A close-up shows the screws were severely distressed and the door was probably ripped from the cabinet.
One thing to bear in mind while searching for your next antique furniture treasure is that this stuff, by definition, has been around the block a few times and the road has not always been smooth. Sometimes, old furniture—like old cars—tends to shed some parts when the going gets rough. And while some missing pieces are perfectly obvious, others aren’t, and it takes a little detective work to confirm that vague feeling that something is awry.
The general rule of thumb is that the larger the piece of furniture, the greater the likelihood that something is gone. A good example of that is large case goods from the 18th and 19th centuries. Lacking lift gates on wagons and elevators in buildings, the makers of large pieces of furniture often used what we today call modular construction techniques. Some modern manufacturers still make what is known in the trade as “KD” furniture, for “knock-down” pieces; a.k.a. “some assembly required.”
Armoires were a prime candidate. A base, sometimes with a drawer, was provided. The flat sides of the cabinet were then erected, fitting into pre-drilled holes and connected to the flat back panels. Doors were attached and a large crown topped off the entire affair. Since armoires were made to fit the scale of the rooms of previous centuries, they were usually quite tall; taller than will fit comfortable in many modern homes. As a result, many inheritors of family furniture had to make adjustments. One common change is the alteration of the base unit. A good craftsman could eliminate the section of the base that contained the drawer and end up with just a flat bottom stand, reducing the piece by as much as a foot in height. Or the upper portion of the crown may have been stored in the garage because it scraped the ceiling and during the last move it was forgotten.
The left section of this desk once had a door. The marks left by the hinges and screws are faintly visible at the top and bottom of the side panel.
Another candidate for the drawer-elimination technique is the tall chest on chest. It doesn’t take much to remove a drawer section or two from the upper unit to make the piece a more modern scale. Only close examination of the bottom, sides and back will reveal this butchery. That, and a good sense of proportion.
Spindly legs and bracket feet are easy targets for alteration or elimination to adjust the height of the piece, as well. While bracket feet will almost always leave clear clues to their former existence, legs that have been cut are not always so obvious and, again, a good eye for proportion is a valuable asset.
Chests of drawers and dressers from the 19th and 20th centuries are also especially vulnerable, particularly if they originally had splashboards and mirrors on stanchions. Again, these are typical items that were sometimes removed for transportation and either lost in the shuffle or never reinstalled. Clues to their former presence can be found on the back of the cases where vertical support pieces for the splashboards were screwed into the case. Some splashboards actually screwed into the top surface from the back or rested on dowels and traces of the screw or dowel holes most likely remain, even if they have been filled in by a “restorer.” Light or dark “shadows” across the back of the top surface are another clue to a splashboard and possibly a mirror. Other square shadows on the top may indicate the former existence of glove boxes or jewelry cases that have been removed.
And what happened to the mirrors that have been removed? They are hanging on the wall as separate units, after having the stanchions removed. The key here is to locate the holes in the sides of the mirror frames left by the “toilet pins”—the threaded, sometimes decorative, pieces of hardware that held the frame to the stanchions. Often the matching threaded metal fitting is still installed in the frame, making identification easy.
Taking mirror removal one step further is the practice of disemboweling an early 20th century three-mirror vanity. In this case, the mirrors are removed and sold separately and the vanity is cut into sections, removing the center panel and producing two matching “nightstands.” However, they are usually easily detected because the mirrors leave clues on the inside faces of the “nightstands” where they were attached, and the edge of the molding around the top surface doesn’t go all the way around where the mirrors were placed.
The hole and the lines at the rear of this marble top indicate the former presence of a splashboard.
Another rule of thumb is that if it was easy to apply, it was easy to remove. This is especially true of early 20th century applied molding and decorations so common on turn-of-the-century oak pieces. These decorative trim pieces were seldom glued to the surface, being attached only by small brads or nails. It is relatively easy to remove portions of a design to “even it up” if a section is missing. Covering all the traces however is not quite so easy. The nails holes can be filled but close examination will reveal them and the possibility of a shadow still remains, even if the piece has been stripped and refinished.
And, of course, the all time most likely candidate for removal and replacement is the hardware. Removal of existing hardware may reveal the outline of the original and examination of the inside of a drawer front often shows an original screw pattern different from the current one.
In general, be cognizant of the potential for alteration in older pieces, become familiar with the forms and proportions of bygone eras and then trust your instincts about how the pieces should look.
Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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