Antique Furniture Marriage Proposal: How to Tell if Different Pieces Have Been Wed

This contraption of a kitchen work table is the top two drawer section of an Empire-period chest, legs from who knows what, and a walnut top that has been made to fit. This is more than 	just a marriage!

This contraption of a kitchen work table is the top two drawer section of an Empire-period chest, legs from who knows what, and a walnut top that has been made to fit. This is more than just a marriage!

Tall bookcase secretaries are very impressive, not to mention expensive, especially if they are old and in great condition. The same goes for those wonderful old chest-on-chests with lots of drawers and a great provenance. But how can you tell if the piece is “right” and not assembled from various parts of different articles?

In Colonial America and well into the 19th century, many large pieces of furniture such as these, as well as such items as armoires, were built in separate sections for ease of transportation and delivery. Since the lack of elevators and power lift gates on trucks required that individual parts fit into a wagon and be able to be lifted by human power alone, it is not surprising that some furniture components eventually found themselves without partners. And human nature being what it is, sooner or later someone will feel compelled to play matchmaker for any number of reasons, chief among them being the higher price a bookcase secretary commands compared to a drop front desk. Of course there are other reasons, such as convenience in crowded quarters, but most marriages are made for purposes of sale. Usually, if the marriage is revealed and the price reflects the union, it is not a problem. The difficulty arises when the marriage is not obvious, not revealed and not properly priced.

Marriages basically come in two varieties, old-to-old and old-to-new. Old-to-new is, of course, much easier to detect, but old-to-old can usually be unveiled by following a few simple guidelines. The main principle in looking for a marriage is consistency. Consistency of size and proportion, construction, style, wood, hardware and finish all have to be addressed.

Size and Proportion: Step back and have an overall look at the piece. The top section should not overwhelm the bottom and vice versa. In most older tall bookcase secretaries, for example, the top section is slightly narrower than the bottom, often with a molding covering the joint. The top should not be wider than the base and should not hang over the edge in front. Generally, the top section should fit flush to the rear edge of the bottom piece without overlap or underlap, but occasionally the top overlaps to accommodate a chair rail so this is not a guaranteed clue. Your best guide here is to let your eyes do the talking. Does it seem to fit together or is it a forced union?

The back panels of the same chest show major differences, strengthening the marriage proposition.

The back panels of the same chest show major differences, strengthening the marriage proposition.

Construction: This can be the most telling clue. Compare the joinery of the drawers in the top and bottom. They should be the same, cut by the same hand with the same scribe marks and overcuts. The back panels should be assembled in the same manner, whether flush fit or board and batten, even if the boards of the back on the base run horizontally and the boards of the back of the top are vertical. The same tools marks—chisel marks, saw patterns, scraper trails etc., should be exhibited on sections of the piece. Fasteners, nails and screws should be consistent throughout. Watch out for stamped mid-19th-century nails in one section and round wire nails elsewhere where a repair is not obvious. Use your hands to feel the insides of drawers. All surfaces should feel the same—rough or smooth—but the same. The same goes for the insides of cabinets. The texture should be the same top and bottom.

Style: Are the two sections stylistically correct? Of course you must know something about the style and what deviations within the style are acceptable. For example, if the base has William and Mary bun feet you would not expect to see a Chippendale broken pediment on the top crown, at least not until the Colonial Revival when all such stylistic bets are off. Raised panel drawers on the base should not be accompanied by flat panel, blind doors on the top. And Chippendale acanthus carved cabriole legs don’t go with Victorian rococo molding on the top.

Wood: Both the primary and secondary woods should be the same in all sections. Not only should the wood be the same kind, it should be the same age, identified by consistency of color and grain patter. In reality, the wood should show signs of being from the same tree or cut from the same board. Side panels of top and bottom sections should be the same thickness of the same wood, and insect damage or water marks should be consistent throughout the piece. Boring worms don’t usually stop at board’s edge, so an unmarked board may not be the same age as its neighbor. The wood should exhibit the patina on exposed surfaces and the same degree of oxidation or lack thereof inside.

The drawer sides of the bottom section of this chest on chest do not match those of the upper section, indicating a possible marriage.

The drawer sides of the bottom section of this chest on chest do not match those of the upper section, indicating a possible marriage.

Hardware: Drawer pulls and door knobs should be consistent in style and material. Examine the insides of all drawers and doors for traces of hardware that used to be there. Mismatched hardware on the two sections may have been replaced with all identical pieces. Hinges should all be from the same period and of identical manufacture. Locks should all be the same type and age. Again look for signs of replacement for uniformity’s sake.

Finish: Examine the overall condition of the finish. Has one section been recoated or refinished but not the other? Or has the entire piece been refinished? Look for signs of stain drips and stripper tracks in both pieces to be sure. Is the finish the same sheen all over? Is it the same color in bright light?

In short, just be a good detective and look for the inevitable inconsistencies that are apparent in all marriages.

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Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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  1. barbara hartnett says:

    We purchased a 19th century lancaster county doughbox some years ago for $600.00 from an antique store. When we attempted to sell it for much less last year, an interested buyer decided against it because it looked to him like the box was placed on a base that was not original. It has much wear evenly, the woods seem to match and the stain is all the same. The base is of turned legs with round grooves and there is an unusual sliding top rather than the more common lift type. Even if the base was added later, was that not a common practice to get it off the table? How can we decide how much that would effect it’s value? Thank you for helping, if you can!

    • Fred Taylor says:

      Barbara – Most American dough boxes do have a stand of some sort. An expert in the subject would need to examine yours in person to determine the authenticity of the stand. The potential buyer may have just been trying to “steal” the box.

      Very few dough boxes have sold recently in the $600 range. Most are in the $100-$200 range. Here is a nice exmaple, on a stand, that sold for $250 in April 2008.
      http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/5110151

      Best regards,

      Fred Taylor

  2. barbara hartnett says:

    Fred- Thank you so much for your help with this! I suspected when we purchased it that we had been duped. The one on your site is lovely and ours is really primitive and I’m not sure what the wood is. You have directed us as to what to do with it anyway! Thanks again. Most sincerely, Barbara