Dear Helaine and Joe:I have enclosed some photos of a desk I purchased from an antiques dealer in New Hampshire. The only information I have is that the desk came out of a home in Potsdam, N.Y., that had been unoccupied since the 1950s. Any information you can provide would help me decide for how much to insure it. — Sincerely, J.C., Atkinson, N.H.
Dear J.C.: This is a charming lady's desk with a slant front desk compartment, reeded legs and supports, a mirrored back, a bookshelf above and a shelf below that probably was designed to hold books as well. The inside of the desk compartment is fitted with drawers, with what appear to be simple brass knobs, and with pigeonholes.
When the drop front is down, the underside forms a writing surface that looks like it might have been leather-covered at one time. Photographs can be deceiving, but the way the lid has been framed leads us to believe that it may originally have been covered at one time to form a smoother and more elegant writing surface.
It is often very hard to tell what kind of wood a piece of furniture is made from just by looking at photographs. Typically, a piece of this age should be walnut with sections of burl walnut on the drawers and drop front, but we cannot be absolutely sure from the pictures we have at hand.
The desk is Victorian, and the style and construction suggest that it was made circa 1885 in the Eastlake substyle. This is seen in the very rectangular form of the desk and also in the shallow engraved lines that make up the decoration.
Charles Locke Eastlake (1836-1906) was an English architect and furniture designer who disliked the furniture that was being made during his day. He wanted to return to the simple joined construction of an earlier time, and he disliked carving, staining and varnishing. He was a proponent of the Modern Gothic or Early English style, and in 1868 he published "Hints on Household Taste," which consisted of a number of his designs for furniture he considered tasteful.
The book became very popular, and it influenced furniture design in both England and the United States but more so in the United States. Unfortunately, American furniture makers perverted Eastlake's ideas of simplicity and turned out vast quantities of pieces that were severe, awkward and rather unattractive. At first these pieces of furniture were made from walnut, but later oak was used because walnut trees had became seriously depleted in America's forests.
On close examination, however, we feel that there is a strong possibility that this particular desk is English. The design itself looks to be closer to Eastlake's ideal than it would have been if this desk had been made in America, and the hardware appears to be English as well. In addition, this piece does not have an American Eastlake "feel," and our instincts shout "English."
Overall, this is a very nice piece, but we think that it has been refinished, which is not surprising after it spent all those years in an unoccupied house. If it is in good condition otherwise, the insurance replacement value for J.C.'s desk is between $1,500 and $1,800.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of the "Price It Yourself" (HarperResource, $19.95). Questions can by mailed to P.O. Box 12208, Knoxville, TN 37912-0208.