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Furniture Specific: Hers, His or Whose? Provenance

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Tuesday, 07 April 2015 10:09
A little research will show that this type label was used by Stickley Brothers before their ‘Quaint’ line of Arts & Crafts/Mission furniture appeared in 1902.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – For the last several months I have been talking about ways to evaluate the clues available to us in determining the age of an older or antique piece of furniture. But now it’s time to take a short break from all that technical stuff and discuss another way to tell how old that treasure is – old fashioned by – by word of mouth or hopefully by pen and ink. What I’m referring to of course is called the provenance of a piece – the history of where it’s been and who it belonged to.

You will often hear appraisers, learned and otherwise, talk about the “wonderful provenance” of a piece or perhaps indicate the increase in market value based on “such a magnificent provenance.” So who gives out provenances and how do we get one and are some better than others?

The easiest, most convenient nontechnical way to establish a provenance is to ask the owner, seller, dealer or family member in current possession of the piece. It is also absolutely the least reliable way of getting anything even close to the real story. Family history has a way of fudging around the edges and glossing over the dings that accumulate in every family tree and what is true of genealogy research is also true of provenance. Except that the generally accepted standard for what is reliable information in the genealogy field has been set by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who impose strict standards of proof requiring written confirmation of asserted facts by disinterested third parties such as governmental, religious, fraternal or other dependable sources. It’s unfortunate this level of standards has not been applied to antique furniture, and almost any old legend or tale will do until someone is willing to change the story based on actual evidence.

A common example of the family fable that becomes family history is often found attached to the newly inherited family piece now owned by the oldest great grandchild. Legend has it that the old night stand has to be over 100 years old, maybe even closer to two, because it belonged to Aunt Mabel, and Aunt Mabel died way back in ’34 when she was almost 103. Obviously the piece has to be really old. Except that in reality Mabel bought the table new from a mail-order catalog when she moved to the other nursing home back in ’28. So maybe it’s not quite as old as the family would like to have it be.

A quick check to use on family legends is the generational method. It provides a guideline for assigning age since many people get confused about the number of “greats” that actually should be attached to their ancestors. Your current age plus 25 years for each generation that presumably owned something is a good ballpark “guesstimator” for age. Something attributed to my great grandmother is alleged to be 100-plus years old. Since I am comfortably in my middle age, a piece owned by my great grandmother would be my age plus 25 years for my father plus 25 years for my grandfather plus 25 years for my great grandmother. That works out about right since my great grandmother was born in 1874. It may be off a few years but it most likely got the estimate in the right part of the right century. This method is just a kind of reality check, not meant to be accurate but to be reasonable.

Another quick reality check is to look at the society and furniture of the period from which the family piece supposedly originated. In my great grandmother’s case, a visit to a museum or library would tell me what the furnishings of the late 19th century would be like and what the expectations of the time were. Given those facts it would seem unlikely that my great grandmother, as a newlywed in a Southern state, would have owned a Depression-era china cabinet. It is possible she had one later in life but that wouldn’t make it 100-plus years old. So much for family legends.

What makes for a good provenance is, in the immortal words of Sgt. Joe Friday, “just the facts.” The ideal provenance would consist of an unbroken chain of evidence in hard copy from each succeeding period of ownership. It would start with an original maker’s bill of sale, with his or her name on it, made out to the original owner, with his or her name on it, with a description of the piece, what the original price was and the date and place of the transaction. This original piece of evidence would be supported in later years by documents from the probating of the will of the original owner listing the assets, including the piece of furniture, and the disposition of the assets – who ended up with the piece. If the piece were sold or donated there would be evidence of the transaction in the form of a receipt or an entry into an inventory log. Evidence like this can also sometimes be found in bills of lading when a family moves and household inventory is shipped somewhere. Insurance policies often list important household articles and contemporary social events news accounts will sometimes mention the “antique sofa in Mrs. J’s parlor.”

But such excellent evidence is rarely available to us in the real world. We have to make do with common sense, good detective work and some room for exploration. Many a piece that first appears to be anonymous can actually contain clues to its origin. For example, overlooked shipping tags, stapled or tacked to a rear surface, can locate the piece in a given time and place. Information about the shipper or recipient is often available through library or Internet searches. Arcane company logos and maker’s marks are listed in a variety of publications and there are furniture people out there doing research on the subject every day. Signatures and bequests are sometimes found scrawled on the under side or the back of a drawer and don’t forget to look inside the case with a flashlight.

A believable, documented provenance is a wonderful thing to have and it often enhances both the value and the interest of a piece. But don’t pay a premium for someone’s undocumented family history, no matter how alluring it may be because without the proof its just hearsay. But the lack of a provenance should not detract from a well-made, attractive piece of older furniture. Look as it as an opportunity to do the research and create the provenance.

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format.

His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE
I found this piece of paper folded up in a drawer slide cavity in an old chest. I was able to trace the signature in the U.S. Census to a 29-year-old cabinetmaker in New York in 1860. The style fit the period and the paper was in a place that could only have been accessed by the maker so I can reasonably assume this is the signature of the originator of the cabinet.   Is this the signature on the bottom of this handmade drawer that of the maker, the owner or a kid scribbling? No doubt about who made the table with this mark.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 07 April 2015 10:56
 

Furniture Specific: Random thoughts

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Thursday, 05 March 2015 13:29

The lopers on this 19th century English desk have to be pulled out manually to support the drop front. Twentieth century American lopers work with a mechanical ‘operator’ to extend automatically when the desk is opened.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – I admit I do have really random thoughts on occasion as I suspect most of us do. However, since I spend a great deal of my waking hours, and some of my nonwaking hours as well, absorbed in the subject of antique furniture, quite a few of my random thoughts naturally center on that subject. And just to show the inquisitive mind I have, many of the random thoughts express themselves as questions.

Here are a few of my random thoughts. I offer few if any answers, just primarily questions. If you happen to randomly know the answer to one or more of these random thoughts please let me know.

I’ll start with one that I do have a hint on the answer. Why is part of the back of a chair called a stile? Turns out a stile is a section of an English fence that allows passage; not exactly a gate, just a place where the fence can be breached by means of a gap, narrow steps or a ladder. Some stiles even have a dog gate next to them that can be raised to allow the passage of your canine companion just in case the dog can’t climb the ladder. This definition can easily be imagined by looking at a ladder-back chair. Looks like a stile to me.

Why is the moveable or removable section of an extension dining table called a leaf? Logically it seems the part should be called a “leave.” After all you have to make a decision whether to leave the piece in or out and decide whether to leave it up or down. Leave seems to more impart the true nature of the element. Or is it the resemblance to leaves in a book?

Then there is the question of chairs. Why do they have four legs? Is it just because that seems to fit in well with most other life on Earth that is not bipedal? Why don’t chairs have three legs? Some early forms of seating had three legs and it certainly solves one problem. A three-legged chair will ways sit flat on an uneven surface, even if one leg is shorter or longer than the others. That would make many restaurant chairs I have occupied much more comfortable rather the “tilt-a-whirl” models you find in many eateries and waiting rooms. That goes for tables too.

And speaking of legs, why do some pedestal table bases have three legs? If the answer is stability then certainly chairs should have the same opportunity. And if that is true why do some pedestals have four legs like chairs? Why not five? When you get right down to it the U.S. government has already answered that question through OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Take a look at the bottom of your office chair. If you are sitting in a tilt/swivel standard office chair made in within the last two decades it will have five, count ’em, five legs instead of three or four. Why? It’s safer according to the OSHA bureaucrats who obviously have nothing better to do other than scoot office chairs around to see which one falls over first. According to OSHA “The chair should have a five-leg base with casters that allow easy movement along the floor.” Here’s the site for you to take a look at how OSHA sees your chair. http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/components_chair.html

Then there are some of those odd names found in furniture and furniture parts. One odd name for a part that I do understand is the name for the wooden peg driven through a mortise and tenon joint. According to John Bivens originally this peg was called a “tree nail” as opposed I suppose to an iron nail. English being what it is the phrase tree nail eventually became “trennel,” a colloquial contraction of the original name. However, I was informed years ago by a grizzled old antique furniture veteran that the name of that piece was a “true nail” because it kept the joint true. That name eventually became “trunnel.” Which, if either, is correct?

But the reason for some names escapes me. Like splat. Splat is the sound a cube of Jello makes when it hits the tile floor. Why is the backrest of a chair called a splat? And what about those wooden slides that you pull out to support the drop front of your secretary? They are quite handy and in common use. But why are they called “lopers”? It has nothing to do with a horse’s gait and is not the swivel used in rope making. It is however a surname that ranks 4152 in frequency in the United States. But what does it have to do with a drop-front desk?

Another puzzling word is “dentil.” I know it is derived from the Latin “dens,” a tooth, and is used to describe a block-like molding that is said to resemble teeth. In architecture it actually represents the pattern formed by the ends of rafters sticking out under a roofline. It was used in temples in Asia Minor, one of the earliest being the tomb of Darius in 500 B.C. Since it obviously refers to the shape of teeth why isn’t it spelled “dental” like everything else that has to do with teeth?

If you know the answers to any of these question or happen to have random thoughts of your own along the same lines please let me know.

 

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.




ADDITIONAL IMAGE OF NOTE

The lopers on this 19th century English desk have to be pulled out manually to support the drop front. Twentieth century American lopers work with a mechanical ‘operator’ to extend automatically when the desk is opened.

The block-like molding on the top of this cabinet is called ‘dentil’ molding. Why isn’t it called ‘dental’ molding?

The moveable portions of this table have been let down. Someone made a decision to ‘leave’ them down.

After further consideration the owner of the table decided to ‘leave’ them up.

This stylized Queen Anne chair has a vase-shaped pierced splat. Why is it called splat?

The top portion of this chair can easily be imagined to be part of a fence system that can be crossed not at a gate but at a ‘stile.’

The pegs in this 18th century mortise and tenon joint are called ‘trennels’ by some. Others call them ‘trunnels.’ Which is correct?

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 14:10
 

Furniture Specific: Parts and pieces

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Monday, 02 February 2015 17:32
This turn-of-the-century oak dining chair has had the tall back removed. CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – Sometimes you and I both run across a piece of furniture that has us stumped. I get a lot of mail from readers who send me photos of their furniture and ask me what the piece is, where it came from, who made it, what’s it made of, what’s it worth and other little details like that. Since I’m fortunate enough to devote a large amount of my time to research on the subject of older and antique furniture, I generally have an idea what a piece of furniture is called, how it is or was used and the general period from which it originated. Then with a few basic parameters established I am able to delve into further research on the details.

But sometimes I have to do a double take. On occasion it completely baffles me about what a piece may actually be, especially when my perception of it may be clouded by the misconception of the sender. While a kiss is always just a kiss, a chair is not always what it seems to be and cabinets are often well disguised.

Here are a few Trojan horses that have appeared in my mailbox recently. It must be the weather.

Fred – I would like to ask a question about a piece of furniture I have. I think it is an older file cabinet/dresser of some type? I was wondering if you had any info you could share on it. Price? Date? Maker? I am attaching a few pictures of the cabinet. Thanks a million, Josh H.”

The “file cabinet” is pretty much that. But it’s not quite that simple. What the reader had was actually a single pedestal from a double pedestal commercial desk that has been cut off. You can see the circular saw marks on the edge of the top. The rail on the side of the cabinet was the drawer guide for the center drawer in the original desk.

It was originally a part of a walnut desk made in the 1940s or so. It looks like this pedestal has three complete drawers. That means that the other missing pedestal probably had a file drawer that took up the last two drawer fronts. The pull-out section under the top is called a “dictation slide.” It was used by the secretary to support her note pad while she took shorthand notes from the executive behind the desk. Since it is only a part of a complete piece it has no formal value.

Here’s another …

“I would appreciate any information you can give me on a cabinet we purchased.

We have not changed anything but use it as a storage place for glasses, etc. Thanks. Sharon L.”

It appears that the reader has the shell of the king of desks, the Wooton (often misspelled as Wooten). It came in four ascending grades of quality and ornamentation, Ordinary, Standard, Extra and Superior. This one used to be the simplest, an Ordinary. William S. Wooton, the founder of Wooton Desk Co., made his patent desks in Indianapolis between 1874 and 1893 most often in the Renaissance Revival style. Complete intact examples of Wooton desks in good condition sell for several thousand dollars at auction. However, this one has been severely altered. The original cast bronze hinges have been replaced with piano hinges and all of the interior shelving and cubbyholes have been removed but the drop down writing surface is still in place. For some views of original Wootons just do a Google search on “Wooton desk.” There is a great deal of information about Wooton desks both online and in many books. One of the best in print is Styles of American Furniture 1860 - 1960 by Eileen and Richard Dubrow, published by Schiffer.

While it does make a terrific storage cabinet and the conversion may have saved the cabinet from total destruction or abandonment, the shell of the desk has no value as a Wooton desk in its current condition. As a storage cabinet it was worth whatever the reader paid for it.

Next …

“I recently was given a bedroom suite from Keystone Furniture of Williamsport, Pa. The only info I have been able to find in regard to age or value is that Keystone was founded just after the Civil War but I have found nothing specific about this set. The entire set includes headboard, footboard, two nightstands, armoire, dresser and mirror and a vanity chair. Thanks for any help and insight you may be able to provide about age and value of the set.

The form of the bed suggests an Art Deco period origin, late 1920s to mid 1930s but overall the set has traditional Colonial Revival styling from the Depression era. It is made of cherry veneer with gum as the structural secondary wood in the frame of the cabinets. At first I was confused that there was a vanity chair but there was no picture or mention of a vanity. Then I realized that the two bedside tables are the two pedestals of the vanity that have been cut apart. The original vanity was a three-mirror vanity with a tall mirror in the center and moveable batwing mirrors on the sides. The splashboards on the tables are another clue. They are shaped on one end but not on the other. The photos didn’t show the details but I suspect that if the “bedside tables” were studied closely enough I would be able to detect where the center panel joined them. The addition of the matching armoire is a very good plus for the set but the missing vanity would detract from the sale value.

And finally…

“I have two Stomps Burkhardt chairs but cannot find any information on them. They are slipper-type oak chairs with no backs. They have lions carved on the front legs. Can you tell me anything about them or their value. One looks like the veneer or wood is stripped off the seat. Would it pay to have it restored? I have attached a photo. Thank you, Diane.”

Stomps Burkhardt was formed in Dayton, Ohio, in 1890 when Gustave Stomps, a Prussian immigrant chair maker teamed up with one of his employees, Richard Burkhardt, a German cabinetmaker. Stomps died later that year and Burkhardt continued the business until his death early in the 20th century.

The chairs were probably made just before the turn of the century during the Golden Oak era of American furniture. Lions, winged griffins and other creatures were favorite elements of the period. The chairs originally were high-back dining chairs made of white oak. The bar across the back of the one pictured was placed there after the tall back was removed. You can tell it is a later addition because the bar is made of flat cut red oak rather than the quartercut white oak of the frame and legs. Quartercutting is a way of cutting the oak wood that produces the striking grain pattern in the chair. The seats are "molded" which means they are made of oak veneer plywood, a common use of that period. Since the chairs have already been significantly altered the only reason to reveneer the one seat is for looks.

Perhaps in some cases instead of “What is it?” the question should be “What WAS it?”

 

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE
This turn-of-the-century oak dining chair has had the tall back removed. The shell of a 19th century Wooton desk is being used for glass storage. This 'cabinet' was once the left pedestal of a double pedestal desk. The rail at the top of the pedestal supported the center drawer of the original desk. These 'bedside tables' are the pedestals from a Depression-era three-mirror vanity.
Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 13:28
 

Furniture Specific: More than a marriage

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Monday, 05 January 2015 17:18

At first glance this looks like a nice Queen Anne cabinet.

CRYSTAL RIVER, FLA. – A marriage can be a really good idea in some cases. With furniture, just as with people, sometimes the union of two unattached units can combine to create a new useful entity. In furniture the union can often be accomplished so seamlessly that it requires some real detective work to ferret out the existence of two or more separate units.

Such was the case with what at first glance appeared to be an 18th century Queen Anne bonnet-top chest on chest. The legs were OK, the hardware was good but probably not original. The fan carvings piqued my interest with slightly different radii and depth patterns but that was not enough to make me truly suspicious, merely alert.

 

Everything was fine until the drawers were opened. Then the cat was out of the bag. The drawer joinery in the top section was obviously done by a different hand from the one that did the bottom joinery. And the secondary woods appeared vastly different from oxidation. It was a case of the “the more you looked, the more you saw.”

 

The drawer joinery did not look consistent from top to bottom.

A closer look at the sides of the two sections revealed significantly different cuts of mahogany. Then top section had plum pudding and fiddle back side panels. The bottom section was fairly flat cut. It was an odd-looking combination in retrospect.

 

The side panels were two entirely different cuts of mahogany.

The back panels pretty well closed the deal. They were obviously from different pieces. Even the nailing pattern was different.

 

The back panels showed huge differences in oxidation and color.

Even so, the overall appearance of the piece was acceptable and most folks would have just said “What a nice cabinet.” It was case of a marriage gone good.

 

I recently read a story about “Ikea hacking” where people acquired inexpensive pieces at Ikea and used bits and pieces to create a completely new piece (http://ikeahackers.net). Interesting idea of what to do with Ikea stuff, but then I ran across an even more extreme application of the process.

My best friend Gail and I had the opportunity to spend some time in a large antique mall. Unfortunately I can’t just cruise a mall or a shop. I quickly fall into work mode and examine most pieces with a critical and skeptical eye. I strolled through one room that had an unusual looking piece. It looked almost like a late 19th century baker’s table but it didn’t have the possum belly drawer bottoms. It had a flat top with a splashboard above two short drawers over one long drawer, all supported on four turned legs. It was tagged as a “three-drawer burled walnut worktable, late 19th century” but at 29½ inches high that didn’t pass the smell test – the test where you don’t know exactly what is wrong but it just doesn’t smell right.

 

This kitchen work table just didn’t pass the smell test.

I am fan of Empire and Late Classicism furniture so the drawers immediately attracted my attention. They appeared to have crotch-cut mahogany veneer on them, not “burled” walnut, Empire style, with round wooden knobs – which turned out to be fake plastic knobs. Once again the drawers told the story. The drawers had handmade dovetail joinery front and back. The sides and single board drawer bottoms were hand planed poplar. The bottoms were attached in the back only with square headed mid 19th century cut nails and the fronts fit snugly into the mortise in the back of the drawer front. No doubt about it. These drawers came from a mid-century chest.

 

The drawer joinery in the worktable was handmade dovetails.

 

Drawer bottom.jpg – The drawer bottom was a single-board hand-planed piece of poplar.

A look at the sides revealed more crotch mahogany veneer that may have been grained and the back was a single panel of poplar. This was the top 12 inches or so, rails, stiles, sides and back of a mid-century chest.

 

The side of the worktable could have been crotch cut mahogany veneer or it could have been grained. It was too muddy to tell.

 

 The back also was a single-board, hand-planed piece of poplar.

 

The top turned out to be a single board from a walnut table. The splashboard was made from the same stock, perhaps a leaf or another top section that had been sacrificed. It was crudely done at best.

So now I have identified the parts from at least two incomplete pieces but it still had legs that didn’t come from a walnut table and certainly didn’t come from the chest. I couldn’t tell exactly where they came from, perhaps an étagère or other tall cabinet. They were made of nondescript secondary wood, factory turned and obviously chopped from a previously longer length. That’s parts of three pieces. Then there was the ogee-shape transition panel above the drawers below the top. It looked like it had mahogany veneer on the sides but in the front it was made of quartersawn white oak. Was this part of the original chest or was this part of yet another dislocated piece?

This was worse than any possible marriage. It was way out of bounds. It was beyond a simple marriage, it was past even a ménage a trois. This had to be a ménage a quarto or better if there is such a thing. This could totter on the edge of polygamy or even an orgy.

What it obviously wasn’t was an antique kitchen worktable. It was, in plain terms, a cobble. It was simply created as a one-of-a-kind piece out of stray parts. That’s worse than Ikea hacking! Or was it? Was the Empire chest headed for the dump or the burn pile? Maybe the walnut table was going to be scrapped for stock in a shop. Perhaps the legs had been destined for firewood. In any event at least parts of at least three older pieces of furniture have survived today as a result of someone’s ingenuity. Is it a priceless antique? Heck no. Could it, or at least its pieces, tell some stories? You bet.

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.

 

Last Updated on Monday, 02 February 2015 17:32
 

Furniture Specific: The second question

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Monday, 08 December 2014 15:16

The finish on this Federal period drawer is original and untouched. Is it attractive?

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – The second most frequently asked question in the antique furniture trade, after “What’s it worth?” has to be “Won’t I destroy the value by refinishing it?”

The answer to that is an unequivocal “maybe, maybe not.” This might be at odds with what you have probably heard from many of the self-styled experts found lurking on Internet bulletin boards and on local radio call-in shows whose mantra sometime appears to be “Don’t touch that original finish!” Even some of the nationally recognized genuine experts on the subject occasionally answer in the affirmative, but the answer to the second question depends a great deal on the answer to the first question. And the answer to the first question requires accurate identification and attribution of the piece at hand. You have to know what the piece is before you can answer either of the dollar sign questions.

If you are in doubt about the pedigree of a piece, ask someone who knows. Don’t ask your brother-in-law, who knows everything. Ask someone who really knows – someone who is in the trade or who has the credentials to make an accurate assessment. In some cases it may even be worth your while to get it professionally appraised. But however you do it, make sure you know what it is before making any further decisions. Once you are comfortable with the result, proceed with your debate about the finish.

The difference in value between a $2.5 million 18th century mahogany game table in pristine original condition and the identical table that was refinished 20 years ago is more than many of us will see in a lifetime. But the difference in value between a set of late Victorian chairs in original black crackle shellac with rotting upholstery and the same set that has been professionally refinished, repaired and upholstered could be far enough in the other direction to warrant your attention. An even easier case is the Depression-era dining set acquired at auction for $300 that has a scratched top, a broken pedestal and mismatched chairs. Anything done to it will improve its value.

So what makes an original finish so desirable and valuable? That largely depends on the original finish, what it is and when it was applied.

It has only been in the last few thousand years that we have applied some sort of dressing to our wooden artifacts. Before then wood just rotted away in its own timing. But wood lasts longer with some sort of protection from its mortal enemy – moisture. Preserving the wood was the primary motivation for applying oil or fat or grease to wood in the first place. An improved, pleasing appearance was a secondary, unintended consequence that later became an important part of the finishing matrix. When people began to live inside fixed structures rather than outside in tents, appearance of the wood achieved higher status. Grain patterns were enhanced and colors deepened and became richer as finishing techniques improved from smeared fat to multiple coats of rubbed linseed oil or wax.

Surface coatings such as varnish, shellac and lacquer are all ancient developments but are relatively recent additions to furniture finishing. Varnish, made of cedar oil and amber, which produced a resin, was used by ancient Egyptians in the mummification process. The Romans used a type of varnish made of natural resin dissolved in vegetable oil but the art appears to have been lost by medieval craftsmen, resurfacing only in the 19th century with the advent of the petroleum industry. According to The Encyclopedia of Furniture by Joseph Aronson, no reliable records indicate the production of modern varnish prior to 1848. Currently most modern varnish is made of linseed oil and phenolic resins, which were introduced in 1909.

Shellac is derived from an excretion of the Laccifer lacca insect, native to Thailand and India. Produced first for the effect of its dye, the use of shellac can be traced to A.D. 250. However, its use as a furniture finish did not catch on in the West until the early 1800s according to the Shellac Export Promotion Council. However, a type of “spirit varnish,” a gum dissolved in alcohol. which greatly resembled shellac, was used as early as the 17th century in Europe for “padding” finishes, according to Aronson. Shellac was the principal furniture finish until the early 20th century when nitrocellulose lacquer was introduced.

Modern lacquer has no relation to the ancient Chinese art of lacquering. The original form of lacquer was derived from the lacquer tree of the Orient and was applied in numerous thin coats to wood and other objects. Nitrocellulose lacquer is made cellulose fiber, principally cotton, dissolved in butyl acetate.

So there is nothing ancient or mysterious about most old finishes. In fact the chemistry behind even the oldest of Western finishes is fairly recent. The value of an old finish lies in its undisturbed link to the past and the appearance it has attained over its lifetime. But while many 300-year-old, carefully preserved finishes are outstandingly beautiful, those less well preserved and cared for are much, much less pleasing. And in a significantly shorter period than 300 years some finishes get to be absolutely disgusting, or at least much less attractive. Should they be preserved simply because they are original?

As a general rule a less than attractive finish on an item will result in a lower value than a comparable item with a pleasing finish. The exception to this very general rule is the certifiable treasure, the piece of antiquity whose value is derived from its rarity and its very existence rather than its role as functional art, the duty normally ascribed to pieces of furniture. The truth is there just aren’t that many treasures made by our recognized master cabinetmakers from which to choose. Most of these craftsmen were a one-man band or at the very best had a few apprentices. Their output was not that great. Even in the early 19th century with the advent of factories and very large shops in multistory buildings, output was nothing like the late 19th century or the 20th century. So these items are indeed rare and deserve all the preservation we can afford them.

But the same attention is not necessarily lavished on mass-production items, even if they are a hundred years old – or more. Most items produced after the Civil War were made on a production line in a factory setting and there just isn’t that cachet of personal craftsmanship and direct connection to the distant past that we attach to older, rarer pieces. Of course there are the exceptions including some of the works of Gustav Stickley and Louis Majorelle but these are rare.

The whole subject boils down to the condition of the existing finish on the piece in question after we are sure it is not a national treasure. Several issues must then be dealt with.

Is the existing finish doing its original job? Remember that the first function of a finish is to protect the wood from moisture. If the finish is not intact enough to provide that protection then it must be augmented by conservation techniques, which may include additional finish or be replaced with another finish. This is required for the long-term preservation of the piece. If the finish is intact and is protecting the wood from the world, then all other questions become those of aesthetics and economics.

Will the piece look better if the finish is adjusted in some radical manner like resurfacing or refinishing? That is entirely up to the owner of piece. If they find the old, crackled shellac or varnish attractive, so be it. If not there, are the other options.

And at long last the real question. Will refinishing destroy the value of the piece? Assuming that all precautions have been observed and all the facts have been correctly assembled and duly noted and further assuming that the refinishing or resurfacing will be done in a competent professional manner, the answer is a resounding “probably not.” In fact the value will most likely be enhanced. A beautiful, honestly restored, fully functioning piece of furniture will always be more attractive, more desirable and more valuable than its run-down, grubby-looking cousin except in rare circumstances.

 

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE

The finish on this Federal period drawer is original and untouched. Is it attractive?

The finish on this Empire sideboard is almost the same age as that on the Federal drawer and is original but it has been 'polished.' Is it more attractive than the drawer?

Last Updated on Monday, 05 January 2015 17:18
 
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