Trea­sure hunt

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - HELAINE FENDELMAN AND JOE ROSSON

DEAR HELAINE AND JOE: My hus­band and I would like you to tell us any­thing you might know about this sec­re­tary, which has been in my fam­ily for more than 70 years. We are not sure how old it might be and how much it might be worth.

— K.M.

DEAR K.M.: Tech­ni­cally, this may be a sec­re­tary, which is de­fined as a piece of fur­ni­ture that has a writ­ing sur­face with draw­ers and pi­geon holes. But the stick­ing point is it should be in cab­i­net form (ei­ther one or two pieces) with room for the stor­age of pa­pers and per­sonal cor­re­spon­dence, etc. The piece in to­day’s ques­tion only kind-of-sort-of meets this fi­nal re­quire­ment.

Read­ing the let­ter and look­ing at the photographs, we un­der­stood much more clearly what was in ques­tion here, and in­ter­est­ingly, we are not sure we would term this piece a sec­re­tary — or an ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant, for that mat­ter. Most col­lec­tors ex­pect a true sec­re­tary to be a some­what more im­pos­ing piece of fur­ni­ture com­plete with a book­case or cab­i­net above and per­haps large draw­ers be­low. The item in to­day’s ques­tion is rel­a­tively small. Many peo­ple (in­clud­ing us) would call it a lady’s writ­ing desk.

Ba­si­cally, this is just a rel­a­tively shal­low cab­i­net sus­pended on legs with a dec­o­ra­tive me­dial stretcher. The box, with its fall front, is es­sen­tially square with a dec­o­ra­tive bat wing scal­lop at the base and does not ap­pear to be more than a foot deep. There are two small draw­ers in­side the case, and what ap­pears to be a small com­part­ment in the cen­ter be­tween the two sec­tions of pi­geon holes.

K.M. thinks the piece has been in her fam­ily since the mid-1940s, but it is just a tad older than that. The style of the piece sug­gests it was made circa 1925, which means it is not yet an antique. But this is not re­ally all that im­por­tant in the cur­rent mar­ket­place, which seems to be en­am­ored of items that are sig­nif­i­cantly younger than the req­ui­site 100 years.

In fact, the cur­rent mar­ket seems to be re­ject­ing all things Vic­to­rian and em­brac­ing items made ei­ther in the lat­ter 20th cen­tury or in the years be­fore Queen Victoria as­cended the Bri­tish throne. This sit­u­a­tion is very dis­tress­ing to some and is caus­ing some con­fu­sion among old­time


The desk seems to have a very at­trac­tive dec­o­ra­tion on the fall front, but we can­not see it well enough to un­der­stand its ex­act na­ture. It may be an in­lay, or it might just be a me­chan­i­cally pro­duced over­lay that can be eas­ily dam­aged with ex­ces­sive clean­ing. We rec­om­mend light dust­ing only, and do not use any abra­sive clean­ing prod­ucts in an at­tempt to brighten it up.

As for value, its small size fits into mod­ern homes, and its some­what dainty ap­pear­ance makes it ap­peal­ing to women. It is a use­ful piece that needs only a small chair to make it into a cen­ter for cor­re­spon­dence and — yech! — bill pay­ing. It is es­sen­tially in a Euro­pean Em­pire style. For in­surance pur­poses, the value of this piece is in the $300 to $400 range.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have writ­ten a num­ber of books on an­tiques. If you have an item you’d like to know more about, con­tact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Sey­mour Ave., Knoxville, Tenn. 37917, or email them at trea­sures@knol­ If you’d like your ques­tion to be con­sid­ered for this col­umn, please in­clude a high-res­o­lu­tion photo of the item.

Sec­re­tary or lady’s writ­ing desk? That’s the ques­tion.

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