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Antiques Considered - December 3, 2008

A couple in the Northern Neck called me several months ago to ask about a small repair on their postmaster's desk which dates from the mid-nineteenth century.  The gentleman's great-grandfather was postmaster of a small office in the Shenandoah Valley, and next to the desk they display his photograph at the desk and his certificate of appointment signed by the Postmaster General in 1889.
They had moved to a new home and wanted to place the desk in the entry hall, but the upper cornice on the left side was broken, with a piece missing.  Their question was whether repairing the desk would affect its value negatively, or whether they should leave it alone.
Their quandary is not untypical.  Many people debate the same question, and my answer is usually the same, namely, that whatever the antique, unless it is stored in a barn, individuals live with it every day.  Consequently, the importance of a piece is relative to its function. In a beautiful, new home, featuring a fine antique with minor damage is not what most of us would do.  I know I should not.
Repairing this piece of cornice, in my judgment, was precisely the right course to take.  As fixed the new top is secure, and less likely to lose more from dusting or future moving.  In this case securing the piece is as important as securing the provenance.  The desk is a splendid family heirloom, with intrinsic value as a fine example of Shenandoah Valley craftsmanship.  It is in the Federal and Hepplewhite style, and shows the fine pegjoinery of the native walnut with which it is made.
As an antique, this desk combines all of the significant aspects which I look for when examining any piece:  1) we can date its age to the early nineteenth century; 2) the condition is excellent with its original finish still in tact, 3) we know the place, if not the maker, of origin, and 4) we have a chain of unbroken provenance.  I am happy that the owners chose the course that they did.
• Lisa  and Henry Lane Hull operate Commonwealth Antiques and Appraisals, Inc. at 5150 Jessie DuPont  Hwy. (P.O.Box 35) Wicomico Church, Virginia 22579, a firm which he founded in 1973.  The appraisal service began in 1976.  Write to him there,  or by e-mail at comantqu @ crosslink.net, with pictures and descriptions of items you wish to have him treat in "Antiques Considered."
Please include a stamped, addressed envelope if you wish a personal acknowledgement. Snapshots once sent on to the JOURNAL for publication, cannot be returned.

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