Pull up a Chair, Let’s talk!

Way back when, I had a job where there was, quite literally, nothing to do for weeks at a stretch. I shared an office with another woman, Joyse, who I still keep in touch with. Joyse and I sometimes spent our afternoons going to the movies or, one of my favorite pastimes, heading out to Jackson Square (this job was located in San Francisco) to hit the antique stores. I didn’t have the money to buy anything — these were very high end stores for the most part.

I’d gotten into antiquing even farther back in time when I was in a position to replace the furniture that came with my Rent Controlled furnished Berkeley apartment. Or so I thought. I discovered that new furniture was 1) most pretty ugly 2) Not very well made and 3) WAY too expensive given 1 and 2. There were antique stores less than a mile from my apartment, including Lacey’s, which has to this day an amazing collection of period fabric and dresses which they would let you look at. I wish I’d been more of a sewing geek…  At any rate, I noticed that antique furniture was 1) quite often lovely 2) solidly made and 3) well within my price range.

There was, in one of these antique stores, a Georgian highboy (refinished, someone had stripped off the paint, but probably that happened in the mid-to late 1800’s) that was stunning. To this day I wish I’d scraped together the money to buy it. At any rate, I got into the habit of going to antique stores looking for furniture I wouldn’t mind having in my apartment. And I found it, slowly. I also discovered there was magic in the words “What can you tell me about this piece.” The owners who actually knew something about antiques had interesting stories about the furniture.

I talked one woman into setting up a layaway on a Georgian oak secretary/butler’s desk. My desk stayed in her store while I paid $100 a month until I had the cash to pay the balance. Which I did. The shape of the desk there to the left is essentially this, but mine is the lighter color of oak, and does not have the carving which, to be honest, looks to very Victorian to me (and possibly mahogany rather than oak). The description says 1820 which would help explain all the overdone carving, and if I were forced, just based on this picture, I’d have said 1830’s. Mine has the cubby holes and drawers, but on mine, there are two columns on either side of the middle space that are actually vertical drawers that slide out if you know where to put your fingers. Just based on this picture, I’d guess the lower drawer’s hardware is not original. Original hardware is rare, of course.

With antique furniture, there is a smell that goes along with old wood. You can smell if something has been refinished, so it’s important to open the drawers and breathe in. Does the piece smell old? How were the drawers put together? Nails or mortice and tenon? Have interior boards been replaced? Can you smell turpentine or other chemicals? Do the pieces fit together or did someone marry two different pieces of furniture? The desk to the right shows the color mine is. It’s identified as 1790’s and that’s a date I’m comfortable with. This one has fancier legs — note the scroll shaping on the feet compared to the plainer feet of the darker one. The hardware looks more at home than the other piece, but you’d have to look inside the drawers to see if it’s original (did someone have to drill new holes for new hardware, eg) If you go here you can see additional pictures of the inside of this desk. Much finer and in keeping, in my opinion with what is a finer desk than the other. You can also see that on the hardware on the right of the middle drawer is broken – the lower bit is missing. That sort of thing happens to old furniture, by the way.

Here’s another one, from the 1770’s. This one looks like it has original hardware! It’s elm, by the way, More pictures of this desk here – including the documentary evidence of 1770 as a manufacture date. If you compare these two pieces with the dark one above, you can see why I think there’s something off about that first desk. This page of Georgian desks makes that first one even odder. That desk is Georgian in shape, sort of.  Look back at the first desk — its appears to be taller than the actual Georgian pieces. To me, the shape is subtly off, and the carving is completely atypical. I’d want to see that first desk in person and talk to the dealer about where they found it and hear their explanation for why a Georgian piece is so Victorian in color and sensibility. Take a look at all the other Georgian pieces. There isn’t any carving on any of them. Not a one. The more I think about it, the more suspicious I am about that first desk. Again, you’d really have to see it in person to decide. Of course a desk can be atypical for the period in which it was made, but it’s off.

As you can see, I’ve geeked out on you, but that’s part of the point of the Riskies, right?

About carolyn

Carolyn Jewel was born on a moonless night. That darkness was seared into her soul and she became an award winning and USA Today bestselling author of historical and paranormal romance. She has a very dusty car and a Master’s degree in English that proves useful at the oddest times. An avid fan of fine chocolate, finer heroines, Bollywood films, and heroism in all forms, she has two cats and a dog. Also a son. One of the cats is his.
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Grace Elliot
11 years ago

I’ve never understood the attraction of antiques until reading this piece. To me most of it (OK perhaps not the furniture) resembles old junk, but you have brought alive that each piece of furniture has a history. Perhaps I’ll be more tolerant of antique lovers now!

11 years ago

A lot of “antique” furniture is poorly made stuff from the very late 1900’s to mid 20th C, very common and tends to be not very nice – the proportions are often off.

But there are antiques that are beautiful, as I hope you can see from the pictures. There is furniture from the 20th c that is also very pretty.

All depending on taste. I tend not to like the dark and heavy Victorian pieces, for example. Not everyone likes Art Deco and for some the Empire style doesn’t work.

I once bought a bureau that didn’t look to be in great shape, but the construction was solid, the marble top was very pretty, and the hardware lovely. I got it home, polished it up with several coats of oil (it took a few days any lots and lots of oil) and oh, my gosh, it was gorgeous. It was a walnut burl that came alive once the wood was rehydrated and polished.

Today, unfortunately, it’s almost unheard of (in my experience) to find a really good antique at a reasonable price. You have to know what dealers actually know what they’re doing as opposed to people going to estate sales and selling that stuff regardless of quality.

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

I seriously want to come to San Francisco and go antique shopping now!

Diane Gaston
11 years ago

Omigosh that Georgian furniture is beautiful!!! I bookmarked that site.

I used to watch Cash In The Attic on BBC America and I’d just die when they showed auctioning off Regency and Georgian furniture for prices I could afford. If only I’d been in the UK and if only I’d been at the auction.

Megan Frampton
11 years ago

So I had written a super-awesome reply to your post, Carolyn, and stupid Blogger ate it.


basically, I had the same experience as you, in terms of shopping for new furniture: Expensive stuff, poorly made.

So Scott and I started buying Heywood-Wakefield furniture, which is the mid-century modern stuff all over my house. Not antique, but vintage, for sure.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

11 years ago

Megan: Your furniture is really nice. It definitely pays to check antique stores and the like for things you really like.

Ammanda: The SF Bay Area has a lot of great places to go antiquing – including very high end places where you can at least get a close look at near-museum quality pieces.

I say all the Riskies, and anyone else who wants to come, should head for Nor Cal and well all go antiquing!

Louisa Cornell
11 years ago

An antiquing trip to San Francisco? Count me in!!

We lived in England from 1967 through 1971. My Mom went to several estate sales with the ladies in the village. That’s how I got a 150 year old piano for $1.20 (10 shillings)I learned to play on that instrument and it still has the most amazing tone. The man who tunes it treats it like a holy relic.

She also got a marble top wash stand, a monk’s bench with a hidden compartment, some gorgeous books from the early and mid nineteenth century, some gorgeous vases and a pair of carriage foot warmers (we didn’t realize what they were until I started researching to write my books!)

Those desks are fantastic! I would feel like Jane Austen sitting at a desk like that!

11 years ago

Had to smile when I read the beginning of your post. When my husband and I got engaged in 1971, we started going to auctions and buying antiques to furnish our future home. Our reasoning was the same as yours – an inexpensive way to get good quality, well made furniture. Prices at auction are much higher now than beck then, but even then we got some great deals. At one auction, we spent $330 and got a carved oak bed and matching dresser with mirror (Eastlake), a marble topped walnut 5 drawer dresser, an oak captains chair, an 1865 bible, carved oak square side table, wash bowls and pitchers, and many other items. I had an opportunity to buy a beautiful Federal Period walnut secretary for $100, but my dad wouldn’t let me store it at his house for a month until the wedding.
We were able to furnish most of our house with antiques, mostly from auctions, some from antique stores, yard sales, and a few junk shops. The hunt is really half the fun.

11 years ago

On a recent trip to New Orleans, one of the things I most enjoyed (second only to eating) was visiting the antique shops. Some shops were for fun with the ambiance of an attic stuffed with a jumble of your grandmother’s junk and treasures. Other shops were filled with exceptional, museum quality items. At one of the latter my husband said he’d seen several things in the back room with a $1 million price tag.

ITA about the quality and intrinsic interest of antiques. There are eras and styles I don’t like, but finding something well-made with an actual history is like getting a bonus. And I now lust after that Georgian military desk. You just know that there’s a story there and, if not, one of the Riskies could certainly write one!