Dear Helaine and Joe: I acquired this coffee table in the 1960s. I would like to know the age or value. — L. H., Sylvania, Ohio
Dear L.H.: Readers often write to us about their antique coffee tables; unfortunately, we have to reply there is no such thing. All coffee tables are products of the 20th century or later and few — if any — predate the 1920s.
What we are going to say now may sound contradictory at first, but it is not. There are large numbers of tables now being used as coffee tables that were made in the last half of the 19th century. But when they started life, they were much taller and were designed for other uses.
Later, and often much later, these tables were cut down — butchered to our way of thinking — so they could be used as coffee tables.
In other words, while these tables were made in the 19th century, they did not become coffee tables until the 20th century.
As a result of this severe modification, these "cut-down" tables have a much diminished monetary value and their status as antiques has been seriously compromised.
Luckily, the table belonging to L.H. started out life in the 1930s, and it appears to be in original condition. This table has a removable wooden rimmed glass top and some (but not all) of these tops originally had handles so they could be used as serving trays. This table appears to be too large for that (only Paul Bunyon or the Jolly Green Giant could handle a tray that big), and the top on this piece was probably made to be removable for cleaning purposes.
In any event, this table appears to be made from mahogany and the style of the central decoration is very neoclassical in origin. We see putti (small naked children with or without wings) propped up against a fruit filled urn as they play musical instruments that look like a horn and a flute. All this is enhanced with Rococo style scroll work, and it makes for a very appealing design.
Tables such as this one can be found with all kinds of central motifs. We have seen representations of eagles, nude women, the three Graces and all sorts of other elaborate designs. It is often thought that these decorations were hand-carved, but in our opinion, they were more likely created by pressing the design into the wood using steam, pressure and a metal die or mold.
These tables are not particularly rare, and over the past 10 years, we have seen dozens of these in homes all across America. Still, these are very attractive and there is a rising tide of interest among American collectors and homeowners in vintage coffee tables in general. Serious collectors still have a distaste for the cut-down Victorian examples, but tables like the one belonging to L.H. now retail in the $250 to $300 range.
Helaine Fendelman is feature editor at Country Living magazine and Joe Rosson writes about antiques at The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee. Questions can by mailed to them at P.O. Box 12208, Knoxville, TN 37912-0208.