Treasures In Your Attic: Captain’s Desk’s Value is a Victim of its Era

This is a davenport desk, but some refer to it as a “captain's desk.”

This is a davenport desk, but some refer to it as a “captain’s desk.”

Dear Helaine and Joe: I purchased a house in upstate New York, and this captain’s desk was in the back bedroom. What are you able to tell me about this piece? What is its value? — S. P.

When most people reference a piece of furniture with the word “davenport,” they are referring to a sofa, which was originally the name of a series of sofas manufactured by the Boston maker, A. H. Davenport and Company. Today, a davenport can be anything from a futon sofa with storage underneath to a formal overstuffed sofa that can be converted to a bed.

But for our purposes a davenport is a very special sort of desk that is sometimes called a “captain’s desk.” Why? Legend has it that the first of these specially configured desks was ordered from Gillow and Barton of Lancaster, England, by a Capt. Davenport.

We do not know, but Capt. Davenport may have been a captain in the army and the desk was being designed as a sort of campaign desk. In any event, the desk was designed like a small chest of drawers, with the early 19th century examples being almost square with a sloping top fitted with a drawer or fitted interior and two writing slides on either side.

This was placed over four graduated drawers on one side and sometimes four false drawers on the other. Initially, it had four short, tapered legs that had brass caps and were fitted with casters. The first davenport desks were no nonsense (besides usually a candle drawer at the top underneath the tallest part of the desk’s sloping top), compact and rather plain.

Then the Victorians got tired of the design and everything changed dramatically. Galleries began to appear around the top and the slanted desk portion was thrust out over the body and supported (sometimes) with fancy cabriole legs. This latter “improvement” allowed for more leg room when the owner sat down to work at the desk.

The example S. P. found in her new house is late Victorian and is replete with stick and ball galleries, legs with semi-Jacobean style ball spacers and a whole lot of frou-frou. The wood appears to be good quality walnut and burl walnut, and we wish we had a better look at the hardware because it might help us determine if this piece is English or American.

There looks to be batwing escutcheons on the drawer locks and the piece may indeed be English rather than American and date circa 1885. It appears to be in excellent condition, but unfortunately, Victorian furniture is so out of favor now that its value has dropped dramatically since 2008.

Collectors like Davenport desks, but this one is so Victorian that while it once had a value in the $2,000 to $3,000 range, it is now half that.


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