Treasures: Slant-Top Desks Used to be More Valuable

This type of desk is known by a variety of names, including slant top, fall front and bureau desk.

This type of desk is known by a variety of names, including slant top, fall front and bureau desk.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I live in Staten Island, New York, and I recently purchased this slant desk from an upstate New York antiques dealer and would like to know more about my purchase. Is it a Chippendale desk? How old do you estimate it to be? Can you tell me a brief history of this type of desk?

Thank you,

J.R.

Dear J.R.:

There is a lot of ground to be covered here, and we are going to start with the last of the three questions asked.

This type of desk is known by a variety of names, but often it is called a slant-top desk. Among several other things (such as a fall front desk), it is also called a Governor Winthrop desk, but this is completely inappropriate.

John Winthrop was the 17th-century governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and died in 1647, which is more than a century earlier than this type of desk came into common usage. The nomenclature “Governor Winthrop desk” originated in 1924, when the Winthrop Furniture Company of Boston produced slant-top desks and gave them the Governor Winthrop name.

In a nutshell, Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) was born in Otley, Yorkshire, England. His father, John Chippendale, was a joiner (or cabinet maker), and Thomas followed in his footsteps. But Thomas Chippendale became something of a fashionable furniture designer as well as a craftsman. In 1754, he published the extremely influential book “The Gentlemen’s and Cabinet Maker’s Directory.”

Chippendale’s published designs echo to this day and furniture more or less in his style is still widely made around the world. In short, this desk is generally called a Chippendale-style slant-top desk, but in reality it is too plain and too chunky to have come from either Chippendale’s mind or hand.

Now, it is time to address the age of the piece, and right up front we need to say that despite the excellent photographs that J.R. sent (thank you), it is impossible to be sure about the exact age. However, we do have an opinion based on what we see.

The first things we noticed when we looked at the photographs were the escutcheons that cover the keyholes. These are very 19th/20th century and they said “wrong!” in a very loud voice that was only intensified by the modern screws in the hinges (which are also probably quite modern).

Then we noticed that the bracket feet had been cut down. But as bad as this is, we began to look at the other repairs and saw the wood patches, the wider boards, and some of the other construction details and began to believe that the carcass of the piece has some significant age. This is not a rare form and we see many of these each year.

This particular example is probably late 18th or early 19th century, country made. And although desks of this type were once more valuable than they are today, this one is currently worth less than $1,000 at retail.

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