When is a Marriage not made in Heaven?

Seeing as I deal with antiques, and have never had experience as a marriage counsellor, what I’m talking about today is what is called, in the antiques trade, a “marriage.”

A marriage, in this sense of the word, most often involves furniture and refers to an object that is a composite of two (sometimes more) different pieces of furniture. If done well, the result can be attractive and only noticeable to the trained eye. However, in many examples such as this one, this is not the case.

The photograph above was sent to me by a reader who wanted to know more about the chest-on-chest that she had just purchased. I had to be the bearer of bad news – The piece she had just purchased was only partly antique. I had to tell her that the furniture piece was, in fact, a marriage.

Here’s why:

– If you look closely at the above image, the top is slightly wider than the base. Not a good sign.

– The woods are different. The upper section appears to be oak but the base seems closer to elm; even the direction of the grain is different.

– Because the grain is different, the stain that was applied to these two pieces, in order to connect them visually, is absorbed differently – therefor reflecting light differently.

– Because the base, or natural colour of the woods, are different, the stain, being transparent, looks different on both. The base appears warmer, with a slightly reddish undertone whereas the upper section is cooler, leaning towards blueish-brown undertones.

– The hardware is inappropriate. The type of door hardware that was applied to the upper section was originally found on early Medieval English pieces. If the hardware were authentic it would have been applied to a door that was panelled. This door front looks like plywood.

– This becomes even more evident when you see that the door front conceals three drawers on one side. These drawers have flat-faced knobs whereas the knobs on the base are heavier and rounded. They would be identical if found on one piece of furniture.

– A truly old piece would not be finished on the inside (19th century and before) unless it was meant to be on display. The interior of the upper section is finished but the drawers (see below) are unfinished.

– In an old piece the dovetails are unevenly spaced showing that it was done by hand. Machine made dovetails are perfectly symmetrical. The drawers behind the door and those in the base cabinet do not look anything alike.

– The last thing to consider (or the fastest way to tell) is to look at the back of the piece. If the upper and lower pieces are intended to be one, the wood will be similar and look connected – in style of construction and wood finish or lack of finish.

– The reader was told that this was a piece of furniture that was on a ship – that it was from a captain’s quarters. That seller was woefully misinformed or willing to lie to make a sale. Unfortunately this becomes an issue of buyer beware.

  • Furthermore, this ‘chest -on-chest’ would have been way too large for the cramped quarters of a supposed 19th century ship. There was also no visual indications on the furniture that it had ever been attached to a wall to keep it from moving.

The most interesting thing about this whole piece are the carved faces shown in this detail. The base is probably 19th century whereas the top is a mishmash of old and new wood, definitely not a marriage made in heaven.

It’s worth examining a piece for signs of “marriage”. Your pocketbook will thank you.

2 responses to “When is a Marriage not made in Heaven?

  1. Hello Joanne,

    Thank you, for the wonderful read on the marriage of an antique piece of furniture.
    It was a very obvious once reviewing the photos, that the top didn’t of the cabinet did not belong to the bottom piece. I feel badly for the buyer being mislead, just to make a sale by the owner.

    How heart breaking. 🥲

    Sadly, many people are mislead due to lack of sellers having little to no education, or experience, when selling antique furniture pieces.

    When a shop owner buys antique furniture, it should always be the responsibility of the shop owner to do is due diligence on every antique piece they sell..shame on the store owner, if purchased at an antique shop. In my eyes when placing antiques in any antique shops, (to place on display) for should always be researched first.

    If not, authentic it should be shared with the customer. Honesty is the best policy, while in business. The reality is, the bad and wrong information falls back on the antique shop owner’s back. Every piece that that leaves my store for example? I have research all my furniture and every piece in my shop before placing it on my shop floor. If, purchasing antique furniture from an auction setting, I talk to the auctioneers. They usualIy know where is came from and the pieces story. If not start your search. It’s our responsibility to know as much as we can as a store owner.

    I strongly feel for this customer getting such bad news. I strongly feel, if you are going to be in the business, you should educate yourself before opening an antique shop.
    It’s not always just selling something that looks beautiful in your store, to make a sale. The providence on furniture is equally appreciated by the customer. Customers as you know owing Times Past Antiques, put there trust in you when it came to buying antiques. They trusted your knowledge, even if you researched a piece to share with them.

    It took me personally 28 years reading, buying books, and educating myself before opening my business. I was an addict when it came to collecting antique furniture for my own home, for years, before going into business. As, you do know Joanne from visiting my shop years ago.

    I feel in closing, it is our responsibility as a shop owner to have experience, knowledge, be educated in what we’re selling to our customers. Even if it means researching antiques, reading books on antiques, or whether speaking with the seller you bought it from.
    I believe it can make you a much more successful business owner, being very well educated on antiques. Even taking a course like you teach on antique furniture, if you can. If anything, sellers having some knowledge to recognize a fake from an original piece when purchasing there stock.

    I try to always spend time with my sellers /customers no less than a 1/2 hour. Every time I’m doing a house visit with someone down sizing, start speaking with the seller, I listen closely to every bodies stories closely. When they are letting go of their precious pieces, it’s very hard for them. They trust you will offer good advice on each piece, by telling them what you know. They tell you what they know. Sometimes tears are shed. Sometimes not. Eventually, once they get there stories told to you, they are ready to let it go. They look to your expertise on price. Everyone must always be honest when in a situation such as a home visit. I try to always get there price, explain the going rate, then negotiate (50% maximum)on each piece to to be fair, and take into my shop. Where I own my store, there are many European seniors now. The seniors now came to the Okanogan when young. When they moved to the area many years ago, they brought all there prized pieces they loved. Bringing there lives savings reminds me of the settlers after the war. I must share, love getting your blogs on different topics I receive.

    Thank you kindly Joanne for allowing us to share our thoughts on your blog.

    Wendy Hamel
    Rustic Endeavour’s Antiques
    Falkland , BC

    • Thanks Wendy – so nice to hear that you are still in the business after moving away from Alberta. I think shop owners may be more careful (hopefully) because they are a static target – they are visible and easy to find due to their bricks and mortar locations. A lot can happen when you are hidden by a computer – and the internet is awash with people who are selling their wares without knowing the first thing about them. The onus is on the buyer. Most sellers on Ebay for example, give very little information about the object in hopes that they cannot be held responsible for saying the wrong thing. However, even websites or blogs where writers identify an object can be wrong. I found this out when I was teaching the History of Furniture at the local university and the students were tasked with finding examples of the different periods of furniture. Their information, gleaned from websites, was very often misidentified. I totally agree that you need to do your best to get the proper info – but it’s not always easy.

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