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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.
Marriages basically come in two varieties: old-to-old and old-to-new. Old-to-new is easier to detect, but old-to-old can usually be unveiled by a few simple guidelines:
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.
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 and so on — 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.
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.
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 pattern. 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.
Drawer pulls and doorknobs 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.
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? ?
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His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is 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). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or email@example.com.
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