th century that mean generally stayed under three. If you keep in mind, moreover, that such inventories are biased in the direction of the more well to do, you’d probably be surprised to learn that throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the mean number of cupboards never rises above 0.5 (i.e., half or more of the inventories record no cupboard whatsoever) while that of mirrors hits 1.0 only by the 1750s. Actually for those of you who might like to decorate your homes to mimic the early colonists, if you want true authenticity you should first cover your floors with dirt, get rid of those nice big windows (and for heaven’s sake, forget about making them moveable for ventilation), learn to make do with a table that might also substitute as a bed, and finish off your furnishings with a few benches and a box or two. Also, check with your neighbors to see if they’d object to your garbage and human waste being tossed out daily onto your front yard, because if you truly want to be authentic, you best board up the door to any bathroom. OK, so you might say that you don’t want to pretend you’re living on the frontier – you’ll settle for mimicking that 1%. Good enuf, but still scratch the bathroom, scratch running water, scratch nice hardwood floors with carpeting and scratch anything but the most primitive of chests. Beginning to get the idea?
Now surely things improved after the 1750s, at least in the cities, towns and villages, although you still might have to make certain that waste water being tossed out a window didn’t splash onto you (what, you imagined a sewer system?). Using the jargon of those who study political/economic development, we might say that the colonists had reached the takeoff stage. Homes got bigger (two rooms now), housewives were finding ways to banish floors made of compacted dirt, and some people actually had those new-fangled chests with multiple drawers in them. Still, keep in mind that 19 out of every 20 people trying to make a go of it in the thirteen colonies lived outside of what passed for a city … heck, they didn’t even live in anything that could be labeled a town. But it was then that furniture of various sorts began to proliferate along with the skilled cabinet makers to make the things we treasure today. Probate inventories begin recording a chest of drawers among the possessions of the deceased, benches and stools virtually disappear in favor of chairs, tables proliferate and cradles become relatively commonplace. You’d also pretty much have to wait until the 1750s to begin seeing anything labeled a desk as commonplace.
Is it American: So 1750 will pretty much be the starting point for the sorts of furniture considered here. And even then, I’ll be limiting myself for the most part to country pieces as opposed to, say, the high style products of Philadelphia, Boston, Salem, Newport, Baltimore, New York and Charleston. And it’s when we get to the mid 1700s that specific styles take hold, notably Queen Anne first and then Chippendale soon thereafter. By the way, why anything made around the 1750s is called Queen Anne is a mystery to me – her reign lasted only from 1702 to 1714, whereupon she croaked and was succeeded by her second cousin, George I (who didn’t even speak English – he was German). In any event, we pretty much know that neither of these furniture styles popped up like mushrooms in a Pennsylvania or New England forest. I doubt if any seasick sheep herder, criminal refugee or religious zealot trained themselves to be a skilled cabinet maker while crossing the Atlantic. A good share of those who landed on our shores and knew how to assemble a piece of furniture without having it fall apart were already cabinet makers in England (and other parts of Europe). Nor did any of them step off the boat and say “I think I’ll invent a whole new style of furniture for the New World.” They might have if there had been an avant-garde of style here with Andy Warhol lithos of soup cans hanging on their walls, but Park Avenue was at best a cow path, junk bonds weren’t yet an investment opportunity and the media of the age hadn’t yet invented anything to mimic publicity agents and today’s ‘beautiful people’. So instead, they brought with them not only methods of construction but styles as well. To illustrate, consider the child’s chair in Figure 12-3, which dates to the mid to late 1600s (yes, I know … its feet have worn off. But don’t get too picky with something 300 years old). I advertised it as American when selling it, so it’s legitimate to ask how I knew that. Well, to be honest, if someone of authority told me it was English, I sure as heck couldn’t argue with them. But in this case I saw a picture of a virtually identical chair with an identical carving in a book authored by someone more knowledgeable than me with respect to furniture of that period (there were a few other hints, but no need to get into that now). All that does, of course, is push the bean across the road: How did he know it was American? Damned if I know. Maybe he saw a picture in a different book that matched his chair. Or perhaps he spoke to someone out there who studied Pilgrim era furniture and who, at a glance, can nail down a chair’s origins in an instant. I can only hope, then, that the basis of my attribution leads back to one of those scholars (and keep in mind that the study of American antiques can be as much of an academic exercise warranting a PhD as is the study of quantum gravity or the sex life of some obscure English poet).
Fig. 12-3: A 17th Century American Child’s Chair
Once into the mid 18th century, though, things get a bit easier to assess in terms of origin. Occasionally you’ll encounter a snotty Englishman who will tell you that American furniture was made by drunk Englishmen who emigrated to America to escape the law or creditors. Well, I can’t speak to the level of sobriety of our ancestral cabinetmakers, but that cabinetmaker, drunk or sober, arrived in North America and began making things a tad differently than when in England. If you compare, say, an English Windsor chair to its American counterpart, or an English Queen Ann drop leaf table to its American cousin they are alike, but with subtle differences. The legs on the American table are typically more delicate with thinner ankles while those of a British piece are prone to be thicker and straighter (see Figure 12-4a). Similarly, the turnings on the American Windsor chair are more accentuated, the splay to the legs more pronounced and the back splat found on English Windsors has been done away with entirely, replaced by delicately tapering spindles (see Figure 12-4b). Now don’t presume that immigrant craftsmen somehow developed a keener eye for form in crossing the Atlantic. Rather, what happened is that even on the outskirts of America’s cities, if they wanted an unblemished and especially strong piece of cherry, walnut, ash or maple, all they need do is walk out the door and chop down the appropriate tree. The same was true with other woods such as elm, pine, birch, poplar and hickory. A delicately formed ankle that might snap almost immediately using wood from Europe’s over-worked, new-growth or depleted forests (read: crappy wood) was far more likely to survive 200 years if made from wood growing wild in an American back yard.
Fig. 12-4a: Which is the English and Which the American Leg?
Fig. 12-4b: American vs English 18th C Windsor Chair
To see what I mean in a slightly different context, if you ever have an opportunity to compare an American chest of drawers with its English counterpart, check the drawer bottoms. Suppose both drawers use pine. Look carefully and see if you can detect a difference. Ok, times up: The English pine bottom will have knots in it; the American one won’t. Know why? Simple: English pine forests, after hundreds of years of harvesting, were populated by scrawny things, at least as compared to their American counterparts. If there were trees in the UK that matched those found in North America, the monarch owned them and it would be off with your head if you so much as broke a branch. Thus, while it was nearly impossible to cut a piece of pine of any width in the UK that didn’t have knots (or anywhere else in Europe for that matter), in North America doing so was a piece of cake. Ever wonder why English cottages had thatched roofs while those in North America typically had shingles? Again the answer is simple: Shingles are made of wood whereas a thatched roof is made of … well, basically scraps from the field. If you wanted shingles in England and didn’t own the land on which your scruffy cottage sat, there was only one way to get them: Steal the wood and pray the landlord didn’t find out who was cutting down his meager supply of trees (a hard thing to hide since all he had to do was look at your roof). With this in mind check out Figures 12-5a and 12-5b, which show the sides of two drawers. Want to guess which comes from an American piece and the other from across the pond?
Fig. 12-5a: 18th C Drawer Side
Fig 12-5b: Another 18th C Drawer Side
Alternatively consider the back side of the Queen Anne highboy in Figure 12-5c that dates to the mid 1700s. See any knots? If you think this chest might be English and are willing to bet money on it, you can write me a check now. (This discussion of wood leads me, as a side note, to comment on the genesis of the word “windfall”. Briefly, in accordance with the Massachusetts Charter of 1691 and subsequent reinforcing acts, the British government, among other aggravating policies such as later granting the East India Company a monopoly on the importation of tea … and we know what that led to … didn’t allow colonists to cut down pine trees greater than 24 inches in diameter. Those specimens were reserved for the British navy so it could buils ships and harass the French, Spanish, Dutch and whoever else saw fit to sail on ‘its oceans’. However, colonists were allowed to use any tree knocked down by the wind … hence a windfall. As you might suspect, some pretty severe ‘winds’ devastated America’s forests prior to (but not after) 1776.)
Fig. 12-5c: Backside of a ca 1750 American Queen Anne Highboy
For perhaps a better example of what I’m talking about look at the two 6-board painted blanket chests in Figure 12-6a and suppose we must determine which if any is American. Unfortunately, Figure 12-6a alone isn’t going to be much help – both are approximately the same size and both sport what appears to be original paint with two-panel decoration. With no additional facts we might be tempted to prefer the chest at the top since it has dovetailed construction and paneled decoration whereas the other is merely nailed together. Now consider Figure 12-6b, which shows the interiors of these chests along with close up of their lids. The first thing to notice is that the green chest is pine loaded with knots. Moreover its lid is made of at least three joined boards. The odds of this chest being American, then, is essentially zero – an American early to mid-19th century cabinet maker had no reason whatsoever to use inferior wood nor to spend the time joining boards to make a lid. The second, red, chest is a different story entirely. Not only are no knots to the wood, the wood has that subtle green hue that characterizes tulip poplar – a favorite secondary wood in America. And the lid is a single wide board, so not the kind of wood readily available to a Continental or British cabinet maker. This second blanket chest, then, is American.
Fig. 12-6a: Two Painted Mid-19th Century Blanket Chests
Fig. 2-6b: Interiors of the Two Chests in Figure 12-6a
To prove, however, that there are no hard and fast rules, we note that if pine isn’t used for a drawer’s bottom, the grain on that of an English chest (almost always oak) will as is the case with the drawer bottom in Figure 12-7 commonly run front to back and consists of multiple boards (generally, at least two, with a third narrow but somewhat thicker supporting board running front to back between the two wider boards forming the bottom). In an American chest, on the other hand, the grain typically runs length-wise and consists of a single board. Like I said, we had big trees.
Fig. 12-7: English Drawer Bottom
But now consider the 5-drawer tiger maple chest in Figure 12-8a. With chestnut secondary wood, she’s clearly American, most likely from Rhode Island or Connecticut ca. 1790, and is wholly original right down to its hardware. Look, though, at Figure 12-8b. The top image is the interior of one of the middle drawers, with all but the bottom drawer looking much the same. The lower image, though, is the bottom drawer, and here we see that for reasons destined to forever remain a mystery, the cabinet maker choose to run the chestnut front to back. Perhaps he ran out of a single board wide enough to match the other four drawers. Perhaps he screwed up and cut the original board wrong, so rather than toss his mistake, he made do with what he had. Or perhaps he turned the job over to an apprentice, who simply got it wrong. Now make no mistake here: The cabinet makers of the period were skilled beyond my ability to understand how they did what they did. Absent a power tool of any sort or the opportunity to run to a local hardware store for a supply of sandpaper and steel wool, they got boards perfectly straight, perfectly smooth and all with dovetails that not only fit perfectly then but continue to do so 250 years hence. I’m surprised the UFO enthusiasts on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens program haven’t yet claimed that the explanation for the skill with which furniture was crafted in the 18th century was the secret assistance of visitors from a galaxy far far away. In any event, we’ll never know why the boards on one drawer run differently than the rest in our chest, and so again we have an example of where it’s due diligence, knowledge and informed guesses that must serve as your ultimate guide to ascertaining provenance.
Fig. 12-8a: New England Tiger Maple Chest, ca 1790
Fig. 12-8b: Drawer Interiors of Chest in Figure 12-8a
Aside from the relative availability of materials, there was one other thing contributing to differences in style between American and English (or Continental) pieces: Economics. The American counterpart to today’s super-rich (e.g., George Washington, John Hancock, Robert Livingston) was still, by British standards, a middling sort and not someone the Duke or Duchess of Poobah wanted to have as a son-in-law. The home of Virginia’s richest man, Washington’s Mount Vernon (he chose wisely when marrying the wealthy widow Martha Custus), bears no comparison to the estates of Britain’s landed gentry (which, aside from losing the war, was one reason why it was especially galling to officers of the British army to find their butts getting kicked at Yorktown). We had land and we had trees but Britain had money. So simplicity of form (read: less expensive), aided and abetted by Puritan, Calvinist and Quaker ideas, was more the norm here, and only where there was an emerging moneyed class such as Philadelphia, Boston or New York with their bankers and lawyers (some things don’t change) do we find stylistic embellishments to American furniture that mimic the complexity found on the other side of the Atlantic.
A more deliberate attempt at moving away from British forms occurred after 1776, but even here we see in Hepplewhite and Sheraton a clear British influence (those are British names after all). With a nod, though, to political correctness (seems this idea has been with us for awhile, though today it has reached the level of absurdity), it’s at this point that the word “Federal” enters the dictionary of furniture styles since who, after all, wants to use British names, especially after the War of 1812 wherein those nasty Brits burned down the White House and most of Washington D.C with it (though an argument can be made that the real tragedy is they did it only once). But as with Queen Anne and Chippendale, American “Federal” often corresponds to a simpler (cleaner?) version of the two imported styles of Hepplewhite and Sheraton.
It’s when we move away from urban centers that the differences between British and American forms become even more apparent, with economics again playing a critical role. This time, though, it plays in America’s favor. The average British subject didn’t own a landed estate; as a matter of fact, the average Brit owned preciously little. For the most part, they lived on and farmed land owned by someone else. Or if they worked in the city – well, who needs much of anything in a sooty rat infested slum? But in America as I noted earlier, the overwhelming majority lived in the boonies – or at least outside of its few urban centers. While we might think from a cursory reading of American history that everyone lived in what then passed as cities with a sprinkling of hearty souls fighting Indians, bears and mosquitoes elsewhere, in fact only a small percentage of the population in Britain’s former North American colonies lived in urban centers. Of the approximately 4,000,000 hearty souls in the then USA in 1800, only a tad more than 200,000 or 5% lived in cities or towns with a population greater than 2,500. In contrast, in 1790 there were 800,000 souls in London alone, accounting for 10% of the UK’s population. But something otherwise unheard of had occurred in America: Land became a commodity like cows, chickens or bushels of wheat. So an American of the middling sort could, after saving a bit, pack up the family, head West (which in 18th century America might mean moving no further than western Massachusetts or upstate New York) and either buy land or squat on some empty acreage. And with that land came trees, which meant that as soon as a home of some sort was built, there was a local demand for furniture along with the material to meet the demand. Markets being what they are, itinerant cabinet makers followed — cabinet makers whose instinct was to mimic European styles but with the differential availability of wood playing a role. While an English Windsor might be made entirely of elm or oak, makers of an American Windsor chair had a menu of woods to choose from – pine or poplar that could be shaped to make a comfortable seat, easily shaped and bent ash or hickory for the stiles and curved backs, and rock hard maple for boldly turned stretchers and unbreakable legs. But now what to do with this hodgepodge of woods? Simple — you paint it. You paint it green, black, red or yellow – pick your color. Oh wait, you want your table to mimic that fancy mahogany that denotes high style among the rich and famous? OK, then lets use cherry or simply paint it red. And if it’s a chest, for a few cents more we can do some grain painting or cover the drawer fronts with tiger maple veneer.
The Brits, of course, weren’t the only ones making their way across the Atlantic. Once the sign went up “land at cheap prices” the rush was on and over the decades we not only got Irish stew, Yorkshire pudding, Italian meatballs, German beer and Polish sausage, but also Pennsylvania Dutch (read: German) and Scandinavian tastes in design with a bit of French influence thrown in for good measure. In other words, just as in the words of de Crevecoeur a new man – the American – was being made out of the hodgepodge of immigration and the demands of an untamed frontier, new or at least modified furniture designs were emerging as well. The United States, of course, wasn’t unique to this process – Canada shared in it too, and thus some of the characteristics of early Canadian furniture can be traced back to the influence of its French-Canadian population, with the idiosyncrasies of those forms commonly used to distinguish Canadian from American country furniture.
The point of this disquisition is that while the average person in 18th and early 19th century Europe and the UK was lucky to find two boards to nail together to make a table and lived in a hovel the family could be kicked out of without notice at the whim of the proprietor, Americans (and Canadians) were blessed with a surfeit of materials with which to build and furnish a home they’d built on land that was guaranteed to be theirs once Native Americans with other ideas had been banished or exterminated and a certifiable deed was in hand. Much to the surprise or chagrin of Marxists and today’s leftist loonies, defensible property rights have an amazing effect. Knowing that one can’t be booted suddenly out of one’s home because some unseen landlord was making “an economic adjustment” to his holdings, people begin investing in the things they own by owning nicer things and by molding what they have to suit their preferences. In the process, people not only borrowed heavily from whatever styles were in vogue, but they added their own sense of aesthetics so as to give American antiques a distinctly different flavor from their European counterparts. There may be nothing in the American inventory to match a magnificently inlaid Dutch clock or a French bombay secretary. But such furnishings, which are often deemed the be-all and end-all of today’s nouveau riche, were limited to the estates of Europe’s landed elite who had little to do but chase a fox, visit one’s mistress or scheme to overthrow a king. Americans for the most part were busy doing other things; namely, subduing and populating a continent. And when one is doing that, the market for elaborate marquetry tends to soften and instead a simplicity of style emerges that is absent from Continental or British counterparts. In lieu of elegant marquetry (which, in any event, was generally intended to cover crappy wood) and brass hanging off the corners of a desk, even the well-to-do in America substituted the gracefully curved leg to the drop leaf table, the carefully turned column to the candle stand, carved feet for dining chairs, a delicate taper to a Federal sideboard’s legs or simply a careful attention to the wood grain of a chest of drawers. Moreover, not a few of these refinements spilled over to the countryside. While the carved ball and claw foot might not have made it out of urban centers, Windsor chairs experienced a significant metamorphosis while the core elements of Queen Anne, Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton found reflection in most things. Collecting Americana is, in large part then, a process of training one’s eye to see and appreciate what is both common to European styles but at the same time unique.
Before proceeding further, it’s time to reveal my prejudices when it comes to furniture. Consider, then, the two card tables in Figures 12-9a and 12-9b. The first is an 1820s piece signed Benj’n Adams while in partnership with Nehemiah Adams and Thomas Williams in Salem Massachusetts. Amazingly, according to Winterthur, this is the only known piece signed by him, so don’t ask me how it made its way to California. It’s sole problem is that one leg has been reattached after the wife sideswiped it with her electric cart – a consequence no doubt of both her driving skills and our congested hoarder-qualified home. The card table in Figure 12-9b, in contrast, was made by someone whose identity is long gone and an attribution of 1810 is but a guess based largely on legs that taper in the Hepplewhite style. There’s little question that even with its repair, the Adams piece is the more valuable of the two. One hardly expects to scour local antique shops or flea markets and discover anything signed by a known craftsman. Nevertheless, my preference is for the second table. I owned the first but sold it; I own the second and my kids are free to set it out on the lawn at a yard sale once I’m dust … that’s their choice … but rest assured it will be in my probate inventory. With a tiger maple top, red wash base and scalloped side skirts, it’s a definite step up from an ordinary country piece. And although not worth what the Adams piece might bring at auction, it suits my taste more than does its formal cousin. My preference here derives in part from the fact that this table tells the story of America more than does its formal cousin. Parallels to the Adams piece can be found in England and indeed, given the minimal use of a secondary wood, card tables from the two countries are often difficult to distinguish. The table in Figure 12-9b, on the other hand, is quintessentially American. First, it’s not something likely to be found in the home of that 1%, or even possibly the 10%. It’s decidedly middle class, at least by the standards of the era. But it’s also unlikely to be found in any home on the other side of the Atlantic, where you could either afford a table of Adams quality or nothing at all. Whoever had this table made for them wasn’t someone living on the edge of subsistence in some London or Parisian slum or in some dirt floor thatched roof cottage owned by a landlord while contemplating an escape to the New World. The table in Figure 12-9b, then, speaks of a society about to develop into an economic powerhouse – THE economic powerhouse of a world in which kings, dukes and Tsars will soon find their existence growing a tad less secure.
Fig. 12-9a: Benj’n Adams Card Table, ca 1810, Salem Mass.
Fig. 12-9b: Country Tiger Maple & Birch Card Table, Painted Base, ca 1800
However, before I move on to specific categories of furniture, take a look at Figure 12-9c: Now that’s a country card table with its grain painted base, delicately tapered legs and shaped top (courtesy of Bill Quinn of Ticonderoga, NY)! While surely a country piece (as opposed to being the product of any well-known urban craftsman), it was definitely made by and for someone with a decided taste for style. So as much as I love my card table in Figure 12-9b, this one proves that there’s always something better, always something to strive for. Collecting and the search is never done. So with that in mind …
Fig. 12-9c: Masterpiece Country Card Table
Country farm tables: Since I have to begin somewhere, I’ll start with “tables” wherein at one end we have those Louis the XIV examples with their elegant inlay and ormolu mounts while at the other we have the lowly American farm table with a rectangular top made of a few boards nailed or pegged down to a frame set on legs of some sort. OK, so maybe I’m looking at apples and oranges. But I want to argue that even a lowly farm table that may have originally stood on a rough hewn wood floor on the west side of the Appalachians when the nearest neighbor lived a mile away can have an elegance today that renders it appropriate for even a contemporary décor. Briefly, what I’ll label a farm table are those country made tables big enough to seat 4 or more (generally 6 or 8) and suitable today for the kitchen or dining room. Because of size (the one in my kitchen is 52” x 38”), their tops are typically made of two or at most three separate boards. If the top consists of more than three boards, you’re most likely looking at a reproduction, something a farmer slapped together to slaughter chickens on or a European import. Once again, the large trees in abundance in the 18th and early 19th century gave little reason to make something that began life with a multitude of “cracks” in the top.
Two things, now, dictate the desirability and utility of such tables (aside from the obvious concerning originality of the top, paint, delicacy of the legs and whether those legs are ended out): Height and the table’s skirt. Insofar as height is concerned, 29 or 30 inches is ideal, while I suppose 28 inches can be tolerated. Less than that and you’ll feel pretty scrunched over sitting at your bowl of cereal in the morning, and once you get under 27 inches, you’d have to start thinking about trimming the feet of your chairs (don’t you dare!). The table in Figure 12-10 pretty much satisfies all preconditions for a good, functional table and is the one we have in our kitchen. It does, admittedly, have some peculiarities, the most evident being that you might think it has a 4-board top. Actually, it has its original two board cherry top but where both boards have developed significant shrinkage cracks. Fortunately, we no longer have to deal with kids who enjoy playing mini-hockey with cheerios or who see if they can flick a pea into a crack, so we’ve not only learned to live with cracks, but to enjoy the table’s non-reproducible character. The top, imperfections and all, exhibits the absolute essence of what people call a “scrubbed top” – no finish, but wood that’s rock hard from age and impervious to virtually anything short of spilled ink. We’ve spilled orange and grape juice on it, clamped apple peelers to it with the inevitable soaking of apple juice, dripped hot liquid sugar onto it fresh from the oven when making Christmas strudel, and set hot pots and pans down on it. But it remains as you see it, which is why among all the different forms of farm table, those with a hardwood scrubbed top are the most highly sought after among true collectors of country Americana. So if you don’t think you could live with a shrinkage crack here or there, then go find your own perfect specimen.
Fig. 12-10: Ca 1800 Scrubtop Kitchen Farm Table
Our table is a perfect 30 inches in height, but you’re not out of the woods at that height unless the top has a decent overhang all around (say 9 inches) or something less than a ponderous skirt. Our table has a minimal overhang, but given its overall height, the skirt doesn’t preclude siting comfortably at it. If, on the other hand, the table were an inch or two lower, that skirt and the absence of an overhang would be a problem. One of the most aggravating things you can experience is having your knees jammed up against a table’s skirt so that when you sneeze everyone’s wine or water glass crashes over. More aggravating, after having paid $1,000+ for a table, is realizing that it’s not only impractical to eat at but, because of size, there’s no room other than the kitchen that can accommodate it. Unsurprisingly, then, tables that make it impossible to sit at comfortably sell for a heavy discount relative to those that are wholly functional.
Our table has one additional nice feature – the absence of stretchers. Farm tables with stretchers have their own problem with functionality aside from issues of height, overhang and skirt: Where does one put feet and how comfortable will guests be putting their shoes on the stretchers of your recently acquired $1,500 two hundred year old table? To illustrate the problem with an example that suffers from every conceivable functionality problem, several years ago I attended an auction in which there was nothing of interest except for the large 18th century Pennsylvania work table in Figure 12-11. At five by three feet, it surely was big enough to seat six and being made entirely of walnut with a 2-board top, pegged construction and two fully dovetailed drawers, I found it hard to resist. But if my brain had been fully in gear, I would have resisted. Alas, logic and common sense often come up short when I encounter something from the 18th century, especially when the bidding dies at $250. While it has the requisite height (29 ½ inches), it lacks everything else that would allow a comfortable meal. There’s minimal overhang to the top and the skirt is utterly monstrous. Then there are those stretchers all around. And there’s one thing to consider with stretchers: When you’re not eating, you can’t neatly tuck your chairs against and under the table – six chairs plus the table are going to require a hefty footprint. Unsurprisingly, then, for several years the table didn’t move an inch from where I deposited it when I first brought it home (a storage room). No one wanted it, and no shop would take it on consignment – it required too much space and was certain to not be a quick sell regardless of price. Oh, I eventually rid myself of it, but it wasn’t easy and there was no profit to be made.
Fig. 12-11: My Impractical Pennsylvania Walnut Work Table
Functionality aside, stretchers can assist in judging a table’s legitimacy and age. If those stretchers aren’t nicely worn where it would be logical for them to be worn, the table is unlikely to be old. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries people didn’t acquire furniture for the heck of it. The 20,000 square foot ego-trip residence hadn’t yet appeared, at least not in America, so if something was going to take up space, it had to serve a decidedly useful purpose. If you could sit at it, you did, and if it had stretchers, those stretchers got worn. But wear is no surefire guarantee of age (think sandpaper here) so you best learn how to distinguish legitimate from artificial wear. You’ll notice, by the way, that the stretchers on the table in Figure 12-11 show little wear. But that’s what we’d expect in this case since this wasn’t a table one could dine at. It was intended for one of those large Eastern Pennsylvania stone homes as a kitchen work table, whereas eating occurred elsewhere. Thus, if you found significant wear to the stretchers in this case, you’d best be suspicious that the table was familiar with sandpaper.
There is, though, one part of a farm table that’s difficult to apply artificial wear to – its top. The working surface of farm tables that have served their intended purpose for 150 or 200 years and haven’t been refinished should exhibit a wonderful “scrubbed” surface similar to the one in Figure 12-10. Indeed, if the top is a hardwood such as cherry, it will gain a surface that’s impossible to duplicate artificially. If pegged to the base, those pegs and the area around them will smoothly protrude a bid higher than the top’s surface (because the wear will be along the top’s grain and across grain of the pegs); and if nailed to the base, the heads of those nails (hand forged or cut) will have oxidized the wood around them. These features of a scrub top surface might sound like imperfections, but if they are, they’re imperfections that Americana collectors lust for. Some farm tables offer an additional clue to age. To guard against warping, tops often have “breadboard ends” – a 1 to 3 inch wide strip of wood at each end that runs the full width of the top perpendicular to the top’s boards. On better made tables these ends are mortised into the main boards, but at times you’ll find them pegged or simply nailed on. Here’s the clues now to age and authenticity. First, because the grain of the breadboard ends run perpendicular to that of the top, the top will shrink depth-wise with age while the breadboard ends will shrink width-wise. Thus, after 200 or so years, the breadboard ends will be a tad longer than the table is deep, and if mortised into the top, the tenons will begin to protrude thru the edge of the breadboard strips. So if everything you see is crisp and clean or if it seems like someone had just taken sandpaper to the top to give the rounded appearance of wear, be on alert for a reproduction.
To illustrate, consider the 18th century country-made tavern or work table in Figure 12-12a with its drawer and single board scrubbed top. Now consider Figure 12-12b, which offers a closer look at several parts of that table. Beginning with the top left image, we see that the top was originally held down by wood pegs, though in this case we also see an early nail, which was most likely added after the original peg shrunk and loosened up. Both the nail and the peg, though, are clearly old: The peg shows the wear of centuries of use while the nail has oxidized the wood around it. Next up is the top right image of the end of one of the top’s side cleats. Here we see that despite the wear, the cleat is longer than the top is wide due to differential shrinkage. Looking now at the lower left image, the cleats in this case are held on by pegs … like the pegs holding the top down, none perfectly round (they couldn’t run to the local hardware store back then to buy some machine made dowels), and as with the top, protruding a bit since the wear to them is across the grain. The final image is the dovetails to the table’s drawer, and here we see the broad, somewhat crude, dovetailing common to an 18th century country made piece.
Fig. 12-12a: Mid 18th Century Scrubtop Tavern Table
Figure 12-12b: The Signs of Legitimate Age to a Table
There are other indicators of legitimacy. First, if one looks at the underside of the top, there are no shadows. As the top image in Figure 12-12c shows, if there is any differential oxidization, it matches the part of the top’s underside hidden from the elements by the drawer. Second, we can take advantage of the fact that the base of this table is painted. And since neither Rembrandt nor Michelangelo did the work, some of that paint was sure to slop onto the top’s underside as in the middle image of Figure 12-12c. If that paint isn’t there then you have a pretty strong bit of evidence that the table’s base was painted without the top in place and thus, most likely, with a different top since the odds are they didn’t get out the paint brush until all carpentry was finished. Finally, as anyone with the slightest experience in making or repairing tables knows, nails are worse than worthless in attaching a table’s legs to its skirt. The only proper way to do things is with a mortise and tenon along with pegs to keep everything tight (since glue would eventually dry and loosen). But as with the top, those pegs would be anything but perfectly round hardware bought dowels, and since shrinkage is with the grain, they’ll shrink less lengthwise than the wood into which they are set. Thus, those pegs should protrude a bit from the surface as seen in the last image of Figure 12-12c, though perhaps not as much as on the top since there’s little to any wear there.
Fig. 12-12c: Other Indicators of Legitimacy
Despite all the potential clues, it remains true that one of the more difficult things to judge with country furniture generally and farm tables in particular, is age. Out there on the farm or frontier, or even near more sophisticated urban environments, one wasn’t necessarily concerned with staying wholly up to date with the latest furniture styles. You had other things to worry about such as irrigating your crops, keeping your livestock from running off, making certain your well didn’t run dry and, on the frontier at least, beating off those nasty Indians who ungraciously thought you had no right being there. Thus, while furniture styles did migrate with people, they exhibited a lag and some resistance to change. So just because a table has tapered Hepplewhite legs, we can’t necessarily date it in the neighborhood of 1800 – it could just as easily be 1850. And if it has turned legs, that doesn’t mean it was made in the heyday of Sheraton – those turnings could be a holdover from earlier William and Mary forms (hence 18th century) or a lagged product of Sheraton influence (so even mid to late 19th century). Heck, legs have to be some shape and there are only so many options. Dating country pieces, then, requires that we look at things in addition to style. If there are nails, are they cut (19th century) or hand forged (18th century)? Are dovetails to drawers bold and somewhat crude (hence most likely 18th C) or are they fine and precise (most likely 19th C)? Does any of the wood exhibit circular saw blade marks (post 1850)? If the legs are turned, how out of round are they owing to the shrinkage of wood with age? And if provenance dictates that the piece was made in, say, Ohio, its pretty hard dating it to the 18th century (although, to be honest, we really don’t know Ohio’s population prior to 1810 since those sour-grapes Brits burned our records of the Northwest Territories when they set the match to Washington DC).
Quite frankly, though, we shouldn’t get carried away about the precise age of a country piece. Presumably you’re not evaluating a Philadelphia or Newport chest or desk for which you’re trying to attribute the maker. Instead, you should be satisfied knowing that it’s an honest and functional piece, as opposed to worrying about whether it dates from the 1790s or 1840s. And while I’m riding a bit of a high horse here, let me comment about repairs, imperfections and restorations. Quite frankly, it drives me crazy when someone critiques a piece because glue blocks have been lost or replaced. So what? The bloody thing is 150 or 200 years old and god knows what’s going to be replaced on you after only 50 years! Is old Uncle Fred worth less as a human being because he has false teeth? Besides, nobody cared poop about glue blocks in 1820 so why should we care about them now? Or how about “I think the feet have lost some height”? Well of course they have – it wasn’t kept in a plastic baggie for 200 years was it? Take for instance the candlestand in Figure 12-13. I’d guess she’s lost approximately a half inch from its spade feet. But who really cares if a candlestand is 28 inches high or 28 ½ inches? Candlestands are light (as are farm tables) so they’re likely to get pushed around a bit every time a floor is cleaned, and two hundred or so years of pushing will do something. Then there are those stains to its tiger maple top. Well frankly, I can live with those, but if you can’t, I know how to get rid of them (I’ll tell you later). And what about the objection with respect to case pieces that “the hardware is replaced”? Ok, original hardware is nice, but so is winning the state lottery. As long as there aren’t extra holes and the hardware is of the right period in form, don’t get all bent out of shape here. I’ll bet that half or more of the pieces on exhibit at the Met or Winterthur have replaced hardware.
Fig. 12-13: My Imperfect Candlestand
But before I move to other furniture forms, one final comment about farm tables. Throughout this discussion I’ve assumed that the table in question has four legs, which means I’ve excluded sawbuck or trestle tables. Much of what I’ve just said applies to tables of this design as well – look for one or two board tops, side cleats that have shrunk differently than the top itself, nails of the period, and so on. But sawbuck or trestle tables have one additional feature that can provide a clue to age: More often than not they disassemble. The top will lift off the base, and the base itself will consist of two “crossed legs” all held in place by a cross board that itself in held in place by a removable wedge at each end. Thus, look for wear at the wedge as a sign of age since more than likely the table has been disassembled and reassembled multiple times in its life (and look at well for signs that the wedge has been hammered back in place when reassembling the table or simply tightening it up). To illustrate all of this, consider the sawbuck table in Figure 12-14a, which happens to be our dining room table at the moment. Now there’s one thing I know about this table: It’s not old. It’s a wonderful 3-board tiger maple top bench made piece, dating in all likelihood to the 1990s at best. But how do I know that. Well, first, it does have end cleats to its top, and those cleats do protrude at the ends. But they exhibit absolutely no wear. Compare, for instance Figure 12-14b with Figure 12-12b. Then consider Figure 12-14c, which shows the wedge holding the cross bar in place to the legs. There’s absolutely no wear here either … everything is as crisp and clean as if it came from a lumber yard.
Fig, 12-14a: Our Sawbuck Dining Table
Fig. 12-14b: Side Cleat to the Table in Figure 12-14a
Fig. 12-14c: Wedge of Reproduction Sawbuck Table
Now you might ask if it bothers me that I have a reproduction in my house for the dining room. The answer is No. First, finding a country table large enough to satisfy me for use in a dining room might take decades – and at least out here on the West coast I haven’t found one. But second, even if I did find one, I probably couldn’t afford it. The top to this table is tiger maple, and a legitimate 18th or early 19th century example could set me back fifty or a hundred or more Ben Franklins. At that price, I’ve learned to live with a reproduction. So see – I’m not a stuck up purist after all.
Work or side tables: Here’s another broad category, so to make my task manageable I’ll speak only of those one or two drawer tables that stand roughly 26 to 28 inches high with tops approximately 20 inches or so square. Why they acquired the name “work table” is beyond me … they’re genrally far too small to do any meaningful work on. If you want, then, you can think of them as bedside nightstands, but regardless of purpose, the dimensions of value here are: age, style, wood and condition. Insofar as age is concerned, I’ll also limit myself to Federal-era examples – those made between, say, 1790 and 1840. With that said, there are basically two styles: Hepplewhite and Sheraton. Or if you want, those with square tapered legs versus those with turned legs. Hepplewhite as a style predates Sheraton, so in general those with tapered legs will be twenty or so years older than their turned leg counterparts (subject to the understanding that there’s a great deal of overlap here in the popularity of styles).
Fig. 12-15: Hepplewhite vs Sheraton Work Tables
Which style you prefer and which can lay claim to being more desirable is largely a matter of taste. Insofar as Hepplewhite is concerned, the more delicate the leg the better, where by “delicate” I mean how nicely the legs taper down to the floor. A good work table will have legs that end out to less than an inch square (preferably on the order of ¾ of a inch) since anything wider than that yields a clunky look (of course, if we were talking about a kitchen farm table, my one inch rule goes out the window since the table then threatens to be too delicate and non-functional). Delicacy is also valued with turned legs, but here there’s an added consideration; the boldness of the turnings where the bolder the better. One exception are Sheraton legs that are fluted (reeded), where once again delicacy returns as the aesthetic criterion. In terms of value, pine or poplar sit at the bottom of the heap with walnut and cherry in the middle. The top of the status ladder (insofar as unpainted examples are concerned) is tiger maple such as the two in Figures 12-16a and 12-16b. Naturally, the bolder the graining the better. Simple pine 1-drawer work tables can probably be had in today’s market for around $100 (less if you shop carefully), an otherwise comparable cherry example for $200 to $350, but one in tiger maple with strong graining to the top, sides and legs can, if nicely made, easily command a $1,000 price tag (and keep in mind once again that my values here are intended to be interpreted comparatively since market conditions and region of the country can jiggle these numbers around considerably).
Fig. 12-16a: Tiger Maple Hepplewhite Work Table
Fig. 12-16b: Tiger Maple Sheraton Work Table
There is, though, one type of pine or poplar table that can command even bigger numbers – tables that retain their original paint. Because of their complexity relative to, say, a pantry box or mixing bowl, one is unlikely to encounter a painted worktable in which the paint is a deliberate fake. It can happen, but that’s not as common a problem here as it is with simpler accent pieces. More than likely its paint will either be wholly original (and early) or a later coat honestly applied — and even a 100 year old coat of paint applied to a 150 year old table can move a table, price-wise, up a notch. To get some sense of the determinants of value here, as I look around me I find three country painted work tables (see Figure 12-17a): The one with Hepplewhite legs is painted a solid brown whereas the other two are grain painted. In one case the grain painting consists of brown swirls over light beige while the other is deep red faux mahogany. Here now, though, is where things get a bit complicated. Without looking at the pictures you might guess that the solid brown Hepplewhite table might sit as the bottom of the ladder in terms of value. How interesting, after all, can brown be? And as for the table with turned legs and faux mahogany graining – well frankly, if it comes to grain painting, faux mahogany is about the most common you’ll find. It’s almost as if ‘rare faux mahogany paint’ is an oxymoron. But hold on. The brown Hepplewhite has quite nice legs but better still it has a cookie corner shaped top. Pick a truckload of country work tables at random, and I’ll bet no more than one in a hundred has shaped corners. And then there’s that table with the less than rare faux graining. Yes, the graining ain’t rare – but its size is: The top is a mere 19” x 15” whereas the table in the middle in Figure 12-17a measures a sizeable 21 ½” square. In other words, the smaller table has a delicacy about it that its larger cousin doesn’t share. So with all that said, how would I rank these three examples in value? For me the ranking is unambiguous. Neither Sheraton style piece has especially accentuated turnings, so in that respect they’re equal. And although the brown swirl paint is striking and less common than faux mahogany, its relative large size gives it a cumbersome appearance. I’d readily rank it the least desirable of the three tables. Sitting in the middle of my preference order is the diminutive flame grain example: Nice paint, nice size, but rather plain in form and turnings. At the top of my preference order is the one with the shaped top. First, it’s the earlier of the three pieces. Second, despite paint that some might deem boring, that paint is 100% original to the piece. And third, a shaped top is as I noted somewhat uncommon in a country piece. Figure 12-17c, moreover, shows one additional feature to indicate that its maker went the extra mile: He chamfered the top’s edges to give it a less clunky appearance.
Fig. 12-17a: Three Painted Work Tables
Figure 12-17b: A Closer Look at The Paint in Figure 12-12a
Fig. 12-17c: The Chamfered Edge of the Brown Work Table
Now I realize there are those curmudgeons out there (i.e., anyone with an opinion at variance with mine) who will question my relative valuations with the objection “what are you going to do with that small flame grained table – display a teacup on it? At least the brown swirl piece can hold a bunch of useful junk next to your bed without having it fall on the floor.” Looking at my wife’s bedside table with its alarm clock, lamp, assortment of pills and body lotion, her iPad and a book she insists on reading long after I need to sleep, I know there are people who will make that argument. But they’re wrong. Why? Because I said so!
Of course, there are things that can wholly undermine a table’s value regardless of paint or form – cut down or ended out legs, remade drawers (look for old dovetails and the patina that develops to a drawer’s exposed wood), and replaced tops. Replace tops are perhaps the most common issue to be on the lookout for since, when the piece was regarded as merely a functional item, if the original top was damaged, its owner might simply ‘improve’ things with a new board. So look for signs of replacement such as the marks of old glue blocks to the table’s skirts but no corresponding marks to the underside of the top. Country work tables, being relatively small, had tops typically made of a single board, so if you see two joined boards for a top, be at least suspicious. The one exception to this is the tiger maple top. Often, to maximize the boldness of the grain, a cabinet maker might have joined two narrower boards that had especially bold grain.
One final comment about judging the authenticity as an antique work table: Look closely at the legs. If they are turned, keep in mind that they were hand turned and not made on some mechanized assembly line. Each leg, then, will be subtly different from the others. Diameters will vary and while the first turning on one leg might begin, say, 1 ½” from the skirt, the first turning on another might begin at 1 ¾” or 1 ¼”. Take a look at Figure 12-18, which shows the front right and left legs of the flame grained table discussed above. On one leg the turning begins 11/16” below the leg’s blocked section while for the other it begins 1/8” lower. This is anything but an uncommon occurrence. You won’t see such variation on a fine Philadelphia, Newport or Salem piece, but we’re talking about a table made for someone who couldn’t afford mahogany and had to make do with grain paint to bring some style into their life. Don’t expect perfection. Similarly, if the legs are square and tapered, they each might have begun life with a square cross section, but shrinkage will leave their cross-sections subtly rectangular, and the dimensions of no two legs will match precisely (assuming you have a precise enough set of calipers to measure).
Fig. 12-18: A Common Asymmetry to Country Table Legs
At this point but with Figure 12-18 in mind, I’m going to make a small detour that pertains to whether a piece has been somehow altered and is no longer what it began life as. As previously noted, replaced tops are perhaps the most common example of such a modification (with rebuilt drawers a close second). Also common is the highboy top that has had feet added so as to make it an ordinary chest, or a highboy base with a new top so as to make it a dressing table (more on this later). Thus, the first thing I did when encountering the chest in Figure 12-6 was to flip it onto its side so I could inspect the feet to make certain it has always been what it appears to be. But now consider Figure 12-19, which shows the left and right corners of where a ca 1800 tall case (grandfather) clock’s neck meets the base. Look closely and see if you can detect the difference. Give up? No, its not the dings and dents to the wood. So look again. OK, I’ll tell you what to look at … the joint line between the side and front OG molding. On the left, that joint line is invisible because it’s precisely at the corner whereas on the right is runs down the side of molding, approximately ¼” from the corner. So what accounts for this difference? The answer, actually, become apparent only if you get out a tape measure and realize that the clock’s neck is a full 3/8” off center. Thus, since that molding was one of the last pieces of wood added when finishing the case, someone then had to “play” with the molding to get it to fit, and that playing required an off center butt joint. So now the question is, who was that someone? Do we have evidence here that the base of this clock was rebuilt, albeit somewhat imperfectly? We cannot, of course, answer this question with only the evidence provided by Figure 12-19, but I’ll tell you that further inspection of the case’s interior, the consistency of patina, of the wood employed, etc., yields but one conclusion: The base is wholly original and the cabinet maker who made this clock case SCREWED UP. And since the screw up was most likely discovered only when the clock case was nearly completed, instead of taking the case apart and starting anew, the maker chose to fudge on the molding.
Fig. 12-19: Two corners of a Tall Case Clock
So what does this all tell us? Simple. It tells us that people weren’t perfect back then (although judging by the idiocy we commonly see today in the news or the utter absence of IQ displayed by litigants in daytime ‘real life’ TV court programs, they arguably were more perfect than we are today). Thus, while it pays to be cynical and to assume the worst when assessing the authenticity of a piece, we also need to leave room for the possibility that people screw up. Here’s another example — the cupboard base in Figure 12-20 wherein the situation is unambiguous; namely, the cupboard originally had a single door that’s been cut in half. The keyhole off to the side is a dead giveaway. But now we should ask: When and why was it cut? Or, perhaps more appropriately, has the cupboard’s value been seriously compromised by this rather significant modification? Well, all I can offer here is my opinion. First, given the wear and patina along the cut edge I’m certain the cut was made a long time ago. Since I’d judge the cupboard to date to the first quarter of the 19th century, I think the cut was made shortly after the cupboard itself was completed. In fact, I can imagine the following conversation having taken place somewhere in Upstate New York around 1825:
Husband: Here’s the kitchen cupboard you wanted. I made it out of 1” thick cherry and gave it a nice coat of blue grey paint. What do you think?
Wife: It’s OK, but why did you make the doors so big. Now when I open them, especially the bottom one, it bangs into everything. You should have made it with two doors.
Husband: Yes, but it’s solid … guaranteed to survive several lifetimes.
Wife: I’m not gonna be around several lifetimes. The damn bottom door is too big! I don’t have a ballroom for a kitchen, you know! And look, the doors are already sagging because they’re so heavy.
Husband: What, you want me to make new doors? It took me a week to get these right.
Wife: I don’t care what you do, but you have to do something!
OK, so maybe that wasn’t the conversation that ensued. But who can say it wasn’t and that while a cut-in-half door isn’t strictly original to the piece, it’s darned close to being original. In my opinion, then, the loss in value from this modification is minimal. In fact, since we use this cupboard in our house, I know that if that bottom door had been whole when we got it some forty years ago, I’d have spent a good deal of time cursing its maker. There is, after all, a reason why today’s full sized refrigerators come, for the most part, with two doors above the freezer section.
Fig. 12-20: Our Modified Cupboard
Stepback Cupboards: Turning to bigger things, I’ll continue with what I just left off discussing – a cupboard – and note that once again we come to a category for which there is almost infinite variation in style. So let me narrow the field to those that come in two sections – top and bottom – and that have glass panes (lites) in the top section. Thus, I’m excluding pewter cupboards (those with open upper sections), chimney cupboards (generally tall and narrow with a single door), jelly cupboards (two drawers above too doors … see Figure 12-25) and blind door cupboards (cupboards with paneled upper doors). However, much of what I say here with respect to age, condition, surface and “assorted details” (how’s that for a catch-all dimension?) apply to these excluded categories. Now, though, I want the reader to focus their imagination on the classical step back cupboard as they continue reading. OK, to hell with imagination … skip ahead to look at Figure 12-23. Beginning first with age, most stepbacks you’re likely to encounter will be 19th century. First, earlier cupboards are naturally less common if they have glass doors since in the 18th century glass was expensive and in rather short supply out along the frontier or at least away from the urban centers. In fact, because glass didn’t literally grow on trees, it tended to be the more well-to-do in the 18th century who could afford a cupboard with lites in the upper doors, which meant that such cupboards tended to be more formal and imposing. Thus a good 18th century Pennsylvania Lancaster or Chester County stepback is not likely to appear without some embellishments – reeded side panels, quality hardware (i.e., brass rather than wooden knobs), drawers in addition to doors for the lower section, cutouts for spoons in the upper shelves and removable plate rails to keep your imported Delft ware or Chinese export from falling forward. Such cupboards also tended to be made of a good quality hardwood – most commonly walnut. And as I mentioned earlier, the typical 18th century home didn’t even have a cupboard. If you’re just scraping buy, built in shelves are good enough. After all, what is it that you own that’s worth putting on display?
Focusing, then, only in part on the late 18th century and primarily the 19th, we need to consider cupboards made of a variety of alternative woods – pine, poplar, maple, walnut and cherry, where a hardwood cupboard has, ceteris paribus, greater value than ones made of pine or poplar. The ceteris paribus here refers primarily to surface. If it’s maple, walnut or cherry, I’m assuming it was never originally painted (there are counter-examples such as the cupboard pictured in part in Figure 12-20), whereas if it’s pine or poplar, there’s a better than even chance it originally sported a coat or early milk paint. Thus, if that pine or poplar cupboard had a run in with a can of paint stripper, a great deal of its value disappeared down the drain along with the stripper (oops, environmentalists are gonna pop a cork on this one so I’ll cover my butt and tell you not to send your paint and used stripper down the drain. Actually, even if your hostile to the environment, that’s good advice since otherwise some plumber and his family will eventually enjoy a summer vacation at your expense).
As for the difference between maple, walnut and cherry, that’s merely a matter of taste with but the exception once again of tiger maple. First, I’m told that when sawing down a maple tree, its impossible to know beforehand whether it will yield usable tiger maple boards and that only one tree in twenty will do so. And second, tiger maple isn’t the easiest wood with which to work. Aside from being rock hard, regardless of what you’re doing with it – sawing, sanding, chiseling — you’ll be working against the grain. Because of that as well as the dramatic appearance of the grain on a completed piece, tiger maple anything commands a premium. I already told you how that little country one drawer cherry nightstand made of cherry might retail for $350 but when magically transformed to tiger maple and you’ve got yourself something worth three times that. The same is true if not more so with cupboards. A $1,500 cherry cupboard transformed to tiger maple with a good strong grain would yield a similar increase in relative value (and that’s a hell of a lot of tiger maple too). Of course, tiger graining can run from “barely there’ to “knocks your socks off”, and the closer to the latter, the better. But one warning: There are several superbly gifted cabinet makers out there today making reproductions in tiger maple that conform in every detail to a 19th century piece, including miniature blanket chests, full sized blanket chests, small nightstands and stepback cupboards. Each and every one of these craftsmen advertise their wares as reproductions, which is unsurprising since they’re justifiably proud of their work. They also sell their product for a fraction of what an authentic antique might cost (and frankly, if I were intent on furnishing a room in tiger maple I’d be tempted to become one of their clients). This, however, opens the door to the crook – buying one of their pieces, giving it a bit of age such as washing the bare wood with a solution of potassium permanganate to add patina and then setting it out on the market as an antique. So if you find a good piece with fabulous tiger grain (and the craftsmen just referred to use only the best) at a price that seems too good to be true, the odds are it IS too good to be true.
Ok, so now back to the more mundane cherry, walnut or virtually grain-less maple. Here prices depend on the fine details. Most cupboards have relatively simple cove molding at the top, but add dental molding (see Figure 12-21a) and you’ve taken a big step in the direction of something special (since dental molding isn’t likely to be the only embellishment the cabinet maker added). Value is added if you find quarter columns at the corners or fluted sides to the left and right or the upper doors (see Figure 12-21b), in which case that cupboard becomes less a country piece and something that begins to mimic formal furniture, with values shooting above $4,000 or so.
Fig. 12-21a: Especially Elaborate Dental Crown Molding
Fig. 12-21b: Fluted Sides to a Cupboard
Next up in assessing value is how many lites it has to its (usually) two doors. Here, the more the better, with a total of 16 preferred to say 12 preferred to 9 (I’d guess that 12 is the norm). It also adds value if the lower section has some drawers above the doors – at least two, and sometimes three. And make certain those drawers are dovetailed – a cupboard is a complex piece of furniture, and having drawers that are merely nailed together generally means they’re rebuilt or replaced. Moving on down we next come to the feet, and here it matters less what kind of feet it has as long as they are original to the piece. Replaced or ended out feet will, at a minimum, cut the value of a cupboard in half. The simplest style is a bracket base, but the taller the feet, the better (though one shouldn’t get too carried away lest the cupboard look ungainly as if on stilts). Better still are OG feet because of the extra effort at takes to shape them (see Figure 12-22). However, a bracket base might gain a financial edge if the feet themselves are dovetailed – if the wood forming the front and side of each foot are joined with dovetails (see, for example, the feet to the blanket chest in Figure 10-32). Good period brass hardware (as opposed to wooden knobs) add value, but be careful here – check the inside of any drawers to see if things like oval Hepplewhite pulls aren’t a later addition, with a hole in the backside of each drawer’s face indicating it originally sported turned wood knobs. Finally, the better cupboards will be designed with a “pie shelf”, which isn’t really a shelf at all. Rather than set flush on the base, a cupboard’s top can be raised up by having its sides (and backboards) extend down so at to lift the upper half of the base, giving full access to the base’s top. People like a nicely raised cupboard top … say one that’s raised at least 6 or 7 inches so as to render the space of some use (pies if you insist). Raising the top in this way also allows for one last embellishment … a small drawer on the order of 8” x 5” to the left and right side of the “pie shelf” integral with the top (usually referred to as candle drawers).
Fig. 12-22: The OG Foot
Fig. 12-23: A Decent 1850s Cherry Stepback Cupboard
Now lets return to that lowly poplar cupboard, but instead suppose we give it an original coat of paint. Here you can forget about dental molding or fluted sides: The money is in the paint. And if that paint is robin’s egg blue or bright red and yellow flame graining, you could easily be approaching a five digit price tag. Sadly, I don’t own such a piece, but consider the more pedestrian example in Figure 12-24, which is a poplar cupboard with its original early coat of red paint. Strip the paint off, and you’d have a tough time in today’s market unloading it for $600. But with that paint – well, lets just say its current value, despite its simplicity, is a multiple of that number.
Fig. 12-24: Painted Poplar Stepback Cupboard
When it comes to paint, though, you need to watch out for one thing (aside from the repaint made to deceive) – grain painting that imitates oak. It seems that when oak was the rage at the end of the 19th century, people painted or repainted cupboards to mimic that wood. So it’s not unheard of to find cupboards of various descriptions with such paint covering its otherwise original surface. I recall getting a call many moons ago about an “oak” cupboard a woman was selling. It was a slow day, so what the heck … I drove over to see it. Well, from across the room I could tell it wasn’t oak, but a cherry cupboard much like the one in Figure 12-23 that someone had painted to imitate oak. Ahh, the horrible things people do to antiques sometimes, but worse still is when that oak graining is applied to an original coat of milkpaint. So suppose you have such a piece (I do). If you have absolutely nothing to do in life or have hours of time you’d otherwise waste in front of the TV, and if you’re also willing to roll the dice, this overcoat of “oak” grain painting can sometimes be carefully scraped off to reveal the paint beneath it. Admittedly, this takes guts, time and energy (all of which I lack … at least the guts and energy), but you just might end up with something far more valuable than what you began with. But now a second warning: Of the three pieces I currently own that are grain painted in a way that imitates oak, I’m certain that the grain painting of only one is covering a much earlier original coat of milk paint. Figure 12-25 shows a small section and we can see the original green. I’m less certain about the grain painted cupboard in Figure 12-26a. While the paint looks older than 1900, there is nevertheless an undercoat of brown (see Figure 12-26b) that may be its original surface or a part of the process of grain painting used in the 1850s. The third piece, in Figure 12-26c, is an early to mid 19th century jelly cupboard that’s also grain painted to imitate oak. But in this case I’m certain the paint is original and dates to the beginnings of the cupboard itself.
Fig. 12-25: Grain Painting Masking Original Green Milk Paint
Fig, 12-26a: Grain Painted mid 19th C Stepback Cupboard
Fig. 12-26b: Grain Paint on the Cupboard in Figure 12-21a
Fig. 12-26c: Grain Painted Jelly Cupboard
The matter of paint is also relevant to cupboards that have blind (paneled) doors on the top section (or to any cupboard for that matter). As already noted, such cupboards generally sell at a discount relative to those with lites since people like to look at and show off their collection of blue Staffordshire, Pennsylvania redware or whatever. The exception to this discounting, though, is if the cupboard exhibits a nice warm coat of original paint. To illustrate, take a nicely proportioned 12 lite cherry bracket base cupboard and you’re probably talking about a $1,500 or so piece of early American furniture in today’s market. If you now transform the cherry into poplar and rip out (figuratively speaking!) the lites and replace them with paneled doors, you’ve dropped the price down to something under $400 (if you can even give it away). However, now add a nice mid 19th century coat of milk paint and suddenly that cupboard’s value could readily pop up over $3,000, depending on color. For a specific illustration, take the cupboard in Figure 12-27. In and of itself, this is a nice piece with a relatively uncommon door arrangement that probably dates to the late 18th or early 19th century. I won’t hazard a guess as to what it might sell for on the open market today, but a few years back I paid $700 for it at an estate sale and was delighted with my purchase. However, if you took away the original red milk paint that adorns it with its wonderful worn surface and patina, I wouldn’t have looked at it twice regardless of price. Use that as a measure, then, of how much value disappeared over the years owing to the misuse of paint stripper on early country furniture.
Fig. 12-27: Late 18th C Painted Blind-door Cupboard
To further underscore what I’m saying here about paint, consider the 19th century blind door cupboard in Figure 12-28. The first thing to note, of course, is that it’s something of an oddity with its offset doors. Why it was made this way is your guess, which proves that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applies to antiques as well as physics. The second thing to note is the badly repaired right foot. Indeed, to say it’s repaired gives the concept of repair a bad name – a piece of wood was simply added so the cupboard stands straight. Clearly, there was a time when this was anything but a valued piece. The final thing to note, though, is its worn painted surface. Now it may be that appreciating such a surface is an acquired taste, such as learning to like olives or caviar (slimy fish eggs to me). But it’s the surface collectors lust for; the surface that some will trade their collection of flow blue to possess; the surface that when you encounter it at auction (as we did) you look around hoping that everyone else will be bidding on the mid-century crap that fills the auction house. Absent that surface and it becomes a piece in which to store used paint cans; but with it, and you begin wishing you’d been a better person so the Almighty will grant you a moment of grace and allow you to steal it at auction for a thousand or so (oh, and by the way … that 2-board panel to the right of the top door is correct and not a repair).
Fig. 12-28: The Painted Surface Collectors Lust For
While on the subject of cupboards, take a look at the hanging pewter shelf in Figure 12-29. Suppose you encounter this piece, as I did, with a price tag in the vicinity of $250. Given that in even today’s market a fair retail price would be something between $500 and $1,000 (and where ten years ago it would probably have sported a price tag in excess of $1,000), what questions should you immediately ask about it? If you have the wall space, it’s clearly a desirable piece, especially with that blue paint. But is $250 too good to be true? Well, let’s run down that questions you need to answer. First, of course, is: Is it old. Since it presents itself as 19th century, are any nails cut or more contemporary 20th century (look ahead to the discussion of Figure 12-61a). Second, is the paint original or a later coat of artificially worn latex? Suppose it passes those two tests. I’ll let you stare a bit now at it to see how long it takes for you to generate a third question. OK, got your question now? No? Look longer. Got it now? Well, hopefully here’s what it should be: Is it missing a drawer? Is that space between the two drawers supposed to hold a 3rd? I can’t answer that question for you, but if the piece were beckoning “buy me, buy me, buy me”, you’d best pull out the two drawers and see if the bottom of the vacant space matches or is somehow different that the bottom of the spaces with drawers (i.e., is there evident of wear from drawers to the leftmost and rightmost bottoms that doesn’t exist to the center bottom, and is the center bottom darker or dirtier than the bottoms that are covered by the drawers).
Fig. 12-29: A Bargain At $250?
One final lesson now about cupboards that applies to most any piece of furniture. Consider the Pennsylvania Dutch cupboard in Figure 12-30a and imagine that you’ve just unexpectedly encountered this piece when previewing an auction. At first glance it appear to be a magnificent late 18th century Eastern Pennsylvania piece that, if it is what it seems to be, could easily be valued at upwards of $10,000. A wonderful dental crown molding, OG feet, 1” think walnut, 15 lites, architectural embellishments on the sides … frankly, aside from painted cupboards, it doesn’t get any better than this. Add that I in fact encountered precisely this piece at a local auction wherein, given the clientele, it was reasonable to anticipate it’s hammer price failing to exceed $1,000, what we have here then assume that the cupboard was unlikely to sell for more than $1,000, what we have here, then, is a potentially toxic and even fatal combination: The prospect of buying an absolutely first rate piece of Americana at below a bargain basement cost. In other words, all the ingredients were there for psychology to operate wherein the desire to have the cupboard “be right” overwhelms a truly objective assessment of the piece.
Fig. 12-30a: 18th Century or a Reproduction?
Fortunately in this instance there was a plainly evident ‘flaw’ that would set any dealer or collector of Americana on red alert: the glass panes were beveled. And beveled glass is hardly what you would see on anything from the 18th century piece. Hell, it’s not something you’d see on anything made before the Civil War. Now keep in mind that this fact alone isn’t a killer. Glass is often replaced and far be it for any of us to exclude the possibility that some idiot thought it would be neat to give all that wavy and imperfect 18th century glass an update. Nevertheless, those beveled panes should set our antenna at maximum sensitivity wherein we treat the cupboard as highly suspect from the get-go. In other words, those beveled panes of glass should immediately serve as a counter to the otherwise irresistible desire to have the cupboard be right wherein one becomes wholly susceptible to accepting even the most bizarre hypotheses when trying to explain away other red flags.
So what did I look at next? Well, the easiest thing to look at is the construction of the drawers, and here we do see dovetails (Figure 12-30b) that are precisely of the right sort for an 18th century piece. So OK, things are tipping in the direction we want them to tip and those beveled panes of glass are merely replaced. I can live with that. It’s only a fool, though, who stops there. What about the hardware … and, in particular, what about the fact that those hinges seem awfully well preserved? Well, as Figure 12-30c shows, those hinges not only show little to no wear, but they are also custom made for the bottom offset doors. And that’s a problem since to my knowledge, early cabinet makers never used anything but quite standard hinges. H-hinges like those on this cupboard would be common when the doors are flush with the cabinet that holds them. But here we have doors that lap the cabinet base, in which case we’d expect to see some variant of a rat-tailed hinge such as in Figure 12-30d. More problematical is the fact that the screws holding the hinges on, when removed, are revealed to be machine made and not forged. So now we have a BIG problem, especially since there’s no evidence the cupboard doors were ever mounted with other hinges (i.e., no extra filled in holes, no chiseled out wood to accommodate a different style hinge and no shadow from hinges of a different size or type). Things have now decidedly slid downhill in the direction of “Reproduction”. So let’s take a look at the back. See any problems there (check out Figure 12-30e)? Well, yes. First it’s painted. Now I don’t know about you, but my experience tells me there is only one reason for painting the back of something destined to be set against a wall: the back isn’t old, it originally exhibited no heavy oxidization and someone is trying to hide all of this. In addition, the nails here are wrong. Yes, they’re cut nails and clearly original to those backboards. But if this were an 18th century Eastern Pennsylvania piece they should be hand forged with unmistakable rose heads.
Fig. 12-30b: Cupboard Drawer
Fig. 12-30c: Cupboard Lower Door Hinge
Fig. 12-30d: The Rat-Tail Hinges We’d Expect to See
Fig. 12-30d: Back of Cupboard
To say that something is seriously amiss here is now an understatement and it’s time to attach the number .9999999 to the probability that we’re looking at a 19th century centennial reproduction. The only steps that remain, then, are those intended to confirm that we ought to set that probability equal to 1.0. And in this case, that was an easy thing to do. Re-checking those beveled panes of glass and the several of the areas where the dried out window putty had fallen off revealed no evidence whatsoever of there having been other glass in those doors. There should either be remnants of older putty or the scratch and gouge marks that necessarily arise when old putty is chiseled out. Finally there are the feet. Time to say to hell with worrying about dirt on the floor and keeping the knees of one’s pants clean. We’re looking, of course, at a major piece of furniture that, if made by a master cabinet maker, would be set on feet that had some substance to them. They would, in other words, look like the feet in Figure 12-31. Figure 12-31, though, is not the cupboard (it’s a ‘mere’ chest of drawers), and the feet on the cupboard look nothing like those in this figure. They look in fact, as if they were shaped out of a 1” thick walnut .board with no evidence whatsoever of the hand chiseling that comes when being shaped. There is, then, ONLY one conclusion: The cupboard is a reproduction … and if not centennial, then perhaps even later. A great piece, a beautifully crafted piece, but NOT a period piece of Americana.
Case Pieces: Here I’m lumping together things like desks, chests of drawers, secretaries, and so on, wherein prices can vary between $500 to a million or more. Of course, if you’re in the market for antiques with six or seven digit price tags, you have no business reading this book – go to one of those dealers running full page ads in Antiques magazine and put him or her on retainer. So I’ll assume you’re interested in more down to earth things – perhaps a slant lid desk for $2,000 or a chest of drawers for $1,250 or a Federal secretary at $3,000. Now keep in mind that it’s a truly rare piece that didn’t suffer an indignity of some sort over its 175 or 225 years of existence. A leg might have broken off when it was pushed from one side of the room to another; drawer pulls replaced when the bail handles to its original hardware fell off and were misplaced; the top now hosts two large bolt holes that once held the motor to a grinding wheel when the chest had been relegated to storage in a garage; perhaps the top has simply been marred by a plethora of cigarette burns; some veneer chipped off and was never glued back in place; mice found the item a comfortable abode for a few years; after being moved to the basement, a perennially damp or wet floor slowly rotted the feet; or some drug-sodden Cretan decided to match the visions in his head by painting it day-glow orange. There are indignities that are irreversible, and I am not about to provide anything even approaching comprehensive lessons in furniture restoration. But I not only have a good idea as to what can be done to bring a piece back to life, but also how some indignities can devastate a piece’s value while others don’t.
Let me begin by those things that impact value hardly at all, such as replaced glue blocks to the feet. Replaced hardware has some impact, but nothing dramatic. And while people like to talk about original surface, often on a case piece of “brown” furniture, original finish can be hideous to look at. So just as long as a piece isn’t refinished with polyurethane (the original was most likely shellac or simply a good hand rub and waxing), you’re probably OK not taking finish into account when assessing what you should be willing to pay for a piece. For example, the Dunlap family of New Hampshire, beginning in the 1780s, produced some of the wildest creations of idiosyncratic furniture in America. What survives is unique, a good share can be found only in museums, and when it comes onto the market it brings a ton. If you sometimes have trouble balancing your checkbook, you can’t afford it. The favorite woods of the Dunlaps were maple and birch since both could be stained to give the appearance of mahogany (at least from a distance). Subsequently, a good share of Dunlap furniture (I’d even guess the majority) has been stripped and refinished so as to eliminate the pretense of mahogany. If you think this refinishing has wrecked havoc with value, guess again – you’ll still need to write a five digit check if you hope to own an example.
OK, that’s the easy stuff. Now to a more serious and common issue: Replaced feet. I can’t say that replaced feet kill value, but it surely doesn’t help. Maybe a good rule of thumb is to assume that its value has been divided by 3. Thus, when you see an antiques dealer checking out a chest or desk at auction, you’ll most likely find them on their hands and knees examining the feet. So what are they looking for when acting like a dust mop? Answer: Four things. First, they want the backside of the feet and associated glue blocks to be crudely shaped and even hacked away with the marks of a chisel. Once again, time was money in 1800, and if you couldn’t otherwise see it, why spend the time making it beautiful or even well crafted? Second and closely related to the first are signs of a band saw – the shaped edges of wood that exhibit perfectly parallel tightly shaped cut lines. In the 18th and throughout most of the 19th century, wood on say a bracket base was cut to form using a hand saw, in which case the saw’s cut marks are unevenly spaced and rarely perfectly parallel. The band saw, on the other hand, is a late 19th century tool, so draw your own conclusions. Third, they’re looking for color – or rather, for the patina of that crudely hacked away wood to match the color of the rest of the underside. It’s all raw unfinished wood under there (at least it should be), in which case patina will develop quickly and darkly. If it doesn’t, something has been replaced (and be certain it’s naturally developed patina you’re seeing rather than wood stain). Finally, they’re looking for evidence that something else other than what you see was once attached to the underside, where this evidence is usually some glue residue that serves no apparent purpose or the absence of patina to some area of exposed wood where a different foot might otherwise have been. Thus, when examining, say, an 18th century chest, seeing something like what’s shown in Figure 12-30 is akin to a sexual experience. To the uninitiated, that may all look crude, poorly executed and cobbled together. But for the true collector, it all has the scent of roses.
Fig. 12-30: What You Want to See on the Underside of a 1790 Chest
I don’t have any hard and fast statistically valid numbers, but my instincts tell me that the impact of replaced feet on value depends on the actual age of the piece. Its impact is undoubtedly significant on William and Mary pieces – pre 1740 say. But that’s not to say replaced feet here render a piece worthless. On the contrary, the impact is great only in relative terms – relative to what it would be worth were the feet 100% original — since replaced feet on furniture from that period is so common that it’s a truly rare piece that hasn’t experienced restoration. Moving then to the next period, Queen Anne, replaced feet here wreck absolute havoc with prices, but in this case because there’s an adequate supply of things – highboys, lowboys, chairs, drop leaf tables, candle stands – that have suffered no such indignity. Take, for instance, the Queen Anne tilt top birdcage candlestand in Figure 12-31a. It’s a nice enough piece for sure, but hardly a rarity. As it stands, a fair retail number might be something in the vicinity of $750 to $1,500. But suppose one of its feet were a replacement or simply ended out. Because it’s not a rarity you now have something that your heirs are best served by donating to a local church charity sale so that they can claim an exaggerated tax writeoff. What I’ve just said applies to less formal pieces as well. Take for example the mid-18th century threaded post candlestand in Figure 12-31b. As it sits, you could probably find one in good condition for something between $650 and $1,000. However, replace one of its three legs and you no longer have anything that should interest even a novice collector.
Fig. 12-31a: Queen Anne Birdcage Mahogany Candlestand
Fig. 12-31b: Ca 1760 Threaded Post Candlestand
Things don’t change if we move up to Chippendale as well as Federal era pieces. Interestingly, however, things begin to move back in the other direction when we consider less formal pieces heading into the 19th century. Take for instance the cherry step back cupboard in Figure 12-23, but suppose its feet had rotted off and were replaced by a new (but well crafted) bracket base. It’s certainly not worth as much as when it had its original feet, but it’s also not a candidate for the Salvation Army. The same applies to the painted step back cupboard in Figure 12-24, provided only that whoever did the work succeeded in matching the paint on the turned feet to the rest of the cupboard. I’m not sure I can give you all the reasons for this since cupboards that are 100% right can’t be said to be rare. It simply seems that people interested in 19th century country furniture are a bit more forgiving than those seeking higher end formal pieces (and maybe it’s because, being “country”, some damage is expected since such furniture was only infrequently treated as a family heirloom).
Beyond feet, anything replaced after that — and there isn’t much left frankly that can be replaced and still deem the piece antique – such as drawer interiors, drawer fronts or tops, kills the piece. You might be able to live with some replaced crown molding, but anything more and it’s now simply used furniture and falls into the category “made of antique elements”. There are a few more things on slant lid desks that can yield problems such as the lid itself, which, as much as feet, is likely to be either replaced or restored. Unless you pull the slides out to support the lid, you have a good chance of watching it drop and literally rip away from the desk. Slamming the lid closed, on the other hand (or simply the stress on thin wood), can break off the lip around the lid that keeps it from falling wholly inside the desk. So best to check the lid carefully and if its replaced, walk away. The most common clue to a replacement is cutouts for hinges that don’t line up between the lid and the desk’s interior. The second clue is offered by the lid’s side cleats: As with the side cleats to a country farm table, the grain on those cleats runs perpendicular to that of the lid’s main body. Hence, the cleats will not shrink vertically and thus, over time, they’ll extend ever so slightly past the top and bottom edge of the (horizontal) wood of the lid.
There are a few more things to take into consideration when evaluating slant lid desks. First, we can say that they’re victims of technology in that they are largely incompatible with a computer screen. Thus, prices have dropped precipitously from what they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it pays to be cautious since desks with problems are a literal drag on the market. But once you do find one you like, check the interior. The better desks have complex interiors (e.g., multiple shaped drawers or a stepped interior), so that even if they look identical from the outside, one with a first rate interior can cost two or three times what one with a plain interior should be priced at. There is one other critical determinant of value for such desks (and case pieces generally) – size. As with other things discussed above, bigger isn’t better. I’m not sure what it is about slant lid desks in particular, but if they get any wider than 37 inches (and they can go up past 42), they begin to look like hulking battleships. And while a 4-drawer chest won’t necessarily imitate a battleship to the same extent as a slant lid desk, anything over 36 begins to lose value precipitously with each added inch.
One replacement, or I should say repair, with little to no impact on value for chests and desks concerns the sides to drawers. With decades of pulling and pushing, the bottom sides wear down, sometimes to the point where the drawer slopes discernibly backwards. Such wear will confirm the age of a piece, but it can become sufficiently extreme so that the drawer no long slides smoothly and can even reach the point where the side support to the drawer bottom disappears and the bottom threatens to fall out. Wear here, moreover, is inevitable since regardless of what the primary wood is, 99 times out of 100, the interior (the secondary wood) will be a soft pine or poplar. It is not uncommon, then, to find that an inch or so of a drawer’s sides at the bottom from front to back have been replaced. In other words, don’t be surprised if, when pulling out a drawer, you see something like what’s shown in Figure 12-32. That wear by the way can also impact a chest’s interior drawer slides to the point where they become so deeply grooved that the drawer no longer slides as intended, in which case the only solution is to replace the slides. In either case – replaced slides or repairs to the drawer sides – the impact on value is essentially zero. Indeed, the value of a chest or desk is more likely to suffer if such repairs are not made and you should thank whoever did the work and saved you the time and effort needed to effect the restoration.
Fig. 12-32: Repaired Side to a Drawer
Rope Beds:As Figure 12-33 illustrates, period rope beds can indeed be elegant, especially if they retain their testers. Of course, with its tester, you’ll want a cover for it, which is yet an additional expense. But that’s not the only expense you’ll encounter. If you ever bought a rope bed that was 100% original, which is to say one with its original side rails, you learned one thing: People were shorter back then. Part of George Washington’s commanding presence as the leader of our Revolutionary army in addition to having him strut around in his Virginia militia uniform was that he stood over six feet tall, which means he was probably looking down at everyone else in the room at Independence Hall in 1787 (and if John Adams had stood in front of him – he couldn’t then since he was in England being snubbed by Charles III while ambassador to the Court of St. James — Washington could have rested his chin on the top of Adams’ head.). You also learned something else: Bed widths were chosen by the selection of a random number so that few such beds identically match any of today’s standard mattress sizes. Mattress then were home made creations filled with straw for the poor, feathers for the more well-to-do and not something ordered out of a catalogue. In other words, the mattress was made to fit the size of the bed and not vise versa. I’ve lost track of the number of rope beds that have passed thru my hands (I have three in a storage shed if anyone’s interested), but I’d bet no two were the same width. Oh wait, there’s one other thing you learned if you tried fitting that bed with a mattress AND a box spring: Homes were small, so to make maximum use of space people stored stuff under their beds. Thus, if fitted with a 2-piece mattress set, you best have a ladder to climb in and something soft on the floor if you fell out.
Fig. 12-33: Sheraton Ca 1820 Rope Bed with Tester
So what does this all mean? Well, first it means that you should probably tell the mattress store to forget about a box spring when ordering your custom made mattress. Alternatively, don’t discount the value of a bed too heavily (or at all) if its side rails have been extended or replaced entirely. The money, actually, is in the headboard, footboard and posts – the stuff that shows. As far as width is concerned, one of the standard sizes will at least come close enough for a bed that’s been extended, but now take some careful measurements and decide how you want to have the lumberyard cut some ¾” plywood to support that mattress (unless, of course, you insist on somehow using a box spring because you like being closer to the ceiling than the floor when you sleep). Now suppose we’ve settled all the issues of size and mattresses. What else is there to consider when determining value? The answer, I think, depends on taste as much as anything else. Some people crave a Sheraton bed with a tester even if they never intend to have the tester support anything. Others could care less about that accessory. Other people want a pencil post bed since that fits better with their Federal furniture scheme. And still others prefer cannon ball beds, especially if they’re tiger maple or painted. The choice is yours. All I can say is that early beds, like slant lid desks, have truly taken a hit in value of late, and I see no reason why you can’t find a good functional period bed for under $300. In fact, because the sale of such beds has slowed to such an extent and because they take up so much valuable floor space to display, anyone in the market for an antique bed is in a great position today to hammer away at any dealer who has one for sale. Even if you don’t see one in a dealer’s showroom, ask if they have one. There’s a good chance they have one in some storage facility they’d only love to have you haul away.
To underscore what has happened to the price of beds, quite recently one of the more upscale auction houses here in Los Angeles offered a Sheration bed with tester much like the one in Figure 12-33. However with an auction estimate of (as I seem to recall) of between $750 to $1,500, it failed to sell. Apparently it was returned to the consignor who, in turn, put it up for sale at a lower end auction venue. I happened to attend that auction and sat there stunned when the auctioneer failed to get an opening bid of $250 for the bed. Bit by bit he lowered the number … first $200, then $150, and then $100 … while fruitlessly looking around for someone to raise their hand. I for my part put my hands in my pockets as the temptation to bid began boiling away inside of me. He then lowered his call for an opening bid to $50, and still no hands in the air. This was, I thought to myself, ridiculous, but what on god’s earth was I going to do with yet another period bed. Finally, he lowered the call for an opening bid to $30 and someone’s hand … not mine .. shot into the air and the auctioneer quickly said “sold,” his only goal now was to move onto selling something that might bring a reasonable bid. Now let me underscore the fact here that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the bed, and even its testor was wholly original. Admittedly, $30 was and is an absurdly low price and most likely that bed would have sold for at least $150 or $200 and any other auction on the planet. But the fact remains that not one of the two or three hundred people in attendance at that auction wanted that bed, myself included. Such is the nature of a poor selling legitimate piece of Americana in a poor market for Americana.
Blanket chests: As with virtually everything else, there’s a zillion variations here, but let me first temporarily sweep aside all but one form of blanket chest that was never painted – walnut Pennsylvania chests with two or three lower side by side drawers. Typically such chests such as the one in Figure 12-34a are large with dimensions on the order of 50” x 30” x 22” deep. Thus, their footprint is as big as a stepback cupboard and even bigger than one of those “battleship” slant lid desks. But in their pure unpainted form, with their typically superb craftsmanship – well, if it isn’t apparent now, I do have a weakness for them. If you add the uncommon flourish of some inlay work – a date or the initials of the original owner – then despite their size, be prepared to pay $2,000 and up for a good example such as the one in Figure 12-43b.
Fig. 12-34a: Walnut Pennsylvania Blanket Chest
Fig. 12-34b: A Wonderful Penna. Walnut Blanket Chest
In general, though, blanket chests are made of pine or poplar and, to my mind are utterly uninteresting if they aren’t painted in some way. But first, a question arises as to how we differentiate between a document box and a blanket chest. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer, though if we take things one at a time, there probably would be some agreement. Consider the stack of painted boxes in Figure 12-35. I don’t think there’s any dispute that the top four boxes should be classified as document boxes whereas the blue piece at the bottom is a blanket chest. But what of the box sitting on it? If it’s a document box, it’s a pretty damned big one and not much smaller than the box at the bottom of the stack that we’ve already labeled a blanket chest. So maybe we need a third category – storage boxes – but now we seem to be like a biologist who keeps making discoveries that require an endless refinement of categories. So without getting too persnickety about things, I’ll reserve my categorization of blanket chests to boxes that at least give a hint of a base … either explicit feet or a base molding. In this case, then, the only blanket chest in Figure 12-34 is the box at the bottom of the stack. There is no ambiguity, however, with the “box” in Figure 12-36 — it qualifies as a blanket chest by anyone’s definition (and also illustrates the most functional contemporary purpose of blanket chests — as television stands)
Fig. 12-35: Stack of Painted Boxes
Fig.12-36: A Painted Box That’s Unambiguously a Blanket Chest
Proceeding, then, with the simplest of all forms, the 6-board chest (four sides, a lid and a bottom, and feet that are either of the applied bracket base type or simply extensions of the two side boards), dovetailed chests are generally preferred to those simply nailed together. Of course, dovetails might be asking too much for an 18th century model. The right paint, moreover, can overcome any absence of dovetails, and starting at the “bottom of the barrel” we have those whose surface is a solid color with good natural wear and patina. It’s pretty much the case now that the apparent order of preferences for color begins with blue, then green or yellow, followed by red and, at the bottom, brown. Thus, while a 6-board chest in brown might retail for $150 to $250, one in robins egg blue could easily fetch $450 to $600.
However, as with document boxes and cupboards, there’s paint and then there’s paint. So let us move up a step to where the chest isn’t a solid color but embellished with grain painting in some form such as in Figure 12-36. We’re now knocking on the door of artistry, and the premium commanded by any form of grain painting depends on the boldness of the contrasting colors and the visual impact of the resulting design. Simple grain painting to mimic mahogany (dark red and black such as the third box up from the bottom in Figure 12-35) adds value, but it doesn’t add a zero to fair market price. On the other hand, a brilliant sunflower burst design of bright oranges, reds and/or yellows can push that otherwise $250 box into the $2,000 category (I’ll let you guess which three of the stack of six boxes in Figure 12-35 I have in mind here as to paint scheme). There is, though, one condition the chest needs to satisfy for that jump in value to occur: The paint on the lid. Blanket chests are, by definition, low, which means that if anything is going to be sat on, have booze spilled on it, have lit cigarettes fall out of ashtrays onto it or serve as a plant stand without a dish in place to catch the water, it’s the lid. Other parts may be kicked, scratched or even gouged when moved, but it’s the lid that’s most likely to incur abuse and thus most likely to have its wonderful decorative paint marred or even wholly rubbed off. Absent a vibrant lid that closely matches the rest of the piece will easily knock your $2,000 chest down to perhaps just $1,000. I should add, though, that one way to really mess a painted blanket chest up with worn paint to the lid is to repaint the lid. Regardless of how worn the paint is, leave it alone since if you repaint anything, you might as well whitewash the whole damned thing and give it to a relative you detest.
Our next step up is to return to that Pennsylvania 2-drawer form, but substitute poplar for walnut, and some contrasting paint for a nice waxed surface. I’m not yet talking of any decorating scheme, but solid colors again, only in this instance perhaps a chest with its main body painted blue, its bracket base and the trim around the lid a nice reddish orange. OK, price is back up again, and has even shot past $2,000 to possibly past $5,000. Now for a final flourish: The Pennsylvania Dower Chest. This is the crème de la crème of blanket chests – painted panels of tulips, birds and even a unicorn. If you’re of a mind to torture yourself, get a copy of Monroe Fabian’s The Pennsylvania-German Decorated Chest (Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pa., 2004) – you wont have to go further that the dust cover to begin drooling onto the page. But here’s a suggestion for you: If, during one of your flea market excursions, you encounter a dower chest with its painted panels, begin with the assumption that it’s a fake or from Scandinavia. Pennsylvania dower chests are rare, but given the prices they bring when legit, they’re akin to weathervanes and as a furniture form are literally begging to be reproduced or faked. A legitimate dower chest can sometimes command a five digit price tag, so how much of a temptation do you think that is to anyone with a beat up blanket chest and a supply of paint brushes, milk paint, steel wool and a forger’s skill? And keep in mind that this advice is coming from someone who actually found a legitimate paint decorated J. Rank dower chest at a California flea market. But rest assured I’m not holding my breath for lightening to strike again and indeed the only dower chests I’ve seen since then at a flea market were either total fakes or Scandinavian imports.
With all of that in mind, consider the blanket chest in Figure 12-37a. In form and paint it’s the quintessential Pennsylvania dower chest and were that paint 100% legit you’d be looking at a piece that could easily support a five digit price tag. But is the paint legitimate? Well, here’s a rule of thumb for you: When something looks so good that it makes your groin ache, it probably isn’t. So lets do a little archeology here. First up is Figure 12-37b, which shows both the underside and wear to the base molding forming the feet. Nothing out of the ordinary there … the color is right and there’s good honest wear to the paint on that base molding. So we know the piece wasn’t painted yesterday. Confirming that fact is Figure 12-37c: The lid has shrunk so that its molding has pulled away a bit and there’s no paint in the crack. Things are beginning to look up. But now take a look at Figure 12-37d and the paint over and around the dovetail. The face of the chest has also shrunk a bit with age so that the dovetail is no longer flush and, like a dowel to a table top side cleat, protrudes a bit. But the paint isn’t cracked there and instead covers the dovetail completely. Thus, the paint was applied after the wood shrunk. Well, suppose you’re desperate to rationalize that inconsistency and choose (illogically) to believe that whoever made the chest did so by misjudging the thickness of his wood when cutting the dovetails. Now take a look at Figure 12-37e. That painted panel with its classical Pennsylvania German design sure looks good. But the gray shading to the corners is actually paint and not wear. In other words the panel is made to appear older than it actually is (and if you’re not convinced of that, note that the other panel has the same faux-discoloration as does the round medallion on the lid … what are the chances of that happening naturally?).
Fig. 12-37a: Pennsylvania Dower Chest – or is it?
Fig. 12-37b: Dower Chest’s Underside
Fig. 12-37c: Consequences of Shrinkage to the Lid
Fig. 12-37d: The Painted Dovetail
Fig. 12-37e: Faux Discoloration to the Painted Panel
So when all is said and done, what are we left with here and what do we make of that 1858 date on the lid? Well, two things. First, the blanket chest is indeed old. But second, the paint isn’t as old as the chest and surely later than 1858. However, it’s also evident that the paint isn’t new and most likely wasn’t intended as an elaborate fake, since a faker skilled enough to paint it wouldn’t have allowed so many clues. So when was it painted? That, unfortunately, is a difficult question to answer. Scratching the paint with a fingernail reveals that it’s not latex we’re looking at (latex peels; oil based paint flakes). So if I had to guess … and I truly hate doing so in this case … I’d give that paint a wide berth in order to explain everything. Let’s say 1880s to 1920s. That 1858 date, then, could mean nothing or it could denote someone’s birthdate when they were 40 or 50 years old. What about value? Well, one thing is certain – we’re not looking at a $10,000 or even $5,000 Pennsylvania dower chest. We’re probably not even looking at a $1,000 chest. For me at least, who gives some value to a well executed paint design, I’d set the value somewhere between $300 and $700. Purists, however, who can’t tolerate anything that isn’t wholly legitimate are free to disagree and say that its value is that of a stripped and refinished chest, $200.
Now let’s consider a blanket box (actually, a storage box) that initially raises questions but that turns out after close inspection to be legit. Specifically, consider the large storage box in Figure 12-38a. Frankly, when I first encountered this box it fell into the category of too good to be true: Not the gray paint, nor the pin-striping accents, but the people and train on the lid. How could something that neat possibly be legit? Well, on close inspection, it was clear the box itself was 19th century (most likely 1870s or so) and there was no reason whatsoever to question the gray paint (see for instance Figures 12-38b and 12-38c). OK, so now what about those figures and the train? Well, take a look at Figures 12-38d through 12-38f. Don’t know about you but here’s what I see: Crackalure (alligatoring) to the images that matches that of the gray paint perfectly. That is, when the gray paint aged, so did the paint used to draw those images. In other words, those images weren’t added to paint that had already aged. Thus, there’s but one conclusion: If the images aren’t as old as the gray paint, they sure as heck aren’t much younger — most likely not more than 10 or 20 years. The box is legit!
Fig. 12-38a: Storage Box with Suspect Paint Images
Fig. 12-38b: What the Bottom of a 19th C Box Should Look Like
Fig. 12-38c: Nice Dovetails, Good Natural Wear to Paint
Fig. 12-38d: Crackalure as We Like to See It
Fig. 12-38e: Ditto
Fig. 12-38f: Ditto Again
Chairs: Frankly, I’ve sat for hours trying to invent excuses for not writing about chairs, but it seems that my imagination has failed me. The problem is that there are too damned many chair types for me to contend with. There are upholstered and unupholstered chairs, formal and country chairs, dining and lounging chairs, chairs that were originally painted and those whose first coat of paint was applied last week. And then there are the variegated styles — bannister back, slat back, Queen Anne, Chippendale, plank seat, fiddle back, and so on. Nevertheless, it seems incumbent on me to say something even if that something isn’t all that enlightening. So let’s begin with the four chairs in Figure 12-39. Here we have four country chairs ordered roughly by the date of their appearance on the American scene … a bannister back chair (and please don’t ask me where that name comes from … I don’t know), a Queen Anne chair, a ladder back and a Chippendale chair. Now keeping in mind that there are never hard and fast rules about anything if only because styles disappear with lags, but bannister backs began to appear in the early 18th century (roughly 1710 or so). Queen Anne, in contrast, sometime around the 1740s. The third chair here — the slat back or ladder back — is one that truly muddies the water. Examples exist that one can date to the late 17th century (roughly 1690), and others nearly identical in form that are no older than 1850. In other words, they were functional and relatively easy to make so why mess with a good thing. The fourth chair is Chippendale and as a country piece we’d probably date it ca 1790.
Fig. 12-39: Four Country Chairs
Now, take a look at Figure 12-40, and you tell me which corresponds to a Chippendale chair and which to Queen Anne? Never mind, I’m not going to give you any time to answer that question since, if you think or assert that you can, your full of horse puckey. For all practical purposes the chairs are identical despite the fact that their manufacture is separated by roughly forty years. Generally, the labeling of a chair’s form or style comes from its upper half … the part you rest your back against. As for Queen Anne versus Chippendale, just look at the crest rails in Figure 12-39. There, you’re now an expert.
Fig. 12-40: Which Is Chippendale and Which is Queen Anne?
Now when it comes to value, I’m going to switch abruptly by moving on to Windsor chairs. But first a quick comment about the preceding examples. The reader will perhaps have noticed that all of the above chairs have rush seats … a pretty common seat for country chairs back then. And several of them have seats in which the rush is obviously replaced (e.g., the chair to the right in Figure 12-40). So what impact does that have on value? Well, my answer is None. What good is a chair if you can’t sit on it? And does any reasonable person expect a 200+ year old seat made of rush to survive if the chair is in fact a legitimate antique?
OK, with that out of the way, let me turn to a category of chair for which seats were ALWAYS a single shaped solid piece of wood … Windsors … and consider figure 12-41. Now you tell me, which chair is the most and which the least valuable here? OK, time’s up. It’s the middle chair, despite its ugly coat of green paint (which I wouldn’t be surprised to learn was ca 1960). First, while it and the chair to its left are nearly identical from the seat up, the similarity ends there. The seat on the center chair is much more interestingly shaped and its legs nicely turned. The legs to the left-most chair could have been turned by me, and I’ve never even used a lathe. So now what about the right-most chair? But hold on a sec — suppose I told you to ignore its squat and to concentrate on its lower half. It first glance you might think that in the comparison with the green chair its a draw. The green guy has the better seat, but the squat example has the more accentuated splay (and given its obviously wider seat, better able to accommodate Aunt _____’s butt). Well, sorry, but of the three chairs above, the right-most one has a problem that most likely dooms it to be of much value: judging from the picture I’d have to say its seat is roughly one and a half to two inches lower than the seats of the other two chairs. Typical seat height is 16 to 17 inches, and anything less than 16 will give you an odd feeling when sitting in it pulled up to a table. Trust me, you’d be amazed at the difference between a 15 inch versus 16 1/2 inch high seat. Night and day, folks, trust me and if seated at a standard height table in a 15″ chair, you’ll feel as though you’re supposed to shove your face into that bowl of soup rather than use a spoon. People don’t end out chairs that have lost some height for the hell of it.
Fig. 12-41: Three Sackback Windsor Chairs
Now you’ll notice that one of the criteria I employed in the preceding comparison is the splay of the legs. Splay is important, but don’t go overboard. Consider for instance the chair in Figure 12-42. I actually bid (unsuccessfully) for this chair at auction, not because I felt is was an especially good example of anything other than the absurdity to which things can be taken. I’m amazed the chair survived — just think of the lateral stress on those legs with anyone of normal weight sitting on it.
Fig. 12-42: Splayed Legs Taken to the Extreme
Fig. 12-42 does, though, illustrate that Windsor designs came in a great many forms. Here we have, from left to right, a bow or hoop back, a fan back, bamboo, and continuous arm chair. But even within a specific form there’s room for considerable variation in quality. Compare, for instance, the continuous arm Windsor in Figure 12-43a to the one in Figure 12-43b. There is, in fact, no comparison aside from both falling into the same category. The arm in Figure 12-43b is far more delicately formed, the styles more accentuated, and the legs far better turned. Thus, while one, despite its early paint, might retail for no more than $300 to $400 in today’s market, the better example might readily command a retail price of $750 to $900.
Fig. 12-43a: Four Windsor Styles
Fig. 12-43b: Continuous Arm Windsor
Aside from difference in the boldness of turnings, the relative value of Windsors can also be determined by more subtle things. Take for instance the two hoop-back Windsors in Figure 12-44. Both are of the same basic form but clearly the chair on the right has far greater visual appeal (and value) given the accentuated form of the back.
Fig. 12-44: Two Hoopback Windsors
If the four chairs in Figure 12-43a (and the two in Figure 12-44) have one thing in common, it’s their rather uninspired legs. Each, then, marks the later stages of Windsor chair craftsmanship … roughly 1800 to 1820. Thereafter begins what I consider the deterioration of style (due in part, I suppose, to increased mechanization and labor costs). The two chairs in Figure 12-45 are often labeled Windsor, but I think you can see the radical difference in form here. Not sure what to call the one on the right, whereas the chair on the left also bears the label “arrowback” for obvious reasons. Regardless of label, notice the less well-crafted seat, the virtual disappearance of turnings, and a far less difficult to make crest rail.
Fig. 12-45: The Later Stages of Windsor Chair Craftsmanship
With these two chairs we are, in fact, on the verge of the mass produced chair, the preeminent example of which is the Hitchcock chair manufactured by the Hitchcock Chair company of Connecticut. Begun by Lambert Hitchcock, by the 1820s the company was mass producing on average fifteen thousand chairs per year, and in lieu of hand painted decoration, the company stenciled designs onto the chairs. Hitchcock, of course, wasn’t alone in mass manufacturing. The chair in Figure 12-47, maker unknown, also appeared in vast quantities except in this instance it came out of Pennsylvania rather than New England.
Fig. 12-46: Mass-manufactured Hitchcock Chair
Fig. 12-47: Pennsylvania Balloon Back Chair
Now before we get all snotty and start looking down our noses as these mass manufactured creations, consider what they represent. Where in most of the world your average person was still lucky to have a bench to sit on, America had a middle class that could buy chairs in sets of 4, 6, 8 or whatever. And, judging by the output of a factory such as Hitchcock alone, a rather sizeable middle class at that. And while Figures 12-46 and 12-47 illustrate the color that chairs can add to a decor, they, like Terry’s clocks, Singer’s sewing machines and the countless variations in apple peelers, mark the beginnings of America as an economic superpower on the verge of eclipsing all others.
Refinished Pine or Poplar Furniture: Now before I’m accused of being an utter snob, I’ll admit that a good share of people who like the country look have no taste for the imperfect surfaces that retain a share of original paint, including the inevitable dents, scratches and discoloration that comes with that surface. And I’ll admit that there is a certain elegance to even a simple 6-board blanket chest, refinished so that skillfully crafted dovetails show up nicely under whatever finish is applied. It’s also the case that I own some refinished pieces myself, in part because I haven’t had the opportunity to buy (at the ‘right’ price) corresponding examples with original surfaces. Those pieces include a pine blind door corner cupboard (blind door since it’s best to store the toys for ten and eleven year old grandchildren where they can’t be seen), a poplar pewter cupboard (because I haven’t found one in paint in my price range or where the paint is not some early 20th century addition) and a Windsor bench (it was cheap … so sue me). I suppose if I were rich I’d be unsatisfied with my assembled set of 8 refinished birdcage Windsor chairs, but that will have to wait until China becomes wholly absorbed with Americana and floods me with royalties by seeing fit to buy a billion or so copies of this book. The long and short of it, then, is that original surface is great but there’s no need to pursue it as a religious imperative. Nevertheless, it’s important to appreciate the price differences that arise between original surface and a refinished piece. To take some examples, consider my unpainted step-down Windsor bench. In its present form, a reasonable retail sticker price is some number under $500 in today’s crummy market (I’ve seen them sell out here for as little as $300). If, on the other hand, its original green or yellow or whatever paint still graced it, you could ramp that price tag up past $1,500 quite easily. Or take a set of 6 plank bottom Pennsylvania kitchen chairs. I’ve seen such sets retail for as little as $200, whereas if they had their original paint and pinstriping accents, $1,000 would not be an unreasonable price to ticket the set at in some shop. Or take that miniature mule chest in Figure 10-56. As a miniature it’s an uncommon form even without its blue paint. But absent that paint and you’d be hard pressed to justify a retail price tag above $500. In other words, that paint most likely quadruples the value of the piece.
For perhaps an even more dramatic example, I currently own a pair of country 4-drawer chests that date to around 1840. They are a perfect matched pair and obviously made by the same hand. But whoever made them intended them as purely functional pieces without embellishment of any sort (see Figure 12-48). I frankly can’t imagine a simpler chest – heck, each isn’t much more than a large box with drawers. Thus, if they were if stripped and refinished, you’d be more likely to find them in a thrift store than an antique shop, and absent their paint I wouldn’t give you $50 for the pair (unless I was in need of some storage for tools). But consider this: I paid $2,500 for the pair! You might think I temporarily lost the ability to count zeros or that they illustrate my inability to think clearly at an auction. That may be true but there was no buyer’s remorse. I was delighted to get them then and am delighted to own them now. Both sport their original identically painted surfaces, I’ve never seen a pair of identically matched painted country chests before and I doubt I’ll ever have an opportunity to buy such a pair again. Thus, absent a sudden reversal of fortune, you’d have a hard time wresting the pair from me at any price (well, maybe not “any” price, so lets just say I’d consider offers). In this case, then, that original painted surface doesn’t merely up the value of the pair – it moves them into a universe wholly divorced from their stripped and refinished counterparts.
Fig. 12-48: One of a PAIR of Painted 4-Drawer Country Chests
The discount one should apply to a piece of furniture because it’s been refinished with its original surface washed down the drain can depend, then, on a number of factors. One is the condition of that original surface. If a piece was never painted (which, of course, is almost universally the case with a hardwood chest of drawers, a highboy, sideboard, cupboard and so on) then the question is: How badly worn, discolored or marred was the original waxed or shellacked surface. If the piece was badly stained or the shellac badly worn or overly crusty and dirty, there’s no sense in saving what is in fact an eyesore. The same applies to badly messed up painted surfaces, though here a bit more care needs to be exercised since collectors will value a piece if it can be described as “retaining traces of its original paint.” In general, don’t be in a rush to remove every last vestige of early original paint even if you like the refinished look. Think of your antiques as an investment, and while you might value at $0 those remnants of early paint on, say, a table’s skirt or underside, the next person down the line might be wholly uninterested in the piece without those remnants.
Of course, the words “in general” mean that there are exceptions. One of the common indignities suffered by furniture is multiple coats of peeling, blistering, flaking oil based paint. When it comes to removing that paint while trying to salvage whatever original milk based paint might lie beneath … well, all I can say is good luck. If there’s something special about the paint that lies beneath – a fantastic blue or a brilliant grain painting – one option is to try a heat gun and see if you can master the trick of making that oil based paint gummy and removable with a putty knife without doing the same to the milk paint below it. And when I say “trick” I mean it. The trick is to move the heat gun, with the putty knife following immediately behind, at precisely the right speed so as to let the putty knife pick up the gummy oil based paint and nothing else. And here the operant word is precisely. Move too fast and the putty knife will do little more than scratch the paint; move too slow and the putty knife will dig down to the raw wood and remove everything (or even burn the wood). Alternatively, you might try a piece of glass and see if you can scrape the oil based paint off a bit at a time without damaging the underlying milk paint. Don’t be surprised, though, if after an hour or two of frustration and fingertips that have gone numb you say to hell with it. That’s why my grain painted corner cupboard with its ca 1900 imitation oak grain paint masking some wonderful green and red milk paint colors serves as example #1 in my house as to what people often did to country furniture at the turn of the century.
Some comments on furniture repair: My discussion throughout this book of the indignities 18th and 19th century furniture can endure leads me to wonder what’s in some people’s heads when they repair furniture, be it a table, a chair or whatever. It certainly isn’t always brains. If a piece breaks off, why discard it? We have glue specifically made for wood for a reason! I also can’t tell you the number of times I’ve encountered a piece that was “re-glued” with rubber cement. Well, the word “rubber” isn’t in the label for the heck of it – it’s rubbery, dammit. And it will remain rubbery until dinosaurs once again roam the earth. In other words, it wont rigidly hold anything in place, and all you can do when encountering something “repaired” in this way is to disassemble it and spend the hours peeling the cement off until you have a clean surface and can use glue intended for wood. If there is a primary rule then for the repair and restoration of anything made of wood, antique or otherwise, is never ever use a glue other than glue labeled wood glue. Period!
It also amazes me to see how many times people attempt to “fix” the wobbly legs of a table or chair by driving a nail into the piece. Do you know what a nail does aside from making a hole? It actually weakens things and is NEVER the solution to a loose joint. Nails are good for framing houses or installing a fence, but nothing else. So if you encounter something that’s been “repaired” with a nail, the best thing to do is again work at disassembling the piece so you can get those nails out, fill in the holes, and then re-glue. There are instances in which I acquired a piece in which someone with a flat learning curve, after weakening a joint with a nail, thinks the solution is to drive in a few more nails. For this there is only one solution even if it requires administering further damage to the wood – get those nails out and start all over again. Yes, getting those nails out sometimes requires some noticeable additional damage to the piece as you chip out some wood around the head of some nails in order to get a grip on it for extraction. But here’s your choice: A piece that continues to wobble and wiggle and threatens to collapse into a jumbled pile despite the possibly unobtrusive nail heads scattered about versus some evident wood filler filling nail holes and the wood you chipped getting those nails out but which is as sturdy as a rock and built for the ages. You know my choice.
Of course, in lieu of nails, the genius who repaired the piece might have used screws. Now it’s true that a wobbly leg repaired with screws may hold together tight. But there is nothing uglier in my mind than seeing screws where I know there were none to begin with. And it’s uglier still if those screws are Phillips-head, since that’s a strictly 20th century creation. You realize, I hope, that they had screws in the 18th century as well as the 19th. Ever see screws used to do anything but secure a hinge, a lock or, from the underside, a table top to a skirt? Bet you haven’t and there’s a reason – they’re ugly, unnecessary and a sign of crappy craftsmanship. So once again, the best thing to do is remove the screw, disassemble and reassemble with glue. Of course, screw holes can remain ugly even when filled and stained, so depending on the piece of furniture involved you might consider reinforcing that connection with a wood peg, which actually makes for a firmer and more lasting connection than any screw. Let’s put it this way: God invented trees (and thus, wood) while man invented screws. Enuf said.
Now suppose that, in repairing a piece, you find that it doesn’t quite go together as it’s suppose to – you cant get surfaces of the raw wood coated in glue to fit tightly. Perhaps some of the wood has been lost or the wood at the joint shrunk. This is a common problem with the stretchers to a chair, a farm table’s mortise and tenon connections and the dovetailed connection of a candlestand’s leg to the center post. This problem might even have been the one encountered by the Cretan who used a nail or thick gloppy rubber cement in his or her attempted repair. The solution actually is quite simple: Instead of using the wood glue directly out of the tube it came in, make a mixture of it and some fine sawdust. Do you have any idea what that mixture becomes once the glue hardens? Answer: Something that will remain as hard as a rock and adhere to wood until your grandchildren have grandchildren.
Alternatively, suppose the stretchers to a chair’s legs or the tenons connecting a table’s legs to its skirt have merely loosened up but where it would be a major effort to wholly disassemble the piece. Perhaps things are already pegged and it would be a major effort to remove those pegs (i.e., they can only be removed by drilling them out). Here’s what you need to try first: Mix some wood glue in water (it is water soluble) and then work it into the gaps in the wood. After no more will work it, wipe clean then leave things alone or clamp tight and let dry. Odds are everything will be as tight as a drum afterwards with no need for further repair or restoration. The worst possibility here, though, is that one of the stretchers to a chair has actually snapped off where it goes into a leg. Once again, the solution is not to drive a nail into the leg, hoping it will hold the stretcher in place. It won’t. A screw might work, but you know how I feel about screws. Besides, there’s a better solution: Drill a small diameter (say 1/8” or 3/16”) hole clear thru the leg into the broken stretcher and then peg things together with a wooden dowel. Odds are that will hold until you’re dust.
And here’s another use for that glue mixed with sawdust. Suppose a table or chair leg has snapped cleanly in two. You might try gluing the two pieces together, but odds are that will only provide a short term solution. Glue works great when perpendicular force is applied to it but not so great with lateral force, which is precisely the type of force that operates on chair and table legs. The best solution, then, is to dowel the two pieces together. But now you encounter a new problem: The odds of drilling holes for the dowel in the two halves that match up perfectly is essentially zero – don’t even try. Instead, try to get the holes to match up as best you can but also drill both holes 1/16” or 1/8” larger than necessary so that the dowel flops around in both holes. Now use that glue-sawdust mix to glue the dowel in place to both pieces. The extra diameter of the holes will allow you to wiggle things back and forth until the fit is perfect, and once the glue hardens you’ll have a leg every bit as sturdy as when it was originally made.
The most common affliction for furniture, I suppose, is a scratch on the surface. Now if you’re wholly anal about things, I suppose you’re instinct might be to refinish the piece entirely. But one warning here: If that scratch is into the wood itself, it will most likely show up in some fashion even after refinishing. The color of the scratch will differ from the wood’s surface and even if you attempt to stain things after removing the old finish, that scratch will take on a different color than everything else simply because it will absorb stain differently than elsewhere. There are other treatments you can attempt such as a shellac stick, but frankly, unless you’re a skilled furniture restorer, that wont work for you. It rarely has for me. Actually, the best solution is to learn to live with the scratch. Hey folks, we’re talking about antiques and if you can’t stand a scratch or two here and there, you don’t like antiques and instead of this book you should be perusing the catalogue of Crate and Barrel, Ikea or Levitz. So first try giving the whole piece a going over with a colored wax or a quick go over with an alcohol stain. That wont eliminate the scratch but it will make it far less of an eyesore. And to think you can do better by refinishing – well, possibly, but don’t bet on it. Minimally, taking this route is a heck of a lot easier than engaging in a full refinishing.
OK, so now suppose it isn’t a scratch that concerns you but those ugly black stains that a wet cup or plant made on a table because it sat there for several days. Take a look for instance at the stains on the candle stand in Figure 12-13 or work table in Figure 12-16. The instinct of the novice here is to strip the finish off and to begin sanding. Well, sorry, but you’re in for a disappointment. You can sand either top until next year and that stain will still be there. Its penetrated the wood and unless you think you can sand down a sixteenth or even an eighth of an inch of the surface, it will still be there even after your fingertips begin to bleed from the effort (thus adding blood stains to what’s already there). In fact there’s a far simple solution: Get your druggist to order you a jar of oxalic acid. OK, I know, that sounds horrible. Acid instead of benign sandpaper – is this guy nuts? Well, orange juice is acid (or at least acidic), and you drink it don’t you? I’m not suggesting you drink oxalic acid (actually it comes as a powder that you have to mix in water), but I’m not talking about sulfuric or hydrochloric acid. So make a solution of the acid, strip the surface off the stained wood, give the raw wood a wash with the solution and set it out in the sun. When all is dry, wipe the oxalic acid crystals off and apply a new finish to your now unstained piece (and if the stain is still there, untouched, you just tried doing the impossible –removing an ink stain).
I could easily go on for pages here, but I’m sure there’s a million shortcuts and tricks I’m unaware of and if you’ve worked on restoration yourself you’ll know some I haven’t even imagined possible. The fact is there are any number of things about wood that makes it the most eminently flexible material with which to work and repair – nature made the best from the start and over the course of 50,000 or so years we haven’t improved on it one bit. We’ve invented particle board, plywood and plastic, but NOTHING measures up to the strength, flexibility and beauty of wood. So instead, let me end these suggestions about how to repair and restore antique furniture and simply refer the reader to where I initially learned much of what I know – George Grotz’s The Furniture Doctor, which, while originally published in 1962, has been republished any number of times because of its timeless content.
More on ‘Is it old?’: I’ve already given a number of hints about how to distinguish a reproduction from a legitimate piece, be it a table, chest, chair or whatever. But my discussion thus far hardly exhausts the things to be looked at. Consider again the miniature chest in Figure 10-52a. Based on patina and construction, we already know that this is a legitimate early piece, ca 1820. But are there other clues? To see that there are, consider the reeding to the left and right of the drawers. If applied to the chest by a machine – one that didn’t exist in 1820 – such reeding would be perfectly formed with nary an irregularity to it. Now, though, consider the three images in Figure 12-49. The first image is a lengthwise view of that reeding and if one looks carefully, you should be able to see a bit of irregularity to things; specifically, the four parallel reeds are not perfectly straight. The hand-cut nature of things, though, is perhaps even more evident in the next two images, which show the bottom and top of this reeding. Indeed, notice in the third image how the cut lines actually extend a bit too far up – something you’re unlikely to see on a finely crafted piece of furniture and definitely won’t see on a machine made piece, but which is common on country furniture such as this miniature chest.
Fig. 12-49: Side Reeding to Miniature Chest
Now take a look at Figure 12-50, which shows the underside of two drawers from this same miniature chest. Can you guess which is the bottom drawer? Well, the answer should be obvious … it’s the drawer at the top, the one with the darker bottom. The reason is simple: The top two drawers are protected somewhat from the element by the bottom drawer whereas the bottom drawer is open to the air. Hence, its bottom will oxidize faster than the exposed wood of its sister drawers above it. Absent this difference (and absent a bottom shelf that would protect the bottom-most drawer as well) you might question whether drawer bottoms have been replaced. And if replaced, then you best ask whether the drawers as a whole have been rebuilt in some way.
Fig. 12-50: Comparing Drawer Bottoms for Oxidization
This, then, leads to the question of “how do I know the drawer bottom is original?” Again, wood shrinkage provides the answer. Since wood shrinks with the grain and since the grain on a typical American chest runs from side to side (as opposed to front to back), the bottom will generally pull away from the front of the drawer or the back. But now you might ask “how do I know the bottom wasn’t replaced with a piece that’s narrower than the original so as to give the appearance of shrinkage from age?” Well, most full size chests will have the drawer bottom nailed to the back of the drawer with one of more cut (19th century) or hand wrought rose headed (18th century) nails, and shrinkage will pull against these nails, possibly loosening them to the point that they fall out or simply need replacement or reinforcement. So look at Figure 12-51, which shows the bottom back edge of a ca 1820s chest. The shrinkage is there, but the nails are long gone. However, notice how the nail holes line up. So absent any superfluous holes, that bottom is surely original to the piece.
Fig. 12-51: Shrinkage to the Backside of a Drawer Bottom
While we’re on the subject of drawer bottoms, take a look at Figure 12-52. What we have here is the bottom to yet another piece of early furniture. And what in particular I want you to notice are the plane marks that shape that bottom (along with some scratches and gouges to the wood caused by decades of the drawer being pulled in and out and rubbing against something). Time was money in the 18th and 19th centuries as it is today, and it would be an absolute waste of time for a cabinet maker to smooth the underside of a drawer bottom to the same degree that he’d smooth the opposite upside. Absent power tools to do the job (Black and Decker wasn’t a gleam in anyone’s eye) a few quick moves with the chisel was good enough (the light streaks you see in Figure 12-52 show similar plane marks on the miniature chest).
Fig. 12-52: Hand Planed Drawer Bottom
Now here’s a question for you to see if you’re awake: What other parts of furniture are unlikely to be finished to smooth perfection? ………. OK, time’s up. Hopefully, your answer includes at least the following: Plank seat chair bottoms, the backboards of chests and cupboards, the backboards of tall case clocks, the undersides of table tops (especially large tables) and, from time to time, the interior door panels of cupboards.
Next, consider Figure 12-53, which shows a chest’s drawer separator where it’s dovetailed into the side (actually, from the chest in Figure 12-6). Notice how it fails to lay flat and appears to need to be pushed in. Well, in this case, pushing will be to no avail. With the grain to the chest’s side running vertically, that side will shrink front to back with age while the drawer separator – a considerably narrower board than the side — will shrink hardly at all. Thus, over the decades (centuries actually) that dovetail will begin to protrude as in the picture so as to yield yet another indication of age.
Fig. 12-53: Drawer Separator
Drop leaf tables can provide an additional clue as to age as well as whether the top is original to the base. In 99 times out of 100 the grain on such a table will run front to back, or simply lengthwise on a long table. That top, then, will shrink width-wise with age, yielding an ‘imperfection’ that can sometimes drive one to distraction. Specifically, consider the 2-drawer work table in Figure 12-54 and notice what’s happened to the table’s leaves. That’s right, it’s not an optical illusion – the leaves butterfly out a bit and fail to drop perfectly vertical. What’s happened here is that as the top shrinks, the top of each leaf presses against the side of the table causing the leaf to hang imperfectly. Now you might deem this an annoyance, but it is in fact a strong indicator that the table is not only legitimately old, but that the top is original as well.
Fig. 12-54: Effect of Shrinkage to a Drop Leaf Table
While on the subject of shrinkage, consider Figure 12-55, which shows part of the door panels to two cupboards, one painted and the other unpainted. What both have in common, though, is evidence of shrinkage to those panels – where the interior panel has shrunk and pulled away from the door’s framing. For the cupboard pictured on the left we see evidence that the paint is, if not original, at least old so that shrinkage has revealed the part of the panel that was originally embedded in the framing and thus unpainted. For the unpainted cupboard we see not only that the panel has shrunk with age, but that a part of that panel remained stuck in the door’s framing and has thus split away from the panel’s main body. It is precisely shrinkage of this sort that an expert looks for when evaluating both the age of paint and the age of a cupboard itself.
Fig. 12-55: Evidence of Age: Shrinkage
While we’re at it, let’s take a peek inside a case piece – specifically, where there’s a drawer. Take a look at Figure 12-56 and tell me what you see. That’s right … a worn groove from a century or two of the drawer being pulled and pushed in and out. Absent that wear and you’d have to assume the piece is new. In fact, this consideration reared its head only recently at a local auction that offered an ostensibly late 19th century secretary – the one pictured in Figure 12-57. A local dealer was especially interested in it since he had a client looking for such a piece, provided of course that it was legitimate. The auction house quite properly noted that the feet were questionable, and thus provided what seemed like an eminently reasonable estimate of $3,000 to 5,000. The dealer in question, then, was especially interested in it since any realized auction price in and around that estimate left room for profit. His client, though, while willing to live with replaced feet, wasn’t willing to tolerate anything more in the way of apologies. And sure enough, a careful inspection revealed an interior to the desk portion that was simply too clean. There was no wear whatsoever to the where the interior drawers slid in and out. So short of assuming that the secretary had been stored in a giant plastic baggie for 200 years after being made, the only possible conclusion was that the interior might not even quality for the catch-all ‘vintage’. And once this problem was added to that of replaced feet, other questions began popping up: Was the dentil molding at the top “too perfect”, was the left cleat to the lid a replacement or made to look imperfect so as to imitate age, why isn’t there any wear from dripped wax to the two candle slides beneath the cupboard doors? In other words, the absence of wear brought a whole host of things into question and perhaps explains why the secretary ultimately sold (to someone else) for less than $2,000.
Fig. 12-56: Interior Wear From A Drawer
Fig. 12-57: 18th C Secretary?
A secretary as in Figure 12-57 holds an advantage for anyone assessing its legitimacy: It’s complex and thereby offers a vast array of things to look at in one’s evaluation. For something simpler consider the cherry country Chippendale chair in Figure 12-58a, where a first glance should raise suspicions as to whether it’s legit (i.e., ca 1790). The finish is slick and smooth, so she’s either been refinished or the chair just fell off the truck when being delivered from a factory to a furniture store. And that boldly turned front cross stretcher … it doesn’t exhibit a millimeter of wear. It’s hard to imagine that people never sat in it and rested their feet on the stretcher. Well, all things are possible so take a look at Figure 12-58b, beginning with the upper leftmost image, which shows where the vertical back post connects to the crest rail. And as required, the peg holding those two pieces together pokes out just a bit from the surface so as to at least mimic shrinkage of the wood into which the peg is set. Also, notice that the grain of the crest rail runs horizontal while that of the back post is vertical. Thus, the crest rail will shrink vertically, the back post will do so horizontally and the centuries should yield a connection between these two parts that’s less than perfect. If you run a fingertip over it, you’ll feel it – at least you should if the chair is legit. Turning to the pierced back splat, we know how piercing was accomplished in the 18th century – essentially, a coping saw. Today that splat would be either stamped out or cut with a jig saw, in which case we’d see either no tool marks or the regular perpendicular marks of an electric power tool. What the center top image in Figure 12-58b reveals, though, are the irregular marks of a hand sawn object. The crest rail would also have been shaped with a coping saw, but a good cabinet maker will pay more attention to sanding out any saw marks here than the interior of a pierced splat. Nevertheless, since this chair is an obvious country made piece and not the product of one of America’s fine furniture craftsmen of the period, we might suppose a less than perfect job here and indeed, as the upper right image of Figure 12-58b shows, that’s precisely what we do find. Now consider the bottom of the backsplat where is fits into the seat rail. Again, the grain to that rail runs horizontal while that of the splat runs vertical. Thus, the splat will shrink horizontally while the rail will shrink vertically (if it shrinks at all). And as we see in the lower right image of Figure 12-58b, our chair passes this test. We still can’t be certain, though, that our chair is legit since noting we’ve looked at thus far can’t be the product of a late 19th century or early 20th century craftsman. About all we’ve eliminated is the possibility that our chair graced the showroom of some Ethan Allen furniture outlet. The BIG test comes from looking at the bulbous turned cross-stretcher with zero wear. Now I’m not going to say a faker can’t turn a piece of cherry on a lathe and then bake it in an oven before finishing it so as to further shrink the wood and render any turnings out of round. That is, I can’t preclude the possibility of a deliberate fake. But if you’re gonna fake something, why apply your time and talents to something that even on a good day is unlikely to sell for more than $500? But is that stretcher out of round owing to age shrinkage? And while were asking, what about the turned parts of the front legs? Well, if you don’t happen to have a pair of calipers, get a C-clamp, rotate it and reset it until you find what appears to be the largest diameter of the turning. Set the clamp so that it lightly brushes the turning when you move the clamp back and forth. Now rotate the clamp 90 degrees. You should, if the chair is indeed old, have a gap such as the two shown (here, roughly 3/16”) in the lower left images of Figure 12-58b.
Fig. 12-58a: Ca 1790 Cherry Chippendale Chair ?
Fig. 12-58a: Clues to the Chair’s Age
Now keep in mind that despite all the positive signs that this chair is a legitimate 18th century piece, we cannot definitively rule out the possibility of a centennial reproduction. After all, if centennial, the chair would still be more than 140 years old and another 80+ years of age isn’t going to add that much more shrinkage to the wood. Absent a definitive provenance, we can’t say more and are left with the admonition “If you like it, like it for what it is and for whatever aesthetic appeal it has for you.”
Now anyone with even a passing familiarity with antiques will note that I’ve thus far ignored what most people believe is the surest way to differentiate between a legitimate antique … or at least something made in the 19th century … versus a 20th century reproduction; namely, the dovetails to drawers. Needless to say, prior to full industrialization and the mass manufacture of furniture, dovetails were hand made and perhaps were the first thing an apprentice cabinet maker would be trained to master. A bit of care here, though, is required before we establish hard and fast rules. Following the American Civil War the United States had an industrial capacity directed at making arms that was unmatched in the world … a capacity for the mass manufacture of things the market for which largely disappeared at Appomattox. That capacity, though, was not about to be abandoned or dumped into the Great Lakes. Instead, it, or at least the skilled labor associated with it, was redirected to the country’s middle class once again and, in part, to the mass manufacturing of furniture. Mass manufacturing provide us with it a variety of telltale clues as to age, including such things as the perfectly parallel cuts of the band saw the wholly symmetric threads of screws and, necessarily, dovetails that conform to a machine’s jig. But while the United States began mass manufacturing furniture, Europe, with its less affluent middle class and cabinet maker’s guilds unsympathetic to being replaced by a machine, remained stuck where it was so that hand made dovetails didn’t wholly disappear there until the second decade of the 20th century. Thus, the mere appearance of hand made dovetails tells you little about age until you’ve differentiated between an American piece and its British and Continental counterpart.
OK, so what are dovetails on an American antique supposed to look like? Well, that sorta depends on when they were made. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, they appear to have become more refined over time. Thus, looking at Figure 12-59, age decreases as we move from left to right, with the leftmost example corresponding to the drawer of an early 18th century gate leg table whereas the rightmost image is of a drawer to a ca 1840s work table.
Fig. 12-59: Early Dovetails
Now perhaps to sow a bit of confusion, from time to time you may encounter something that looks like Figure 12-60a, so what have we got here? Well, dovetails that appear to be pegs are intermediate between those in Figure 12-59 and the kind we are familiar with on contemporary furniture. What appears to be a row of pegs are actually integral to the drawer’s face (see Figure 12-60b) and represent a first pass at full industrialization. They appeared shortly after the Civil War, then largely disappeared by 1880. So if you see them you pretty well know you’re dealing with something made in the late Victorian era.
Fig. 12-60a: A First Pass at Industrialization
Fig. 12-60b: “Pegged” Dovetail Construction
Enough of dovetails, and lets take a quick look an an additional clue to age … nails. Referring to Figure 12-61a, the topmost nail with its misshapen head is hand forged and likely to be seen only on 18th century pieces whereas the lower nail with its rectangular head is what’s referred to as a cut nail and generally dates a piece to the first three quarters of the 19th century. Hand forged nails were individually made and, as one might suspect, used sparingly since they would be anything but inexpensive. Cut nails, on the other hand, were stamped out from a sheet of iron, which greatly reduced the cost of manufacture. The round headed nail we see today in hardware stores was again something that came after the Civil War (basically after 1880 or so) and were mass manufactured by a process akin to making wire (hence the term ‘extruded’). But now here’s the problem: You can buy newly made forged and cut nails today on any number of reproduction hardware sites. Indeed, Figure 12-61b are but a few of the ‘antique’ nails offered by Horton Brasses on their website. If you’d like even more information about nails, their history and identification, let me refer you to the website https://www.realorrepro.com/article/Nails-as-clues-to-age. There remains, though, one problem … in making certain the nails you see in a piece of furniture are legit and not reprodiuctions, more often than not, you won’t be in a position to do anything more than examine its head, and reproduction nails can fool you (especially if you have my eyes). Few if any dealers are gonna let you try pulling nails out of their furniture before you agree to buy it so you can inspect a nail in full. So what other clues do we have that a hand wrought or cut nail signifies age? The answer lies in looking at the wood around the nail head. 18th and 19th century nails were made of iron (as opposed to steel), iron oxidizes and, thereby, oxidizes and stains the wood around it. In Figure 12-61a this is most evident with the lower (cut) nail. Absent that staining, its best to be suspicious of any antique attribution.
Fig. 12-61a: 18th vs 19th Century Nails
Fig. 12-61b: “Antique” Nails from Horton Brasses
One final example is the small hanging painted cupboard in Figure 12-62a. At first glance this might seem to be a treasure … fantastic wear, wonderful color to the back, great paint surface, and the wear to the hole for hanging just reeks of decades if not centuries of use. But hold on a minute … is this one of those instances of something being too good to be true? And in fact, it is precisely that. First the wear … its everywhere as if this thing had been used as a football over the course of several seasons of play. When wear occurs it doesn’t occur uniformly as in this piece … it concentrates where hands are most likely to touch it. OK, so maybe it was mishandled … let’s set that problem aside. What about nails? Surely with the wear this piece exhibits they HAVE to be cut nails and perhaps even had forged. Given the apparent wear to this piece, evidence of 20th century or even late 19th century nail would be a red flag that screams FAKE. A close inspection of the holes in the back corresponding to nails, though, yields something a tad disturbing: The nails are sunk relatively deep in the wood and thereafter largely obscured by, to put it bluntly, crud. That, to say the least, is not only strange but suspicious since if anything nail heads on the back should be prominent. And if you’re going to fake something with contemporary nails, then rule #1 is “hide the nails”. The danger at this point, though, is to write off these modestly unsettling issues in the hopes that the piece is right … and too often, hoping hard enough makes it right, but only in the mind of whoever wants it to be right. And this piece is just good enough with that crusty painted surface to lead people into believing what they want to believe. Unfortunately, it is a fake, the proof of that being Figure 12-62b. That’s right, what we have here is a nearly identical … but not identical … cupboard: Same size, same paint, same wear, same construction, but still a different cupboard. And I know this: If you were to find two legitimate country primitive pieces such as these that are for all intents and purposes genetically identical twins along all dimensions, then look for the star in the East … you are witness to another miracle.
Fig. 12-62a: Fake 20th C Small Hanging Cupboard
Fig. 12-62b: Twin of The Fake Cupboard in Figure 12-62a
Hardware: A part of assessing a piece of furniture is the matter of hardware and the oft-asked question: Is the hardware original? Frankly, it’s often impossible to definitively answer this question, but first let’s consider determining whether the hardware is old or a contemporary reproduction. And here we need to keep in mind that if nails were used sparingly because they were expensive (individually hand forged in the 18th century), then things like screws, the threaded posts to drawer pulls, and nuts were more expensive still. So you’ll have to pardon our forefathers if they made such things without seeking absolute perfection … if crudely made screws, posts and nuts did the job, then good enough. With that in mind, Figure 12-63 shows the threaded post to a contemporary piece of hardware and its associated nut beneath it, alongside a ca 1800 post and its corresponding nut. The differences here is obvious – the threading on a contemporary post (as it would be as well on a contemporary screw) is absolutely regular – perfectly spaced and to the same depth throughout the post’s length. The nut is no less perfectly formed. If they weren’t, then the machine that made them is badly in need of repair. Now compare that to the brass post and nut to the right. I dare say that absent a close look into the hole of the nut, you might not even be able to guess what this small piece of cast brass is in the first place. Moreover, if you screw it onto the post, it will most likely wobble a bit and not tighten perfectly until, when securing the post to a drawer, the nut was pressed tight against the drawer itself.
Fig 12-63: Reproduction vs Period Posts and Nuts
OK, so suppose the hardware on a chest, cupboard or table drawer looks hand forged and matches the imperfect execution of the two brass pieces above. Is the hardware original? Well, first thing to check is to see if the drawer has extra holes. Are the plates to those Chippendale or Hepplewhite pulls covering up a hole when the chest originally had smaller hardware or even a simple knob? Hopefully, you know what it means to have extra holes. So instead, suppose the hardware fits perfectly. You’re not home yet, and the next question you need to answer is: Is there evidence that the hardware has been worked on, removed, monkeyed with? What you want to see is what’s shown in Figure 12-64 – the backside of a drawer, chipped away so the drawer pull posts don’t poke into the drawer and threaten to tear those delicate shirts, panties and sweaters, and where there’s no evidence whatsoever that the hardware has ever been removed (admittedly, Figure 12-64 offers a somewhat extreme example of where a cabinet maker made allowance for protruding posts, and don’t be surprised if you find no allowance at all). So suppose your inspection of hardware passes all these tests. Are you guaranteed now that it’s original? Well actually, no … in fact there NEVER can be such a guarantee. But at least in this instance no one can call you a liar if you proclaim the hardware original.
Figure 12-64: Undisturbed Drawer Pulls to a Period Chest
Marriages: Throughout the time period covered in this volume a great many furniture forms came in two sections – highboys, step back cupboards, corner cupboards, chests on chests. But as with clothes and hairstyles, tastes in furniture changed over time. Highboys along with the more massive chests on chests fell out of favor in the early 19th century while cupboards with a more country flavor were relegated to basements and barns where moisture and the occasional flood could work their indignities. The net result of all of this is that the tops and bottoms of pieces were often separated or the base to a piece was allowed to rot while the top remained functional. Take for instance an 18th century highboy. Suppose its form is no longer needed or desired. Now keep in mind that our ancestors weren’t dealing with an antique here – for them it was used furniture. So what to do with it? Simple: Take the base, remove any molding from around the top, put a new top on it and voila, a dressing table or server. As for the top half, all one need do is put some feet on it and you have chest of drawers. The same ‘magic’ can be worked on a chest on chest to yield two chests. Now imagine what happens when the owner of those two pieces passes on to the great antiques emporium in the sky. Daughter Alice wants the “dressing table” so she can continue using it as a makeup table while brother Fred needs the “chest of drawers” for his socks and jeans. But Alice and Fred aren’t speaking to each other anymore because they’re busy fighting over who gets the worthless mantle clock in the living room. So absent any coordination or consideration as to what they’re dividing up, the base ends up in Alice’s home in Missouri as a dressing table while Fred carts the top off to Texas.
Now jump ahead some 100 or 150 years to where there are nut cases out there like you and me who love highboys and other such 18th century pieces. However, because of the indignities suffered by them over the years, there are far fewer such examples of the furniture craftsman’s art than would otherwise exist had their halves never been separated. Maybe that top to a highboy was shipped off with Fred’s son when he went to college – and we know what can happen to furniture then (ugh) while its base was passed on to Alice’s granddaughter and is now sporting a lovely coat of pink latex. The net result of all of this is a scattering around the country of tops and bottoms like jimmies on an ice cream cone. Now enter the antique dealer who, for whatever reason — accident or planning – ends up with a collection of tops and bottoms. What to do with this assortment? Well, I bet I know what you’d do if you were crazy enough to have, say, five bases now pretending to be dressing tables and four or six tops each posing as a chest of drawers. Curiosity will get the better of you and you’ll see if any of your bases can be matched up with one of your tops so as to make a reasonably looking complete highboy. Hell, if you’re a dealer with only a base, bet I know what you’d do if you encountered a converted chest that looked like it could go with your base – you’d buy it and keep your fingers crossed that if the two halves were married, they’d at least give the appearance of being a complete highboy.
It’s been my experience now that more than half the highboys, along with a good share of chests on chests, you’re likely to encounter out there will be marriages. True collectors who can afford to be unsatisfied with simply ‘having the look’ will write a considerably larger check for something that isn’t a marriage and has somehow survived all the potential indignities of two centuries of abuse and changing taste. But since no one has yet figured out how to implement that socialist utopia wherein everyone enjoys an equal share of some mythical paradise, there remains a viable market for married highboys and chests on chests. So how to tell the difference? There are basically three clues aside from the obvious ones of top and bottom being of the same wood and proper sizes. First, take a look at the back. In fact, take a look at Figure 12-4. Aside from simply saying ‘old wood’, what do you see? Answer: The patina top and bottom matches. When pieces get separated they more often than not are subject to different environmental conditions and thus their exposed wood will oxidize at different rates. Hence, the highboy in Figure 12-4 passes the first test. Now take a look at the dovetails to two drawers in Figure 12-65a. Aside from a difference in color, the thing to notice here is that the dovetails for the drawer to the left are fatter than those on the right. Now when a highboy or chest on chest was being made, in 99.99% of the time (or possibly even 100%) the drawers were all made by the same person. And when that person made dovetails, he did them according to his taste and style, so they’d all be identical. The unavoidable conclusion, then, is that these two drawers were made by different craftsmen. The two drawers, though, come from the top and bottom sections of the same highboy, in which case you have to conclude that the highboy is a marriage. Suppose, however, that you’re a pig headed sort and remain unconvinced, stubbornly that the dovetails are only subtly different (which they really aren’t in Figure 12-65a). In that case take a look at Figure 12-65b. What we have here are the tops of the sides of those same two drawers, and here there cannot be any claim about subtlety.
Fig. 12-65a: Comparing Dovetails
Fig. 12-65b: Comparing the Sides of Drawers
So that’s it folks. I’m not going to give you any more hits, clues, suggestions, opinions, prejudices or whatever. You’re now on your own and hopefully a bit better equipped to begin cataloguing your own experiences, mistakes and successes. But to leave off where I began, let me say that if you think that running to a contemporary furniture store is the place to find something that will be an antique for your grand or great grandchildren, think again. Call me a dinosaur, but I have a hard time imagining something made of plywood or particle board ever becoming an antique. There are, of course, a few craftsmen out there producing exquisite hand crafted creations. But they’re a dying breed relegated to the realm of hobbyist and their efforts already bring prices that match some of the finest antiques. Sam Maloof’s (1916 – 2009) workshop in Alta Loma California, for instance, isn’t now a museum for the hell of it. Or, as they say about things like Pennsylvania fraktur, Simon Willard banjo clocks and Lehman toys, they ain’t making them anymore. Even the manufactured furniture of the Victorian era (say 1840 – 1890) when old growth stands of black walnut and oak still existed, is of a quality that exceeds all but the most expensive commercially made furniture today. So if you still have a hankering for owning a piece of the history of a country that arguably has done more during its relatively brief existence in contributing to the betterment of our species – or even if you simply want something made with a level of skill and attention to detail unmatched by the mass manufacturing of things – today’s flea markets, estate sales and antique shops await you.