Q: I am wondering if you could help me identify the desk in the attached photos. It has been in my parents’ basement for many years and may have once belonged to my great-aunt. If you could provide some information I would be grateful.
A: When someone writes about an object such as a desk, images form in our minds before we look at the photographs. Could the desk be a bureau plat, a roll-top, a slant front, perhaps a partner’s or butler’s desk? Maybe even a Davenport desk? But no work of our imagination prepared us for the desk in today’s question.
We had never seen one quite like it, and in fact, there may not be another like it in the world. The person who made this piece may have been inspired by something he saw.
This desk probably has two dates — the time when the Victorian table that was used as a base was made and the time when the box-like desk component was added sometime later.
This sort of alteration happens more frequently than might be expected. It happens when, for whatever reason, a piece of furniture is no longer functional in the life of the family that owns it and subsequently is converted to other uses. We see this repurposing being done on television shows practically every day.
This piece started life as a simple walnut late 19th century table. It is very typical for the 1890s, but at some point it may have been damaged or lost its usefulness to its owner. We speculate that to the top of the table someone added a box that could be locked to the top, plus some simple desk fittings and a writing surface to make the piece more useful as a letter writing desk.
Examining the fitted interior of the box, it looks like it might have been made from scrap lumber (possibly mahogany) sometime in the early 20th century. The whole thing is rather clumsily done — from a somewhat crude mushroom knob on the drawer to the tacked-on green baize fabric that looks like it is scalloped because the cloth is straining against the tacks.
Although the table base was manufactured (probably in the United States), the rest of this desk appears to be homemade. It is possible that the outside box was salvaged from something else, but the interior fittings were added by an amateur craftsman. We cannot say that this is a bad thing (necessarily), but it did create a hybrid that is something of a mongrel.
Purist collectors would turn their back on this, but we think it is very interesting — even charming. It is certainly a unique piece for P. R.’s family, but its retail value is only in the $200 to $250 range