Wednesday, April 27, 2011


This mahogany George III English secretary desk is very typical of the kind of antique frequently encountered in the activity of a seasoned antique appraiser. As a result, it is the kind of apparently common item which is the most frequently incorrectly appraised because so many appraisers don't take the time to really examine the item or have the experienced eye to make an accurate assessment because they fail to note the many subtle alterations that are obvious to the trained eye. Many thanks go to my colleague Larry Sirolli, former head of The English Furniture Department at Sotheby's New York, for his invaluable second opinion and assistance when I was appraising this desk. Below is a detail of the upper case with the glazed doors. 

Indeed, at first appearance it is what it seems to be. What the eye sees is a handsome - albeit unexceptional - English Mahogany secretary desk made around 1770-1780. It has an oak secondary carcass. The upper case has a pair of glazed doors with moulded trellis mullions opening to reveal shelves for books. The lower case has a slant front opening to reveal an interior door with later added compass motif inlay decoration and a series of pigeon holes and small drawers and placed atop a main front below the writing desk with 4 graduated long drawers and resting on later added bracket feet. Later added feet are not infrequent.

However, what a well trained eye really needs to be able to spot is the obvious attempt of a restore - probably around the 1920's at the behest of a dealer - wanting to tart up this piece by the clear addition of a later added scrolled cresting terminating in flower heads over a dentil carved moulded cornice. Two things give this deliberate embellishment away. One was the clear difference in the colour of the mahogany. An 18th Century secretary would have not had such a discrepancy if all the components were original. The second give away was the fact that the cornice is too ornamented, too tailored, too high style for the conspicuously simple middle style main case on which it rests.

Such so called improvements are actually more common in the furniture emerging in the market and available at small regional auction houses and retail dealers today. And such restorations have been going on in Georgian furniture since the late 19th Century and were particularly common after the 2 great wars in the 20th Century. From a collecting point of view, there is nothing wrong with acquiring furniture that has been restored similarly - provided the buyer knows the facts and pays accordingly In the end, it's important to buy from auction houses and dealers who know and who are able to tell you what they do know. A degree of restoration is often to be expected. But in this case it was a deliberate attempt made about 80 or 90 years ago by a dealer to upgrade a common desk and turn it into a higher category of antique while misleading the buyer who eventually acquired it. Again, if you're buying it as a handsome decorative item with some age and are fine with what has been done to it, that's not a bad thing either. But don't pay top retail price or buy it as an investment and pay the right price for what you're getting.