This set of 19th-century Jacobean reproduction chairs needs even closer inspection to see the slight difference in size of the two end chairs compared to the two middle chairs. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Bonhams)
That’s a great set of dining room chairs you bought at auction. Sounds like you got a real good deal on them, too. But I do have a question or two. Why is the back a little different on that one chair? And doesn’t that other chair seem a little too low? Oh, and that third chair seems to be a slightly different color. It looks like your set of chairs may not actually be a “set” of chairs after all. Does it matter?
This desk is a true harlequin desk in the manner of Sheraton. When the front leaf is closed the stack of drawers retreats to inside the body of the desk. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Skinner)
Probably not, especially if you are aware of the differences and they don’t bother you. You have what is known in the trade as an “assembled” set, a group of chairs with likenesses to each other or with a common theme but in which the individual chairs are not necessarily identical to each other. This is becoming more common in the marketplace on a daily basis as more Baby Boomers downsize and sell off their assets. This is the result of generational sharing. When Grandma died, her set of 12 chairs was divided among her three children, four each. When Mama passed away her set of four was divided between her two children, two each. Now the pair has been sold at a garage sale or estate sale, picked up by a dealer who had four more fairly similar chairs. He sold the “assembled” set to you through the auction.
There are several words in the antique furniture world that can have more than one meaning and one of them is “harlequin,” which interestingly enough—at least to me—does have something to do with the court jester commonly thought of when the word comes up. The court jester typically has two faces, a sad face and a clown face. Harlequin furniture also has two faces. The primary example is the table desk designed by Thomas Sheraton, circa 1790. It appears to be simply a flat table, but when two flat leaves on each end of the table are raised, sets of pigeonholes arise from the deck and the center portion of the table tilts upward for a better writing surface. An example is shown on page 254 of “The Encyclopedia of Furniture” by Joseph Aronson, in case you want to see it.
Harlequin can also be used to describe a mixed set of chairs. A harlequin set of chairs provides an interesting combination of uniformity in the basic style or theme but a delightful variety in the sometimes subtle differences that may take some close examination to scope out. Many harlequin sets are the result of the mixing of two similar sets, perhaps the same style but made by different manufacturers or the same style done by the same manufacturer but at a different time.
This set of Victorian balloon back chairs, excluding the chair in the far right, looks like a true set but close inspection reveals slight differences in the shape of the balloons and the splats. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Crows Auction Gallery, LTD)
Mixing Other Sets
The mixing and matching of chairs within a set has long been an accepted practice in the trade but why stop there? The breaking up of original sets not just of chairs but a set or suite of anything is today more the norm than the exception. Going back to the Baby Boomer phenomenon, when today’s household of inherited family furniture is being prepared to be dispersed, it is often unfortunately true that a complete dining room suite consisting of a table with extra leaves, six chairs, a server, a buffet and a china cabinet is often worth a great deal more when sold as individual pieces rather than as a set. It is easier to find a buyer who just wants a china cabinet in that particular style or from that exact period than it is to find one who wants an entire set. The same goes for the buffet or the table.
The same also goes for the family bedroom suite. Some may find it difficult to sell a bedroom set with only one nightstand, as was so common in the Depression era. It may also be harder to sell a suite with a pair of twin beds, also quite common in the mid-20th century. In this case, the beds will sell better separately, the single night stand can be matched up with one from another set and the lone dresser or chest of drawers can almost always find a new home.
This is a great looking oak breakfast set—except it isn’t a set. The table is quartersawn oak veneer in the “Colonial Style” from the early 20th century, while the chairs are modern press back reproductions. This would be called an “assembled” set.
Each piece of this assembled bedroom set has its own style. The paint scheme makes it a “set.” (Skinner, Inc.)
This leads to the other side of the equation: the buyer. Who says a dining room set has to have all matching parts. While that may be the traditional approach, some may find it restricting or boring. In addition to a harlequin set of chairs, why not have a harlequin dining room set? Or a harlequin bedroom set? It can be the most economical way to furnish a house by choosing each piece individually for its price and its compatibility with the overall theme. As tastes change, each piece can be traded up for better or different rather than sweeping the whole dining room out the door.
In the 1970s, furnishing a house in that style was called “eclectic.” Today, it is just plain common sense and it is a lot “greener” to recycle parts of old sets or suites. And besides, it is a lot more fun to say you have a harlequin set of dining room furniture and let people just go wondering what you are talking about.
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