Auctioneers turn amateur detective to discover more about antiques

22nd September 2017

Auctioneers love provenance – the record of an antique that authenticates its origins. But often vendors are unable to give many clues as to the history of an antique, and the experts have to turn amateur detective.

Three such antiques will be going under the hammer at an auction in the Cotswolds next week.

The first is a tall mahogany chest of drawers with ebonised knobs to the drawers and brass handles to the side. There are 24 drawers – two banks of 12 – each marked with a letter of the alphabet.

Victorian collector’s cabinet, or filing cabinet? A quick check of the letters reveals the absence of an X and a Z, so filing cabinet is looking likely. But there is no Q either, and beside the M drawer is one marked Mc. So a filing cabinet, and possibly Scottish.

And those handles to the side suggest a campaign chest – one designed to be carried. But the handles are in the wrong position – midway up the 5ft 6ins cabinet – to aid lifting, and they don’t seem strong enough to bear the weight of the entire piece.

Besides, a campaign cabinet of this size would have been divided into two or three parts. The auctioneer’s best guess? Those handles are purely for decoration.

The auctioneers have dated it to the mid Victorian period – 1860 to 1880. It commands an estimate of £300 to £500.

Meanwhile, another mahogany piece, a Sheraton revival display cabinet, can be easily identified as Edwardian – rather than having been made in the Georgian era – by looking closely at the wood.

Blonde flecks indicate mahogany from the British-ruled Caribbean islands, rather than the South American tropics, where Georgian mahogany would have originated.

But still, it’s a lovely looking piece of furniture: a serpentine front with scrolling foliate inlay in satinwood. A little damage makes the estimate £300 to £400, rather than the £500 to £800 an undamaged piece would be worth.

Finally, it is wear and tear that gives the best clues to the age of an 18th century chest of drawers.

Damage to the top caused by woodworm confirms it is walnut – a material used extensively until a blight and storms made European walnut incredibly difficult to source, and cabinets makers turned to exotic hardwoods like mahogany.

A look inside the drawers, meanwhile, confirms two things: firstly that the handles are not original, and that they have been replaced at least three times as fashions changed. And secondly that the walnut veneer is thick and uneven, suggesting it was planed by hand, rather than by machine.

This pre-industrial revolution beauty can be dated to around 1700 to 1720. A bid of £200 to £300 should secure the lot.

All three pieces will go under the hammer at Moore Allen & Innocent in Cirencester on Friday, September 29. For a full auction catalogue visit