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.
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 old-time collectors.
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.