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Unloved Antiques: Hump-Backed Trunks

by Mike Wilcox (11/20/12).

Beat-up old trunks like this are often found at flea markets and country auctions. Most of the time, they are not worth the restoration effort.

Sometime, though, if the chest isn’t too-far gone, a restoration project can pay off. This chest recently sold for $685 at auction.

The next subject of this series of Unloved Antiques is something that I’ve seen come up at nearly every country auction I’ve ever been to: hump-backed trunks. Most are pretty impressive in a pirate’s chest kind of way, with brass-plated corner mounts, latches and locks, but the contents are seldom treasures. I’ve found everything from old mason jars to 40 years’ worth of National Geographic Magazines in the ones I’ve bought over the years. The one I remember most was full of uniforms from the First World War and 300 rounds of .303-caliber ammunition. I emptied the trunk out and put it back in the next auction.

Trunks like this generally date from about the 1870s to about 1900, and many of them will have patent dates on the locks which will give a general idea of vintage within about a time frame of about 15 years. Some claim the reason for the rounded tops was because they could not be stacked and would be given preferential treatment by baggage handlers for that reason, remaining undamaged. My own thinking on this is simply with dome tops, they were more apt to shed water in the event of rain when being loaded, unloaded or being carted about uncovered at train stations. Around 1900, the humped tops began to be replaced with flat-topped “steamer trunks” that could be stacked one on top the other, and some of the larger wardrobe-type chests are almost walk-in sized, fitted with drawers and capable of holding several days of unwrinkled clothing for an Ocean voyage.

Most dome or hump trunks that one sees today are pretty battered from being shoved about in barns, attics and basements for the last 110-plus years and will require considerable restoration to make them look “as new.” Generally, their brass plating has disappeared to the point no amount of polish will bring them back, the embossed tin is rusty, the bottoms rotted and leather straps torn or gone entirely. This does not stop them from being picked up “in the rough” by new owners at auctions and yard sales who see great potential in them, paying between $50 and $150. In the end, though, they’ll end up shoving them into their own attics, barns and basements when they are informed just how much it will cost to have someone do the restoration.

If one is willing to get their knuckles scraped and is handy with a wire brush, a bit of wall paper and a can of spray paint, can, wonders can be worked on these old trunks. Done properly, a restoration that you do yourself can be very worthwhile, as well as esthetically and financially pleasing, as a nicely restored trunk of this type, circa 1870-1900, can provide a nice return on your hard work. The fully restored chest photographed above recently sold for $685.

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Previous “Unloved Antiques” articles:

Unloved Antiques: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates
Unloved Antiques: Singer Sewing Machines
Unloved Antiques: Decorator Prints
Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters
Unloved Antiques: ‘Bronze’ Flatware
Unloved Antiques: 1847 Rogers Brothers Flatware
Unloved Antiques: Hummel Knockoffs
Unloved Antiques: National Geographic Magazines
Unloved Antiques: Dragonware
Unloved Antiques: 19th Century Religious Prints
Unloved Antiques: Depression Glass
Unloved Antiques: Stradivarius-Style Violins
Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Pump Organs
Unloved Antiques: ‘Starving Artist’ Painting
Unloved Antiques: The American Old Family Bible
Unloved Antiques: That Stack of Old Books
Unloved Antiques: 20th Century Wedgwood Jasperware
Unloved Antiques: Bone China Tea Cup & Saucer Collection
Unloved Antiques: Brass & Copper Fire Extinguishers
Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Bisque Figurines

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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