The Auction Insider

The Antiques Roadshow swept into Santa Clara in June like a mass treasure hunt. As appraisers, we arrived a day or two early to be ready for a couple of very intense and active days. Almost 30,000 people had requested admission to the show from local PBS station KQED and 7,000 entries were randomly selected to receive two tickets each. Rules stipulate that attendees must bring items for appraisal – no casual browsing allowed! On Saturday about 70 invited appraisers examined up to 14,000 items – sending some people up the vetting chain and gently declining others with items not worth much beyond sentimental value. Of course, relatively few of the appraisals will end up on your local PBS stations. That opportunity is reserved for antiques and collectibles that excite appraisers because they are unique, rare or have a great back-story.

A Mysterious Choice

I was fortunate. Prior to the public opening a small group of experienced furniture appraisers get a look at a select pieces submitted in advance of the show. We choose which item we feel suits our individual requirements and the show producers then decide whose estimates will be filmed for future broadcast. My attention was immediately drawn to an oak dining table with a distinctive feature. A hand crank mechanism is recessed into the side of the table and when extended and turned, moves the table top along a set of gears. A few cranks and we move from a table for four to seating for six or eight. No need to haul a heavy table leaf out of the closet!

The unique design that makes this movement possible is called Tambour, a 15th century term meaning ‘drum’ in in French and covering everything from musical instruments to an embroidery hoop to furniture (it eventually morphed in the familiar roll top desk). If you picture a roll-top desk you’ll understand how it works. Narrow slats of oak are glued to canvas so that the table extension rolls smoothly from bottom to top as the crank is turned. Ingenious! I had never seen anything like it – and neither had my colleagues. My choice was made and the producers agreed the table was broadcast worthy.

Pieces of this Puzzle are Missing

We filmed early the following morning as the lines outside the convention center grew with each passing minute. I’d spent the prior evening doing research on this unusual piece of furniture. No matter how deeply I dug there was not much I could add to the observations I’d already made. The table is indeed unique, perhaps one-of-a-kind. From the embellishments and overall style it was made in the 1890s – probably between 1895 and 1898.

Here is my rationale: There are subtle elements that echo the passing of the Victorian style and anticipate the rising Craftsman era, but most importantly the presence of the mechanized function indicates its place in time. The late 19th century is a celebration of the Industrial era – when craftsmen and designers harnessed new technology for innovations. This table, clearly built in a manufactory (a process that included skilled craftsmen as well as automation), and likely on the East Coast, would have been quite expensive to produce and consequently a costly item to purchase. I think it may have been a prototype created through collaboration of a few innovators, one that never quite caught on.

An Aesthetic and Emotional Purchase

Sharon, owner of the table, arrived for our early morning filming. We chatted briefly. As Roadshow appraisers we have to limit our pre-estimate conversation with guests so that information about a piece is revealed when the cameras are rolling and not before, preserving a genuine response for viewers of the show. Bathed in Klieg lights, with several cameras recording our conversation Sharon shared the story of acquiring the unique table.
It was purchased in 1986 in Cambridge, MA, when she was expecting a baby. “I saw it and was absolutely bowled over,” she said. “I asked my husband and he said, ‘Well, I can’t say no to a pregnant woman!’” He paid the dealer $1800 a goodly sum for a young couple. She particularly appreciated the ease with which the table could to accommodate her growing family and guests. Many meals were enjoyed and memories made around the table. She’d not had an appraisal and, like most guests at the Roadshow, was simply curious.

Given the current state of the furniture market in America, at a rather low point due to the recent recession, I estimated a sale would bring from $3,000 to $5000, perhaps more. If this estimate was lower than Sharon expected, she didn’t show any disappointment. Like so many people who come to the Roadshow, her item has value far beyond the monetary and she has no intention of selling it.

For me, the opportunity to offer an estimate and provide information about a piece as unique as her table was a great way to begin a marathon day with the Antiques Roadshow – a 12-to-14 hour day for appraisers and far longer for the Roadshow crew.

I’ll have lots more to report about the show in future blogs, but to close this report I want to invite our readers to contact me if you have any further information about this dining room table – a pretty remarkable innovation in 19th century furniture design technology that, for now, stands alone.

Brian Witherell

Witherells Antiques & Appraisals
Sacramento, CA