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Antique Chests can Lead to Adventure
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

When shopping for antique chests, look inside the drawers. Touching and handling the wood affords a tactile examination of craftsmanship. And opening drawers may uncover a secret, perhaps.

The top drawer of an English painted chest of drawers (c.1830) at Snider Plaza Antique Shops is lined with old, yellowed newsprint. Drawer after drawer had the same newspaper, laid out neatly against the pine and showing wear around the corners. In the bottom drawer, the liner embodied the name of the newspaper, The National Advertiser & Herald Business of General Information. Published June 1, 1841, the paper probably appeared in London. Today, it adds authenticity to the antique, which sells for $1670.

Customers do find unusual items in antiques, on occasion, according to Martha and Allan Woodcook, owners of Snider Plaza Antique Shops. For instance, a coin from around 1810 fell out of a Welsh dresser while being carried to the new owner's car. Once, a young lady recognized the man's name etched on the handle of an antique gaff, a large hook used in hauling in fish, as that of her grandfather.

Following up on a purchase may unfurl like an English mystery. Such is the case of an antique English writing desk (about 16" deep and 18" high) with a slanted top surface, little double doors, vertical pigeon holes, square spaces for two small ink bottles, and a hidden compartment. The top fleche on the box opens, and, by George, you can reach clear down inside to the bottom. There, the buyer who wishes to remain anonymous, found a 28 page document of heavy parchment concerning land purchased in 1806 by L. Alexander, the Earl of Home, and Henry, the Duke of Buccleuch.

Soon afterward and quite by accident, the buyer spotted a portrait labeled--Duke of Buccleuch--in a room at Lord Montigu's castle in Beaulieu, England. She asked to speak with the archivist, who listened to her story and gave her a photocopy of a portrait of Henry, Duke of Buccleuch and the address of the current duke. Before making a follow up trip to England with the document in hand, the buyer wrote a letter requesting a meeting with the Duke of Buccleuch, who responded that unfortunately his schedule put him hundreds of miles away during her visit. So, he instructed her to deposit the papers through a letter box at a London address. The Duke of Buccleuch owned several residences in England and held even more properties in Scotland, where he took the document to the Scottish Records Office, who explained the contents as follows.

The Duke of Buccleuch, acting as trustee, co-signed a deed to help his son-in-law, the Earl of Home, purchase a piece of land. So, the document was probably the property of the Earl of Home, surmised the current Duke of Buccleuch. And he forwarded it to Sir Alexander Frederick, Douglas-Home, Prime Minister of England from October 19, 1963 to October 16, 1964. Incidentally, Douglas relinquished his title to the Earl of Home before assuming the post of Prime Minister.

Feeling strongly that old family documents should remain in family archives and not wander as curiosities around the world has led the anonymous buyer on yet another expedition, this time after finding a hand written letter inside a two volume biography about the Duke of Richmond. The letter, which recounted circumstances behind the writing of the book early in the 1800's, ended simply "Marge." Recognizing the signature as the title of Lord Marge, heir to the dukedom, the buyer jotted off a letter to the current Duke of Richmond.

In return, the Duke of Bedford sent a letter inside a book--a biography about his ancestor, Charles II-- and he gave instructions and directions to Goodwood House, the family's seat south of London, where the buyer was to meet with the curator of the art collection. The date of the meeting happened to be the day the current duke was moving to a smaller residence on the estate so that the present Lord Marge with his burgeoning family of children could move into the big house, a house dating back to the time of Charles II.

The curator escorted his guest to a tower room, and they partook of coffee and chocolate biscuits. The buyer handed over the books. Then the curator made a tour of the entire grounds, unlocking and locking room after room, some decorated with magnificent furnishings and tapestries, and others, called lumber rooms, filled with furniture stored helter/skelter, vases and statuary sitting around, paintings leaning against the wall, gold luggage, old sofas, and trunks of old clothes for children to make costume parties--just something the British did, explained the buyer.

With such a long history of furniture making, Europe has built up a plentiful supply of antiques, more so than the United States, according to Martha Woodcook. In fact, the Woodcooks organize tours to Italy for antique shopping.

Most antique chests, chests on chests, chests of drawers, dressers, double dressers, etc., date back primarily into the early 1800's. Earlier pieces from the 1700's are rare and more expensive such as an English Georgian Period chest on stand from 1740, which sells for $8600 (less 25%) at Park Cities Antiques.

Chest of drawers evolved from the simple, but portable chest, originally carved from tree trunks. The earliest boxes, the coffers and old Gothic locked boxes, held books and religious writings and were found in ecclesiastical settings. By early 1500's, the chests were divided into two and later three sections. But the Renaissance man, especially King Henry VIII's passion for boxes and places to hold small implements, began the transition in furniture that saw early commodes (chest of drawers) gradually replace the lidded chests in popularity by mid-17th century.

Most antique chests are cleaned out by the time they reach Park Cities Antiques, says manager Gayla Smith. Still, shoppers may find surprises inside the drawers. A 19th century Italian chest with original perfusion of painted red rose bouquets sells for $4600 at Lovers Lane Antiques. Inside the top drawer is a wood painting and a light bulb.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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