Box House Antiques

How can you tell what you are actually looking at?

Here at Box House Antiques we offer a fine example of an English 18th century mahogany secretaire bookcase/ china cabinet. Georgian period, made ca 1760.

All very well… but how can a relatively inexperienced interested observer really know what he or she is looking at? Well, here are some tips and answers to our many correspondents.

Of course many of you will not be able to examine the particular item in person – if not – rest assured, we will have done that for you.

1. Before you look into the detail, stand back and establish if the thing looks to be in proportion. The cabinet-makers of the period had an ability to see and understand ‘proportion’. By and large this was lost in later periods. Just where this ability came from is hard to figure out, but the master cabinet-makers of the period had it. Therefore if it looks in proportion, that can be your starting point. If the proportion is in any way unsatisfactory, walk away.

2. This fine bookcase we have has been made in three sections. More usually these came in two sections, but in this case the pediment separates. The glazed, two-door top section separates from its base, and should fit into a moulding attached to the base. This moulding must be undisturbed, but can show signs of local repair. These mouldings are vulnerable every time the piece is moved, and in nearly 250 years you can be certain it has been moved many times, and not always carefully, so allow a certain amount of damage repair. Beware if the entire moulding is new.

3 Now one has to try to establish if the two sections were made by the same cabinet-maker. Look carefully at the sides – the timber must match, as must the raw, untouched backboards – no staining or paint please, and these backboards must run vertically and be undisturbed, with no spare unexplainable screw/ nail holes or cut marks.

4. Feet were often replaced. These heavy items were often dragged along the floor placing strain on bracket feet. Original feet will always be a plus factor. Ideally look at the underside- this is so true of almost every item of antique furniture you examine. Bottom boards must run side-to-side and be raw and untouched. Again, no paint or staining please. Bottom boards should be in raw oak, but might be in pine or a fruitwood.

5. Pay special attention to the vulnerable pediment, In this case it separates into one section, always a reassuring feature, but it is also quite legitimate for the pediment to be integral with the top section. The top boards must be
undisturbed and show evidence of settled dust. All mouldings should match and retain their original rough blocks. Any finials are likely to be replacements but should not affect value that much.

6. The glazing bars more often than not are 13-pane and should be keyed into the door frames. Look for old spun glass but allow some replacements. Hinges on high quality pieces should be brass, and must be undisturbed. Any locks should be carefully examined – often these are replacements, but should locate and function correctly.

7. Adjustable shelves are often a give-away in that the rebated grooves into which they locate are too close to either the top or bottom… A sure indication that alterations have taken place. Naturally, books or objects were on
display. Have you ever tried to fit anything into a 2″ tall space? Always nice if the shelves are faced in mahogany.

8. Any fitted secretaire drawer must be untouched and ideally show features repeated elsewhere. Brass fittings must be original. Writing surfaces should show signs that they were for that purpose, eg note ink stains.
Secret compartments will add interest and value.

9 Drawers should be lined in best quality English oak, but alternative woods can be acceptable. Dovetails should be of top quality. Original brass mounts will add very substantially to value. Look for spare holes. The Victorians almost invariably replaced brass with ugly heavy turned wood knobs. Quite why no one has been able to figure out, perhaps to demonstrate the latest fashion in ‘engine’ turning.

10. It almost goes without saying that all front surfaces must match both in choice of timber and patina.

You will notice the frequent use of “should” and “must”. Nothing in this business is written in stone, but if you can tick most of the boxes above you are well on your way to establishing originality, and consequently, value.

It takes years of experience and study to arrive at the above observations. The best advice we can give is to establish that your supplier has a continuous track record as antique dealer spanning a good number of years.