And Now for the Bad News: When Your Family Heirloom Isn’t a Treasure

The label said Stickley and the reader thought he had a treasure. It was made by Stickley but it was part of the Stickley Brothers “Quaint American” line from the 1930s. It is still a nice piece, but keep the day job. He took it well.

Life is full of little disappointments, especially these days. One of the ways that disappointment shows itself is when I have to disclose to inquiring readers that their family treasure just isn’t.

Of course I do not go out looking for people on whom to heap disappointment, at least not usually. They seek me out—not for that, of course, but usually to confirm their preconceived belief about a piece of treasured furniture. Most are not prepared for the disappointment that often comes with a few facts,

Some readers who inquire about their furniture and receive a disappointing result react nonchalantly saying, “I didn’t really think it was anything anyway. I just had to ask.”

Others react a little more strongly with, “That’s not what Aunt Mildred told me, and I have never known her to lie,” or “I just don’t believe you know what you are talking about.”

That’s OK too. Go find someone who will tell you what you want to hear. Just don’t be disappointed—again—on auction day.

A recent case in point was an inquiry from a person who thought he had a chair of some serious note. It was labeled by a very famous 19th-century New England maker with a legible patent date and a recognizable form.

Prior to asking my opinion about the chair and assuming my knowledge of the subject to be limited, the inquirer gave me a lengthy history of the manufacturer, with some notable errors and omissions that indicated a notable lack of information about late 19th-century furniture making.

I was then informed that furniture from this cabinetmaker family was among the most sought after and highly priced work in the current market for antiques both in this country and abroad.

So now that I had been properly informed, what was my opinion of the worth of the chair?

Well, it was obvious from the photo of the chair that it was a factory-made, production chair. It did have some very nice hand carving in the figures, but the rest of the chair was strictly by the Henry Ford assembly-line method.

But I wasn’t about to give an opinion on value without doing some homework on comparable items. I found it. Virtually the same chair with the same label, patent date and original upholstery sold online the previous year for less than $500. Pretty fair comparable.

I shared this with the inquirer who told me that was not consistent with her research and she would not accept that. Suited me. I asked her if she wanted a refund on my free opinion. She did not handle the disappointment well. Perhaps after she pays a certified appraiser $500 to evaluate her $500 chair, she will have a different attitude. Or maybe not.

This is a scan of page from the 1930 Mersman catalog showing members of the “Lyre” group of tables. Look familiar? They should. Hundreds of thousands of them were produced.

Frequently I am asked about the value and collectability of the products of a famous table maker. The trade name is so familiar that almost any “antique” shop has a couple of them around and almost everybody’s grandmother has one left over from the 1930s.

The problem is that the famous table maker was almost too famous for its own good. Over the life of the company, it made over 30 million tables that found their way into American living rooms. And yes, the tables are well marked with the maker’s name and a model number and, yes, the tables are always “in great shape.”

And they look so expensive with the solid mahogany tops and the hand carved solid mahogany lyre bases and carved legs. When I point out that the solid mahogany tops are veneer over lumber core plywood and the lyres and legs are machine carved on a secondary wood called red gum and that 300,000 models of the same table were produced, most contain the disappointment saying, “I like the table anyway. It looks good in my living room.” That’s the way it should be.

Then there was the lady who sent me pictures of her dining-room set made by a company in Grand Rapids for which she could find no information. She wanted to know about the company and the set.

Her grandmother had acquired the set in 1951. She had the receipt but didn’t know if the furniture was new or used when it was acquired. I gave her a brief history of the company and told her where to find more. Then I told her that the carved chairs were 1950 reproductions of Rococo Revival chairs. I pointed out that the table had no carvings at all and the carvings on the sideboard did not match the chairs. And the carving on the crest of the china cabinet was different yet.

My conclusion was that the set was not a “set.” It was pieces and parts that had been acquired at the same time from the same source as an “assembled” set. She was hardly disappointed, thank goodness.

She responded to my answer:

“Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to answer my questions. It seems that I was right about some things like the set not being a true set. I have always liked the Rococo style but did not know that was the name for it. I figured the carving was not purely original as the price would have been higher, even for 1951. Thank you so much for the info, I will indeed enjoy my family heirloom.”

Now that’s what I want to hear!


Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

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 shipping and handling) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 shipping and handling) 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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