Q: This beautifully hand-crafted wooden table has been in our family since my great-grandfather made it in the 1860s, possibly in Philadelphia. Family information about the table is gone, but it was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. It is 31 inches high and 32 inches across. There are faces of four different individuals carved at the top of each leg.
A: There is little question in our mind that this is a magnificent mid-Victorian center table that was designed to sit in the place of honor in the main parlor of a home and wow guests when they came to call.
The table is embellished with a tour de force of marquetry decoration that indeed might have landed it a spot in the Exposition. But in order to claim that and reap the historical and attendant financial benefits, this circumstance has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt with written documentation concerning this specific table. In other words, M. S. and her family must be able to show photographs, programs, certificates or some other concrete proof that the table did indeed grace the fairgrounds at one of America’s quintessential world expositions.
We used the word “marquetry,” and this refers to inlay work with a pictorial content. “Parquetry,” on the other hand, is inlay with geometric and not pictorial motifs. With its masterfully executed images of eagles, dragons, bare bosomed demi-women, a bird catching insects, Aeolus and foliate scrolls with floral terminals, the piece is a fine example comparable to the sort of marquetry found on some of the finest 19th century European pieces.
The wood appears to be walnut (or it may be rosewood) accented with ebonized panels around the numerous examples of fine, superbly executed inlay work. We feel the piece was constructed closer to 1870 than 1860, because if it were indeed exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition, that would seem to be a more logical time frame for the piece to have been made.
Also, economic times were better in the early 1870s than they were in the 1860s because of the privations of the Civil War, and pieces this luxurious were not likely to have been made between the 1861 to 1865 war years. After the war in the late 1860s, there was very little call or need for a table this elaborate. Truthfully, the date makes no difference as far as the aesthetic or monetary value of the piece goes, just as long as it is 19th century.
The inlay work on the piece is indeed a tour de force, but the carving is also exceptional. The cabriole legs terminating in ball and claw feet are beautiful as are the graceful stretchers that are surmounted by an urn. The heads found at the top of each cabriole leg may represent such important American icons as Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln — but we cannot see them well enough to be sure.
Insurance value, as it is with no real exhibition provenance, is between $20,000 and $30,000, but an absolutely proven Philadelphia Centennial exhibition record might come close to doubling that price. Oh, and write down everything you know about this piece (especially the name of the maker and his biography) on a card, and have it laminated and attached to the underside of the tabletop — future generations will thank you.
Write to Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Include a high-resolution, in-focus photo of the subject.